Essay: A shootout next to the U.N. compound!?

On Friday evening immediately after Sri Lanka’s 50th independence anniversary in 1998, I was working in my office in Colombo, making final touches to the presentation I would have to make in New Delhi in a few days time. Complete darkness and silence surrounded our office in the U.N. compound, as most people working in other U.N. offices seemed to have gone home. Only some security guards were at the compound gate. In addition to Wicky, our office driver, helping me photocopy some documents I needed to take to India, Kumari, our finance officer, was still working on her backlog while waiting for me to finish my work. She lived not far from where I lived, so I was to drop her off on my way home.

As soon as I called out the names of Wicky and Kumari in other sections, informing them that I was ready to go home, we were suddenly flabbergasted by a series of thunderous explosions, followed by loud noises sounding like a ferocious gun battle. All these terrifying noises seemed to be coming from the other side of the high wall separating the U.N. compound from the official residence of the commander of the Sri Lankan armed forces. What crossed my mind at that very moment was that since the independence celebration had successfully come to an end, the LTTE must have managed to storm the official residence and made a surprise attack on the security forces there, still in a relaxed and festive mood.  It sounded as if the LTTE attackers had successfully detonated several bombs simultaneously, after which a fierce gun battle had started between the LTTE rebels and the members of the security forces.

Suddenly, I became terrified, as my own office was so close to the wall of the official residence. I feared that stray bullets would be piercing through the wall made only of thin corrugated iron sheets. I ran out into the corridor where both Wicky and Kumari were standing, looking helpless and terribly frightened.

Not knowing what exactly was happening and where, although the gun battle–like noises were definitely coming from the other side of the wall, we decided to stay put in the corridor for the time being. Since the corridor was surrounded by individual offices, we felt safer being there. Even if there were stray bullets flying through the wall, they would have to come through someone’s office to reach the corridor. I prayed hard that the shootout on the other side of the U.N. compound would end quickly and that we would all be able to go home safe and sound. We were more or less frozen there.

While we were stiff and frightened, I had a strange feeling as the gun battle seemed to continue endlessly. We had been in the corridor for more than 10 minutes. If it had been a surprise attack by the LTTE commando and there had been a shootout between the attackers and the security forces at the residence, the battle should have finished very quickly.  Besides, we had not heard any commotion coming from the gate of the U.N. compound, where some members of our security staff were positioned. If there had been an LTTE attack and a gun battle on the residence next to our compound, they would have contacted my office, as they knew that some of us were still working. Wicky also realized that the noises we had been hearing were perhaps not what we had feared.

He said he would go out to see what was really happening out there. It was completely dark outside our office except for a few dim lights along the walkway leading to the parking area and the compound gate. He opened our office entrance door slowly and stepped out very reluctantly. As the door opened, we heard even louder explosive noises from the direction of the high wall. Kumari and I warned him to be extremely careful in the darkness. He seemed scared as he took another step away from our office.  As he turned toward us, he looked up at the sky in the direction of where the noises seemed to be coming from.  Suddenly, his worried look was replaced with a big grin. He then gave Kumari and me a hand signal, indicating that we should also come out of the office. So we took a few steps to where he was standing and looked upward in the direction he was pointing.  We immediately burst out laughing.  We saw the sky above the residence being painted with colorful fireworks. (An excerpt from Posted in Colombo, 2010).

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