By Sanjeewa Karunaratne
Sri Lanka is a generally peaceful country now. Its gratitude goes to the leaders whose strategies—good or bad—successfully neutralized two insurgencies. In the first, during 1984-89, the Government unleashed a very effective counter-terrorism mechanism against the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (“JVP”): para-military groups, who ultimately brought down the JVP. These groups were called in various pseudonyms: “Yellow Cats,” “Green Tigers,” “Eagles,” “Scorpions,” “Red Dragons,” or Pro Red Revolutionary Army (“PRRA”). The PRRA was the most active among them. As rumor had it, only a small fraction of people, who were taken in by the PRRA at night were lucky enough to see the daylight.
It was the height of the JVP insurgency in the Pannipitiya area. The JVP had declared several curfews and para-military had countered it with their own threats. One police officer was shot in his house in Hokandara, and two police officers were killed by a roadside bomb when they were visiting this funeral. As a retaliation, about three dozen bodies were found inside the crater created by the bomb, and in the adjacent coconut land. A cache of weapons was found in a house in Arawwala. Two people were shot dead in broad daylight in Pannipitiya town. A mile away, one unidentified body was burning on top of a rubber tire. There was an open war between the para-military and JVP.
That day, a few friends and I were returning home from a party at around 11 PM. I was on my motorbike slowly pacing my friends who were walking in parallel across the street. We were chatting and laughing. The streets were deserted because of a curfew imposed by the JVP which we did not know at the time. We were nearing a rubber plantation behind a temple in Kottawa Road. A van with one headlight was approaching us slowly from behind from a distance. We did not pay attention, until it stopped right next to us. Several armed men in civilian clothes jumped out:
As any good friend would do, my friends took to their feet. I had no such luxury as the bike was grabbed from behind. I instantly glanced at the van. It was a white HIACE with no registration plates—a signature trait of the para-military.
Three men gave chase. Soon afterwards, the silence of the night was pierced by three gunshots.
“Bang, Bang, Bang”
Oh my God.
As I was interrogated by the other two, I maintained that I had no idea who the other people were.
“They must be dead”
My friends knew this area like the back of their hands. After long and anxious ten minutes, the three men returned empty-handed. They were furious. One of them took his frustration out of me before kicking me inside the van. Then, with the help of others, he shoveled the bike inside. The van was a mess. It smelled like gasoline, and there were several rocks and broom sticks on the floor. A few guns were lying on the seats. I was shoveled to a seat just before the last. One person sat behind while another sat facing me.
The somewhat casual questioning that preceded the kicking took a different tone.
“We saw you talking to each other”
“It may look like that way, but I was just passing them”
“You think we are blind?”
Though the questioning became abusive, I kept denying until I felt the warm end of a pistol barrel pressed against the back of my head.
“Click.” The safety was off.
“I am going to count to five, you are going to give me a name”
“How can I tell something I don’t know”
At these darkest few seconds of my life, two things flashed in my head: among these friends, who had the connections to pull us out of this mess, and who lived nearby.
“I know one, Sam” (The name of the actual individual has been changed to protect his privacy)
“Take us to his house”
I took them to Sam’s house which was less than a few minutes’ drive. His mother was already on the patio—she must have heard the gunshots. And, her son had not yet returned home. She came rushing towards the van.
“We shot your son”
“He must be dead…, or bleeding to death somewhere”
“We will come back in half an hour”
She was hysterical. Someone flashed a light on my face.
“He was with this guy…”
Then, they drove to a warehouse. There were already some people at the far end corner unit on the second floor. They were drinking. While one person guarded the van, the others joined the party. After about ten minutes, the silence of the night was disturbed by the phone line.
One person stood up and left. In a few minutes, he came back.
A white car came in a few minutes. Sam’s family and some other people entered the room. After a brief discussion, they left. Through the tall glass windows, I can see the people in the room were having discussions, followed by long pauses. After about half an hour of going back and forth, one person emerged from the room. He was carrying a glass. As he turned towards the van, I knew he was bringing my freedom.
An icy cold Coca-Cola—a perfect end to a bizarre night. I was one of the lucky ones. Thousands of youngsters were extrajudicially executed under similar circumstances—mistakenly identified as JVP operatives. However, this take-no-prisoner approach effectively ended the 1980’s JVP uprising. As for my friends; they all suffered minor scratches, but survived the shooting.