By Sanjeewa Karunaratne
I call him Jayantha to protect his identity. Calm and collected, he was a good friend at high school. His parents were middle-class school teachers. During high school, some of the friends visited Jayantha’s home; and they were talking weeks about how pretty his elder sister was. Not surprisingly, she was to become the beauty queen of this small town. Inspector Dammika was in charge of the police station in this town. Through my good friend Mike, I met this soft-speaking police officer and happened to spend a night at his bungalow. He was Mike’s brother-in-law. At the time, I did not know that he got charged with her murder. A few years later, Dammika and his father-in-law were assassinated. A couple of year later Mike got killed.
By far, it was the most glamorous party I had attended then—the warming up of the gleaming, three-storied mansion Mike’s father built. The house had eight bedrooms and ten bathrooms. Mike’s single bedroom was on the rooftop with a mesmerizing view of the nearby brook and paddy fields. Next to the room was a cabana with a grass roof that provided shade for the evening tea. Around his room were pink bonsai Japanese “araliya” trees planted in pots in full blossom. It was a testament to Mike’s generosity, I thought. At the British Council, where we first met, he took care of the tab each time we had dinner after the classes. He provided a high-roof, air-conditioned, Rosa passenger bus, and alcohol from his wine stores for our trips. During our parties Mike sang H. R. Jothipala songs to entertain us. In short, if there was anything to satisfy our whims, Mike was the “go-to” guy. Yet, this power and prosperity came with its challenges.
One morning in his room, I woke up with a feeling that there was something heavy under my pillow. Reaching beneath, I found a 9-mm. Thinking it might be empty, I got out of the bed and aimed it at a friend. As he stayed frozen on the bed, everyone else jumped off.
Someone screamed, “this thing is loaded.”
In the cylinder, now I could see the brass end of the bullets. OMG! the gun was fully loaded, and my finger was on the trigger. As my legs started to shake, someone snapped it.
“Let’s go and shoot some crows in the electric line!”
The gun was there for a reason. At the time, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), who engaged in a civil uprising against the government, did not like Mike’s father. He was the Leader of the Opposition in the Provincial Council and the Deputy Chief Organizer for the ruling government in his district. The JVP failed to assassinate him in two different occasions. Mike described how he got wounded during one of these encounters. The JVP claimed Mike’s father was financing a clandestine “counter-insurgency” operation, spearheaded by his son-in-law Dammika. And, it was aimed at eliminating its members. I did not believe any of these rumors until the murder of Jayantha’s sister and eleven others made it into the headlines.
The infamous “Wawul Kale Mass Murder.”
A para-military group with some members of the Weeragula police station, where Mike’s brother-in-law was the Officer-in-Charge (OIC), had conducted surveillance on some youth in the area. They concluded that these youth were members of the JVP and arrested them at their houses in the middle of the night. It was standard practice under the Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which suspended the constitutional protections available to the suspects. Among the youth arrested this night was Jayantha’s sister.
The youth – 12 boys and one girl – were taken into a forest called “Wawul Kale” (Bat’s Jungle). They were stripped naked and asked whether they wanted to live. If the option was to live, they must rape the girl. In the middle of the night, at the point of guns, this innocent girl was gang-raped as she pleaded for her life. The para-military group kept their word: blindfolded the boys and asked them to run for their lives. As they took off, they shot them. One boy survived the shooting and escaped. While the para-military was searching for the missing boy, he climbed and hid in a cashew-nut tree. From the vantage point in the cashew-nut tree, he witnessed one of the chilling things a human can endure—how the eleven of his friends were killed and burned using rubber tires. During the preliminary hearing, this boy broke down in the witness stand, crying as he testified that some of them did not die from the initial shooting, but they died while burning alive, and he witnessed it without being able to help.
The government quickly arrested Dammika and his accomplices and sent them to Boossa High-Security Prison. The case made it into national headlines because of the eyewitness account. And, the victims were not members of the JVP, but they were activists of the opposition party. The revelation of para-military groups, and their secondary objective of silencing the opposition, created a political nightmare for the ruling government. Dammika maintained that he was following superior orders. He was planning to spill out some of their names. On the day of non-summary proceedings at a Magistrate Court, it was reported that there was a severe lack of security. As he was preparing to give evidence, an assassin walked inside the courthouse and shot him and his father-in-law. It was the first assassination that took place inside a courthouse in Sri Lanka. The suspect left the country illegally and took refuge in Japan.
Following their deaths, Mike was running a family business that comprised wine stores, betting centers, hotels, and a transportation chain at a very young age. Amidst all of this, he was seeking justice from his father’s killers. His mother and some friends pleaded with him to let it go. It might be easier said than done. His father built an empire and treated him like a royal. Mike felt that he owed it to him to find his killers. However, he overlooked the fact that his father’s killers were among his political associates as well that his own life was at risk, if he pursues this objective. The family enterprise was hanging on a thread. Unfortunately, it was a daunting task to put reason into his thinking in the backdrop of his age, wealth, network, and entourage.
One day he left the house for the bank with an associate, ignoring an advice to carry the gun. After finishing the business, he settled in the driving seat when an assassin walked up to him in the middle of a busy street in broad daylight and shot him. He hurled himself out of the passenger side of the car by pushing the associate aside. As he was getting up from the other end, he got shot in the neck. Though he managed to run away, it was a fatal shot.
Mike was 28 years old. His family left Sri Lanka. The mansion his father built was converted into a hospital. It was later demolished.