I was alone at home and watching Almost Famous late Tuesday night when the lights went out, as always, unexpectedly. And I thought, yes, this was the quiet Diwali evening I had dreamt of my entire life.
As I searched for a candle, my cell phone lit up: “LTTE light aircraft drops two bombs targeting Mannar army headquarters.” Mannar is more than 300 km from Colombo, and I assumed the attack and the power cut could not possibly be connected.
I was wrong — power had been cut because an LTTE light aircraft was in fact flying over Colombo, about six km from home, dropping bombs on a power station inside the city.
“Terrorist aircraft sighted over Colombo,” said the excited man on the national help desk phone number. “Black out, black out,” he added. I rushed out to hear some commotion outside home. The streetlights were out and the last few visitors from a neighbouring club were pressing the accelerators of their foreign cars. It was around 11.30 pm.
Then came the distant and dull thuds of powerful guns being fired — one after the other, staccato… slowly getting louder and coming closer.
“Boss, what’s happening? I can see yellow and red streaks cutting across the sky and the sound is deafening. There are powerful searchlights all around aimed at the sky. Some have been brought out of bunkers and are now at the sea front,” said a friend Kaushik Mukherjee, staring out of his sea-facing room at the Galle Face hotel. “First a ship started firing, and then there was firing from the land side,” he added.
A few army vehicles whizzed past home. The neighbourhood dogs began to bark. I was sweating. Humidity, I explained to myself. Then, abruptly, the gunfire stopped.
The LTTE aircraft, I later learnt, had dropped two bombs on the Kelanatissa power station. One exploded, starting a fire and damaging two turbines. One employee died of shock, the government said on Wednesday. At Mannar, only three soldiers suffered minor injuries, the military said.
It was the eighth attack of the LTTE air wing, comprising a handful of Czech-built fixed wing Z-143 aircraft, since the first one in March 2007. Tuesday night’s attack was certainly not the most damaging one the Tigers had carried out. Worse suicide attacks have been carried out on the Central Bank and Colombo’s twin towers.
But at a time when the government was claiming violent successes against the LTTE and claiming to have cornered them in two districts, the twin attacks were a chilling reminder of their hidden capabilities.
As for me, after the lights came back and the normalcy of the television returned, I realised that it certainly wasn’t the Diwali I ever dreamt of.