By Sanjeewa Karunaratne
During 1984-88 the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or People's Liberation Front, engaged in a civil uprising against the Government of Sri Lanka. The JVP led guerrilla warfare while hiding among the general population. Therefore, it made it very difficult for the Government or the para-military to root out or eliminate the JVP operatives. The counter-insurgency operations deployed a few mechanisms to achieve this objective. If a JVP operative was caught and confirmed, the body was displayed in a conspicuous location with constant surveillance. Commonly, it laid burning in a tire pyra. Anyone who wondered near it became the next target. And, so on and so forth.
This chain-elimination methodology was apparent at one of the most notorious mass-murders in this era: the Hokandara Mass Grave. It took place less than five miles from where I lived. It alleged that, first the JVP killed the Officer-in-Charge of the Athurugiriya Police Station at his home. In response, a few people suspected of carrying out this heinous act disappeared without a trace. Thereafter, when two police officers were visiting the funeral of their colleague, a roadside bomb targeted their vehicle, killing both of them. In the following few days, people found several dozen bodies inside the crater created by the bomb. Imagine, a portion of a busy public highway became a part of a mass grave. Tit for tat.
I was eager to see it. The area was familiar too. Hokandara Road (Route-993) goes near my house. Often, I have taken the sharp curve near the gravesite in Hokandara Road. I remembered the small parcel of unoccupied land with a few coconut trees by the gravesite. There was a small store next to this land. Occasionally, I visited two high school friends, a paper supplier, and the president of the sports club who lived less than a mile from the gravesite.
I had second thoughts about this trip—based on rumors, some kids and youngsters, who were flying kites in the paddy field when the roadside bomb went off, ended up in the grave. So, I mapped out an exit strategy. I would not continue on Hokandara Road. It might not even be possible because of the crater. There is a small dirt road (Amaragoda Road) just before the gravesite on the left. It runs through the paddy field for about 400 meters, goes around, and re-connects with Route-993 in Arangala. Using this road, I could return to Hokandara Road about 400 meters from the site. I planned to take a look at the gravesite as I turned left into Amaragoda Road, then ride as fast as I could in the open field, and disappear into the trees. Perfect.
The retaliation for the deaths of police officers must have hit the JVP badly, who declared a curfew. As a result, when I first started the trip, I returned home. The second time, I continued. About halfway into the trip, I realized it was stupid—no one was on the streets. Unfortunately, I have passed the point-of-no-return. After passing Hokandara Junction as I came near the other end of the paddy field, I could see the crater and sign of clothing inside it. I looked at the mass grave as I was turning left. A pile of blood-stained human corpses lay scattered, some on top of each other in a crater charred in black with debris. A light smoke arose from the pit. A disgusting smell surrounded.
I glanced at the exit road with a nostalgic feeling. Oh my God! it was full of potholes with rainwater in it. The road was not in a condition to ride as fast as I could. It happened to be one of the most agonizing 400 meters as I zigzagged slowly in a maneuver to avoid potholes. It was an open road in the middle of a paddy field—the bike, description, rider, and registration could be easily spotted.
I stuck with the plan—returned to Hokandara Road a bit farther from the site and climbed up the hill. As I was riding downhill, I slowed down near the paper supplier’s house, honked a couple of times, and raised the accelerator. He did not open the gate. If someone asked, I was there to order printing paper. I continued to Arangala Junction, turned right, and returned home from another direction.
A couple of days later, I rode the motorbike starting from Pannipitiya with two friends. As soon as we crossed the railway line in Hokandara Road, a white van overtook us and blocked the path. A few men in semi-military clothes jumped out with their guns drawn.
"Where are you going with three people on a motorbike?"
They questioned us and our whereabouts. It must be pretty clear to anyone that we were a group of friends from the neighborhood. Nevertheless, they confiscated our national identity cards. Then, they shoveled the motorbike inside.
“All three come to Athurugiriya Police Station to claim the ID cards."
As the van was leaving, a person at the front seat poked his head out, “each one comes separately.”
My father was furious as I came home without the motorbike. As soon as I explained what happened, my mother called one of her students, a Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP). Even though she did not disclose the entire conversation, the SSP advised “both parents must accompany him” and to go there “at the rise of the dawn.” He further said, “do not let them detain him, but if they insist, give me a call.”
On the following morning, we drove to Athurugiriya Police Station. Interestingly, the police had neither a record of the incident nor any information about impounding a motorbike. As we waited there with confused minds, my father approached a police officer.
"Go check at Athurugiriya Vidyalaya"
Athurugiriya Vidyalaya was located a mile from the Police Station, and it was converted into a camp by the authorities and operated by people wearing semi-military fatigue.
After waiting for about half an hour, they called us inside to meet the Officer-In-Charge. The officer admonished my parents on how to raise children for about half an hour. He urged them to learn more about my friends. Then, he asked them to leave the room to talk to me alone. He spoke in a stern voice.
“You should be glad to come here with your parents.”
"Your parents are decent people; do not associate those who you don't know. Have friends you know very well”
Then, he addressed a junior officer, “bring this guy’s motorbike.”
In the end, an estimated 30-40 individuals took their last breath at Hokandara Mass Grave or events surrounding it. The authorities buried the site following direct orders from the Minister of Defense. The Route-993 repaved over it sometime in 1990. In 1994, the Government excavated the gravesite. The fate of the human remains inside the grave is unknown.