By Sanjeewa Karunaratne
During 1984-88, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (“JVP”) or People’s Liberation Front launched a clandestine attack against the Government of Sri Lanka. Since its fighters were mingling among the public, the military and its militia groups were struggling to cope with this invisible enemy. As a result, spies were everywhere—one wrong word, move or contact may bestow a gruesome death on top of a burning tire. It may be an “in-kind” response to the JVP, whose piece of paper was enough to close down an entire city; and who did not hesitate to execute a school principal, government servant, singer, politician, or an ordinary person who disobeyed their orders, in front of their loved ones. It was a crisis of epic proportions and a very uncertain time in the country.
That night, I was at the funeral house of Anil Perera’s mother. As she laid in a casket inside the house, outside, we were having a good time: eating, chatting, playing cards and carrom. The house was on top of a hill, next to High Level Road, in front of Dharmapala College. On the bottom of this hill, every day at 9:00 PM, the army sets up a barricade across the road and shuts off all the surrounding lights. Emerging from this darkness, they stopped and searched every passing vehicle.
After a while, we could recite the routine:
Once in a while, it was inevitable to glance at the direction of the barricade because, God forbid, if some crazy driver fails to stop, the army would shoot at our direction—this seemed to be the standing order in those days. Every so often, when we hear the screeching sound of wheels, as an unfortunate driver struggles to stop his vehicle, we duck our heads for cover.
When I glanced at the total darkness surrounding the bottom of the hill in High Level, as the head lights of a vehicle was fading off, I could see the army personnel and where they were stationed. That’s when I spotted a faint image of a person wearing a white shirt.
“Who is he?”
“hmmm…what is he…?”
“Well, last week, at Moraketiya (next town), he had been warned not to talk to the army”
“And, it was the second warning”
Almost everyone knew Lional Silva, who was a permanent fixture at Pannipitiya. He always wore white clothes, but didn’t seem to have a permanent job. He may have been in his late forties or early fifties, and often spoke in broken English—I was impressed. He had a room in the YMBA building where he served as its night guard. There was a woman too, who I thought was his mother, but some of my friends disagreed. It was where I asked him about how I could learn English. He gave me a dictionary, “try to memorize this.”
A few days later, the accidental observation at the funeral house saw the light of the day.
We had a motorbike. It was my father’s, but my brothers and I rode it most of the time. It was a twin-engine, black, Honda CD-125. Two days after the conversation at the funeral house, I was running some errands for my mother, who asked me to grind some grains at “Ise Kade” grinding mill. Since the grinding process takes about half an hour, I was enjoying a ride in Pannipitiya town when “Podi” Pathirana asked me for a ride to his sister’s rental house in Rathmaldeniya.
Podi Pathirana, brother of “Loku” Pathirana – a cashier at Palians Café – was one of my best friends: tall and strong, he had a commanding presence. He and I were at the funeral house two days ago. Within a short time into the ride, we were flagged down by Lional Silva in front of Palians Café. He seemed to be desperate for a ride, but didn’t know where to go.
“No, I have to drop Pathirana first”
“You can take three”
“No, I cannot, police will be here”
The bike could handle two passengers. Lional Silva took his right leg over the rear side of the bike to settle in.
“I don’t have enough air in the rear wheel”
Pathirana sensed my hesitation. It might be telepathy between two good friends.
“It takes only five minutes for my ride, let’s go”
Lional Silva backed off. I consolidated on the situation.
“I will drop Pathirana and come back to get you in five minutes”
“Just walk along the Arawwala Road and wait at the bus stop”
With those departing words, we took off.
I was relieved to have Lional Silva off my back. Having Known him for some time, I was sure that he would not follow what I asked him to do.
Podi Pathirana and I got into chatting at Rathmaldeniya, which delayed my return for about five more minutes. On my return, about 400 meters before the curve in the Arawwala Road toward the Pannipitiya junction, I heard two gunshots. As I was taking the curve, a red trail motorbike with a white front mudguard shot passed me in the opposite direction—the passenger with a backpack was still holding a gun on his right hand. About 100 meters toward the junction, the unfortunate victim was lying on the middle of the road in front of the Arawwala bus stop.
I was the third person to arrive at the scene. The victim had been shot twice in the head; his legs were shaking a bit. His face was disfigured by the impact of the bullets so I couldn’t recognize who he was. It must be an out of towner, I thought, which was always the case. In those dark days, this kind of murder was very usual. It was highly unlikely that there will be a court inquest, police investigation, arrest or trial. He would be buried with government expenses—end of the story. I watched the guy releases his last breath and returned to the bike. I rode back to “Ise kade” and picked up the powdered grain.
As I was leaving, I heard people whispering to each other.
“Lional Silva had been shot”
“WHAT! I just spoke with the guy fifteen minutes ago”
I dropped the bag. I don’t recall how fast I got back into the motorbike and returned to the murder scene. By the time I arrived, there were about a dozen people surrounding the body. A few feet to the scene there were two heavily worn, black, rubber slippers scattered at an angle on the middle of the road with one upside down.
I didn’t have to see the body—I have seen those slippers before.