By Sanjeewa Karunaratne

The 1984-89 period in Sri Lanka was one of the darkest in its history. There were two active wars: a separatist war and a war between the JVP guerillas and the Government forces. Amidst these conflicts, life went on. During this time, I attended the British Council (BC). Often, I return home after classes late at night. Then, I go to a public well called “Samithiye Linda” (community well) in the nearby paddy field to get a bath (unfortunately, for most of the dry season, the well in our home dries out). On these nights, my companion was the traffic on Route 993 Hokandara Road, about half a mile away on the other side of a massive paddy field. One day, I noticed an unusual fire on Route 993. After I saw it for a few consecutive nights, I thought, what on earth was burning for several days?

I made several interesting friends in BC, including the late Upananda Kumarasiri or Upe, the only son of a businessman from Kotadeniyawa. Upe’s parents owned coconut plantations. Adjacent to one of their plantations that bordered Ma Oya river was owned by his cousin, Lionel. He also attended BC. When Lionel was getting married, Upe placed an order for 500 wedding invitation cards with our family printing press. The invitations were to be mailed out on March 29 or 30; therefore, he wanted them delivered on March 26. Unfortunately, the JVP declared a nationwide curfew on this day.

Seranga Agencies—our family printing press—has never missed out on a delivery deadline. However, I was reluctant to travel to Kotadeniyawa to deliver the wedding cards because of this curfew, so I tried to find a friend to accompany me. The first choice was Pathirana. Two birds with one stone; I also wanted to look at what was burning by Route 993. I imagined that it was likely to be visible from his house. I peeked through the green bamboo trees at the corner of his front lawn.

“OMG! it is a human body.”

A victim of the tug of war between the government forces and JVP.

The torso of the body was utterly burned out, including the hands. It was sticking up from the ground with the head; some flesh remained in the head and legs. Also, parts of the steel wire rings of a rubber tire that seemed to have caused most of the damage remained. A light smoke arose. A stray dog was waiting by it, impatiently as though it wanted to take a bite from a barbecued human leg but was a bit discouraged by the heat. Unfortunately, this status quo has become so commonplace that the neighbors’ only concern was stray dogs who brought part of their lunch into their properties. After impatiently waiting a few days, the neighbors decided to place a note by the body.

 “Burn this completely.”

Pathirana declined to go—with a body burning a few yards from his home; I was not surprised by his decision. It was around 5:00 PM when I was able to convince another friend. In return, we negotiated that he rides the bike. I was on the back. First, he had to take care of some business. And it was around 6:30 PM when we finally took off. We arrived at Lionel’s house around 8:30 PM. After I delivered wedding cards and received the payment of Rs. 575, Upe and others insisted that we must spend the night and leave early in the morning because of the fights between the JVP and the government. Since my friend had to go to work in the morning, they advised us to take the Negombo road instead of the Minuwangoda road. The JVP recently attacked a police station on Minuwangoda road. We departed our friends in Kotadeniyawa around 9:00 PM.

For the most part, we were the only vehicle on the road. It was pitch dark with no street lights. After about five miles on Negombo road, we saw something big burning ahead us on our right side from a distance. As we slowly approached it, a masked man in black clothing pointed his rifle and signaled us to stop. There was at least one person behind him. He was also dressed in black. The burning building was about four to five feet above the main road. From the light of the burning fire, I saw some activity in front of the building.

“Lights off”

“Engine off”

As soon as my friend switched off the bike, an intense light flashed at our faces from the side of the building. After that, I could not see anything from that side. But by then, I have felt what was going on.

“Where are you coming from?”

“Kotadeniyawa. We were delivering wedding cards.”

“Let me see.”

I handed over a blank wedding card—it was Upe’s brilliant idea to give us a blank card.

“Show your identity cards.”

We were two young men from a distant town on a relatively powerful motorbike stopped at a controversial location—wrong place, wrong time. I felt our likelihood of survival was low.

“You can go.”

We moved slowly—this is it. A popular modus operandi to shoot at fleeing suspects.

My friend was murmuring slowly, “He will shoot us now; he will shoot us now.”

I still believe a guardian angel intervened—either the gun got jammed, the person got distracted, or something else. Sometimes when I revisit this event, I imagine a second person lowering the weapon aimed at us by the first person. After making sure we passed the range of a gunshot, we stopped the bike near a street light, removed our shirts, and inspected each other’s bodies to ensure we were not hit.

Upe called at the rise of dawn.

“Did you take the Negombo road?” “Yes”

“Was there something on fire?” “Yes”

“Neighbors found six burned-out bodies inside that store in the morning.”

“They say JVP burned the store down, and those suspected of doing it ended up dead inside.”

Though Upe confirmed my suspicion about what I saw, I did not tell him we were stopped there.

The following day, I rode to Pathirana’s to break the story. 

Out of curiosity, I peeked through the bamboo trees to see whether the body was still there. It was gone.

“It looks like someone burned it to ashes last night.”