a lot. I didn’t know the neighbours. We had moved into a new house just before
I was captured and I’d never had a chance to settle in. Our neighbours came to
meet me for the first time. For the first week or so, the house was full of
people. People came who knew us well; people came who didn’t know us well. They
asked the same questions, I gave the same answers. I did this again and again.
I felt a little tired through that week.
There were things I had to do—I needed an ID card and a new driving licence. These things had got lost at sea on the night of my capture. I needed them to become a citizen again, with a bank account and all the other trappings. In my first week back, I met with an accident at Kohuwela roundabout. The collision wasn’t my fault but I didn’t have the wherewithal to avoid it. The ability to drive a car came back instinctively but the situation on the roads was new to me. It felt like there had been an explosion of cars in the city while I was away.
For the first months I was mostly preoccupied with finding ways to re-enter my family. You can’t have these things back instantly. I had to wait for a way back into their lives. For the eight previous years my family had to be whole without me. There was no immediate role for me to play. I would say that I was more unfamiliar to them than familiar.
I realised that I could not tell my boys what to do and not to do; not when they had managed so many years without a father present. I realised that if I tried to force myself back into the lives of my wife and children I might release their anger at everything they’d had to live with for so long. It wasn’t easy. Coming home was a reminder of what I had lost in captivity. My children were essentially grown up. I had missed their childhoods altogether. But the only thing I could do was to be patient. I had to allow time for a transition to occur naturally, rather than rush into the life I wanted back.
y own way of life had been entirely transformed while I was away. Above all I was not used to making any outward action on my own initiative. You have to realise that for eight years I’d done everything on instruction. Getting in and out of a jeep was determined by command. In captivity you’re never the person who decides what you will do next. Re-learning autonomy was perhaps the hardest thing I had to do. In some ways it was harder to make this transition than it was to make the transition to being a prisoner. At least there you have no choice. There is just one way of doing things and someone else will tell you what that is. I found choice itself a difficult thing to get used to, once I returned.
When I wanted the toilet I looked around for someone whose permission to ask. I knew I was allowed to do these things by myself now but when I went to stand up I’d feel there was someone holding on to me, not letting me. The prison guard was inside me. I didn’t want to talk about what I was going through. I felt no one else should know about the conversation I was having with myself. My aim was to make myself familiar to my family, not to explain to them how far away I was inside.
The world was different too. While I was away the country had moved into full-scale war and when I came back I felt that even civilians were battle hardened. People acted more mechanically. It was harder to locate a human touch. I felt that peacefulness had gone from the way we lived. Even the way people dressed seemed different, more ill at ease.
When I left, you hardly saw anyone in an office working at a computer. When I came back, everyone sat in front of a machine. Mobile phones weren’t status symbols anymore—they were everywhere. The postman rarely came; the paper man had disappeared altogether. You never stepped into a telephone box. It wasn’t just the war of course. The reality I returned to was a more mercenary one. Compassion was not prized. Everyone was making money. I suppose I missed the decade in which all those changes had come of age. When I speak of the 70s and 80s now, they sound as exotic as the 30s and 40s.
I felt it even in the lives of my friends and relatives. Everyone now looked after his immediate family and avoided other people’s concerns. And people had become afraid of speaking out. They were suspicious of each other.
When you’re in the world you adjust to changes as they come. They become a part of you. But I felt I had dropped from the jungle into a new reality. I knew what had been in the letters of my closest family and friends and I knew what I had heard on the radio. But there was so much more that no one could have told me. My children were growing up in a world I did not know well enough for me to be any sort of guide to them.
I was worried that I would mess things up even if I tried just to help with their homework. I didn’t know my children well enough to know how to suggest things to them. In the normal run of things, I would have known how to navigate their personalities by this point in our lives. The boys admitted to their mother that I seemed more like an uncle, after all.
So, I went to watch them at rowing meets and I marked time. My elder boys were soon to leave school and become men on their own terms. With my youngest I could do a little more. I played badminton with him now and drove him to his sports practices.
But the world was still here. My wife had been mother and father both to our children. I don’t think this was in any way easy with three young sons. She never collapsed. She found all the resources it took to weather those years alone. It gave me enormous courage in my own captivity to know that my wife was a woman of strong character. I knew she would keep our family going, out in the world. I knew that if I could just keep myself sane, I would come home to find she’d done the rest.
Excerpted with permission from
A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka
(Harper Collins, 2016)
by Commodore Ajith Boyagoda as told to Sunila Galappatti
Sunila Galappatti writes a note on the extract:
When I first met the Commodore, this was actually where our conversation started; at what is now Chapter 36 of our book. He told me that becoming a person after being a prisoner was perhaps the harder transition; that coming home was not easy. In a sense he brought alive the experience of being a prisoner precisely by describing the commonplace choices that had seemed enormous when he first came home.
At times I wondered whether to start the book there. But I was torn - the Commodore had also offered me another beginning. This other beginning was the image of a young man—a boy really—joining the Sri Lankan Navy in 1974, thinking the uniform smart and with no sense that war was coming. In the end, I chose to tell the story chronologically—from the boy to the man—because that followed the accumulation of war and change that Commodore Boyagoda recounted. Also, I told myself, the Commodore was a plain spoken man: perhaps too tricks-y a narrative would not suit his story. (I had to laugh when, after reading the first draft, he asked ‘is it essential that we start at the beginning?’)
As the Commodore described his experiences of going to war and living as a captive, he could not help describing the ever changing context in which these events unfolded. I am a little over half the Commodore’s age and so it surprised me at first that I also remembered some of what he described. One day he mentioned in passing that, in the old days, the crows in the hill-town of Kandy were different from the crows in the seaside capital Colombo. With that comment I was transported—suddenly again a small girl looking out the window of her parents’ Volkswagen Beetle, thinking that very thought to herself. I’d forgotten all about that small difference now it was no longer there; I couldn’t think when the crows had changed. It struck me that while I had, alongside others, despaired of the war as it unfolded in my country, I’d rarely stopped to look back over decades. I started to listen differently to the way that the Commodore spoke, keen to know what the country had been like before. While childhood memory may have delivered me the image of the crows, I could not consciously remember the less embittered people he described, for example, and was overcome with a sense of loss.
The more I listened to the Commodore the more I came to see his account as a sideways glance at the changes wrought in us all over nearly thirty years of war in Sri Lanka, and longer disquiet. I began to look back with my own friends: accustomed to speaking about the present, we paused to speak about the past. Many of the friends I spoke to were those who had lived in the immediate heat of the war, in Sri Lanka’s north and east. Each person told a different and personal thread in the enveloping fabric of our history.
Among these conversations was one with the Commodore’s wife perhaps two years after I first began working with her husband. I felt it only courteous I should seek out Mrs. Boyagoda, although I was also nervous about meeting her. Her husband had chosen to recount to me an experience that was also, if differently, hers. I did not know what conversations they’d had about it or how she felt about the project. I felt I had no right to know as much—or perhaps as little—as I did before we’d even met. I took her some flowers on an impulse. I knew enough to know Mrs. Boyagoda was a remarkably strong woman and felt an urge just to pay some small homage to that fact. As we began talking, she seemed a little anxious herself.Who wouldn’t be, speaking to someone who was set to write a book about their life? The Commodore sat with us at first and then he wandered off. We settled in.
When Mrs. Boyagoda started to remember that time, she told it like a story. One afternoon some friends, colleagues of her husband’s, had come to have tea with her. Late that night in bed she heard their voices again. Why had they come back? It was to tell her the news that her husband’s ship had been attacked and no one knew yet who was dead or alive. Mrs. Boyagoda described to me the days that followed; how she sent her boys (then nine, six and under two) to the homes of relatives, so that no one would stroke their heads and pity them and wonder aloud what had become of their father. Mrs. Boyagoda spoke with a fluidity very different to her husband’s way of speaking. At the end of our conversation I teased her that I should have written her story instead, it could have been so much easier. I hope someday someone will write Mrs. Boyagoda’s account, and other threads in this fabric.