By Sanjeewa Karunaratne

 

During 1984-89, a Marxist group, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), unleashed guerrilla warfare to overthrow the Government of Sri Lanka after first attempting it in 1970-1972. The JVP revolt in the southern parts of Sri Lanka occurred parallel with a separatist war in the country’s northern parts. JVP’s military wing was Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya (DJV), or Patriotic Peoples Action. The J R Jayawardena Government banned the JVP in 1983. Then, it resorted to an undercover warfare. JVP members were like ghosts, mainly active at night. When all else failed, the government deployed para-military forces who used unconventional methods such as abductions and extra-judicial executions. Surprisingly, the JVP seemed to have won the sympathy of the masses. One strategy used by the para-military to reverse this sympathy was executing well-known personalities in the guise of the JVP.

Tissa was my friend, Pathirana’s neighbor. He lived about three or four houses down a narrow path next to Pathirana’s house. Because I spent most of my free time around Pathirana’s neighborhood, I knew most of them. Tissa worked at Ceylon Biscuits Limited (CBL). The company produced the Munchee brand. It had an eye-catching building on top of a small hill, across an elegant paddy field a few hundred meters from the High-Level Road. It was less than a mile from the country’s largest newspaper manufacturer, Upali Group of Companies. At a time when big advertising billboards were rare, CBL erected a giant billboard at the corner of the paddy field. As a kid, I was mesmerized by it. Magnifying my curiosity, it had a series of rotating propellors or fans at the bottom—I had no clue for what purpose.

Finally, my father’s printing press started to take off. In the early ’80s, he bought an off-white Mitsubishi Delica L300 minivan for the printing press. Unfortunately, washing it was a problem because the water well in our property dried out half of the year. We constantly looked for a good, clean, less populated public well. There was one on the other side of the paddy field, where the CBL factory was. After washing and cleaning the van and having fresh water showers, my brothers and sister roamed the paddy field, catching fish, flying kites, etc.  

One day, I was returning home from a visit to my friends in Giriulla. It was a three-hour journey back home. My signature yellow traveling bag was hanging from my shoulder. Hungry as a hawk, I walked as fast as possible to reach home. I saw Tissa and his family in front of Pannipitiya Tire Factory. His wife was holding a child, and the other was walking in front of them. It looked like they slowed down to raise the child who was walking or they were talking to the child.

It is the custom in the area that whoever is walking in the same direction go together at the same pace, chitchatting or exchanging information. However, since Tissa was slow, I wanted to pass him. I slowed to acknowledge his presence and excuse my behavior.

“I got to go.”

“See you later, Tissa aiya.”

I waved and walked past him.

A few minutes later, just before I crossed the railway line on Hokandara Road, I heard several gunshots.

“Bang, Bang, Bang”

Occasional gunshots were not unusual in those days. As I turned around, I saw Tissa on the ground.

His wife was screaming.

"Tissa," "Tissa," “Tissa”

"Tissa," "Tissa," “Tissa”

And a white minivan was traveling in my direction.

A bizarre thought hit my mind as I decided what to do.

About two weeks ago, my motorbike was confiscated by a group of men wearing semi-military fatigues and yielding guns where I stand now. They said I was riding a motorbike with three people as the reason for their actions. When I went to recover the bike, I felt the group was part of a para-military or militia operation. It was neither the police nor the regular military.

This minivan looked very similar to the one used to confiscate my bike.

“Is this the same van?”

I froze. My bag fell to the ground.

As the breeze of a fast-moving vehicle flapped my face, I returned to reality. When I turned towards it, it had passed.

I ran after the van as fast as I could until it disappeared. It had no registration plates.

Tissa was the president of the trade union at CBL. He was very popular. His trade union was affiliated with the government. According to rumors, the JVP warned him to resign from his position.  

Tissa’s killing was attributed to the JVP.  

The JVP eventually lost the sympathy of the masses.  

Two little kids lost their father.