By Sanjeewa Karunaratne
Magedara, where my father grew up is a small village situated on a plateau surrounded by hills in Galle District. It is one of the most beautiful places—forests on these hills extend towards Deniyaya to the north and merge with the tropical forest, Sinharaja. Almost everything grows there, and my relatives cultivate rice, tea, and cinnamon. I spent many school holidays in Magedara roaming the hills, picking up juicy mangos and passion fruit, plucking tea, catching fish, and digging up bathing holes with my cousins.
When I was there, I often wake up to the distinctive smell of a fresh pot of Pahathrata tea and took a walk by the small brook while cleaning my teeth with a “Bombu” stick. I watched the silky clouds kiss the top of the surrounding hills as the green rice fields wave to the wind coming down from there. The melody of the flowing water in the brook and the aroma of yellow Ruk Aththana flowers on its banks announced the arrival of a new day.
Magedara—located deep inside the southern part of the country—was a stronghold of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which fought against the Government of Sri Lanka. As a result, its tranquil nature was severely disturbed by the 1984-88 JVP uprising.
As the South became the epicenter of the battle between the para-military and the JVP, the national news reported clashes between the JVP and the military, executions, extra-judicial killings, and mass graves. In the end, one in four youth killed in the uprising was from the South.
The government and the JVP both imposed curfews. The former announced it via the media while the latter announced it by a chit given to a clerk at a convenience store. Sometimes, these curfews extended for weeks and severely impacted the day-to-day lives of the citizenry. My father grew very impatient when a curfew of more than two weeks in the South occurred. Unfortunately, the postal mail—the only way he could communicate with his parents—had been interrupted by the insurgency.
One day, my father came home from work convinced that his parents were suffering from a shortage of food items. He also feared that the JVP might try to harm my grandfather, who was a strong supporter of the ruling political party. My father made up his mind even though it was a risk to travel to the South during this time. When he announced his intentions, our relatives and friends advised us what to do or not to do when we navigate this journey.
We packed our 1986 Toyota Corolla DX station wagon with grocery items and other essentials and headed out for Magedara. The trip was eventless as we turned left to Waduraba Road from Galle. Then, it is another 18 miles on a winding, hilly, and scenic Akurassa Road before we reach Magedara. As we came near the Kottawa Nature Reserve, the streets got eerily deserted. According to the national news, the Kottawa Nature Reserve area was notoriously for mass graves. In the one mile we traversed through this thick, misty forest, there were about a dozen of burned tire pyra on both sides of the road. Since we received advice not to get out of the car, we did not stop to inquire what was in these gravesites.
Not a soul was found in Makumbura junction as we turned right towards Yakkalamulla. We felt like hell broke loose when we approached the deserted Yakkalamulla town. Two tire pyra were burning inside the town fairground with partially burned human remains inside: one with two bodies and the other with one—this explained why the town got deserted because no one dared to be a witness or go near it. The writings were on the wall.
We parked our car just before the bridge over the Polwatta river and observed this unthinkable misery from a distance. This incident was so shocking that my father and I did not speak for a while. We started to fathom the stupidity of this trip. The reality of this unimaginable incident was settling in with us. Until we saw these bodies, we did not internalize the possibility of witnessing such carnage. Until now, the extra-judicial killings of this magnitude were only a piece of news to us. Now, we were beginning to fear for our safety. We still must travel another five miles to his hometown, Magedara, and return by using the same route. If the para-military or the JVP stopped us, my father reiterated what we should do.
Unfortunately, the biggest surprise was yet to come.
Miles and miles in this route from Galle to Magedara, we saw rich and elegant paddy fields on both sides of the road, surrounded by hills. About a mile before Magedara Maha Vidyalaya, where my father received his elementary education, there is the Uduwella junction. At the corner of where Uduwella road met Akurassa road, one of the wooden electric poles was located inside a paddy field. Since the surface of the paddy field was not hard enough, another pole supported it at an angle near its top. The second pole held the first pole from uprooting as it leaned towards the paddy field.
A tall and well-built person was hanging up-side-down with his legs tied to each of these two poles.
It was just a couple of miles from my father’s home, and we decided to take a closer look. Because we were breaking the protocol by getting out of the car, we decided to keep it running. To our surprise, there was not a soul to be seen around—no one dared to witness or go near it. The body had a couple of bullet holes in the chest area and a few scars caused by a sharp instrument.
Why on earth did a person deserve this end? We soon found the answer on a white piece of paper right below his head which was held in its place by four rocks on each corner.
The national news revealed later that some JVP leaders spent lavish lives in secrecy. Yet, their goal of overthrowing the Sri Lankan Government was far more ambitious than their lifestyles. Although the JVP struggles were overwhelmingly unsuccessful in 1971 and 1984, they resulted in an immeasurable loss of life, liberty, and property. Unfortunately, when the JVP’s low-level operatives tried to achieve its objectives through intimidation, disruption, and destruction, their actions received a harsh and disproportionate reaction.
The message on the dirty white, square paper was written in dark red. It looked like blood.
Despite it was written in blood or red paint, the message was clear and precise.
For setting stores on fire
For setting buses on fire
For breaking electric poles
For imposing curfews
This is my punishment…