MCM Iqbal, Secretary to several commissions of inquiry in Involuntary Disappearances recalls some of narratives of cases told by witness before the commissions. This is from a taped interview with Basil Fernando
Since I was secretary at two of the separate evidence commissions that were conducting inquiries into disappearances during the so-called period of terror, from the late 1980s to the middle of the 1990s I was able to listen to the evidence given by many of the complainants personally, I was present when the inquiries were being conducted.
And some of the cases remain in my mind, because they were so gory, such brutal cases that I can recollect most of the information pertaining to them. I will just narrate a few of them to give a sample of the kind of brutality that existed during that period.
There was a mother, she was about 60 or a little more than that, who came before the commission. She said that since her son had disappeared, she had been looking for him everywhere until she heard from somebody that there were hundreds of heads of people who had been killed and planted on posts around the valley, on Kappetipola Road in the hill country of Sri Lanka. And she thought she should go see whether her son’s head was there. She took all the trouble to go to that place and walked, according to her words, walked from head to head, some of them had decomposed, to see if her son’s head was there. I was so sad, she said, his head was not there. And when she said this, the old woman, was almost sobbing. I just can’t forget the words she said and the manner in which she said it. This is one of the cases to show how brutally youth had been killed, and their heads disposed of in such a ghastly manner for the people to see.
Another case which I can remember is of a mother, who was a widow, who had three grown children, and one of them had been a bodybuilder and had been conducting self-defence classes, karate classes, she said. And during this particular period, some unknown people came and took away two of her sons. And she knew that they were police officers because the vehicle that took them was a vehicle marked ‘police.’ She tried to run behind the jeep to see if she could do something to retrieve them but she couldn’t catch up. So the following morning, first thing, she went to the police station and asked them to show her sons that they had taken. They denied having taken her sons. She insisted, she argued with them, she said, I’m sure you all came. She argued so loud that the sons who were inside the cell, shouted saying ‘Mother, we are here!’ The police officers who had denied taking them couldn’t say anything, they just pushed her away and went on. This lady was so persistent, she didn’t want to go away until she was given a chance to speak to her sons. She stayed there the whole day and by evening, the roster changed, and a new set of police officers came on duty. They asked her why she was waiting, she said, I’m waiting to see my sons who are inside. They said wait, and they went in. After about a half hour or so, they came back and said okay, come, let’s see your sons. They took her in, and according to her words, they raped her. All of them. There were five police officers there, they all raped her. And to use her words, she said ‘I will die, please let me go.’ In spite of that, they continued to rape her. And she knew the names of the police officers, she mentioned that, and they were still serving in the police at the time the enquiries were being made. We recorded all the evidence and two days later, she came running back to the commission and said, my other son has been taken away. Now it was not difficult for us to assume that because she had come in to give evidence to punish, someone must have taken the other son away. An investigation unit was set into motion and they made enquiries and were able to find out that he had been taken in under suspicion of having snatched away someone’s salary packet and he was in remand. His mother was told, we’ll see what we can do and was sent away. We checked with the prisons, and with the magistrate court, the case was there. At the prisons, the investigating officers were able to find out that the police officers had taken photographs of this chap who was in remand, which is an unusual thing, because police are supposed to have no access to people who are in prisons and they can’t photograph them. And the superintendent in charge confirmed that he couldn’t stop them, and they had taken photographs. It was not too difficult for us to guess that they were going to use it in an identification parade. The magistrate was informed, the magistrate was good enough to cancel the parade. The identification parade was cancelled, and thereafter the suspect was discharged. His mother came running to us with her son, and fell prostrate in front of the commissioners and said ‘you are the gods who saved us.’ The commissioner said, we are not here to save you all the time. Please take your son and leave this district. We can’t ensure your safety because we are going away in a few days. That’s one of the cases that I can’t forget.
Another case that comes to my mind is the case in Kandy where a young boy came and gave evidence that he was one of the victims taken to be disappeared but he was kept in what was later called, a torture chamber, Silvester’s College, Kandy. He gave evidence on what was happening in the torture chamber where he said more than one thousand had been detained and he also mentioned that the person who was in charge was a superintendent of police called Laksham Senevirathna, I can still remember that name. He was supposed to have been a classmate of the then Defence Minister Anuruddha Rathwatte. Now he said from time to time, they would get down loads of cane, to be used for torturing the people who were there. And then, he also mentioned from time to time they used to take people in batches of ten to fifteen to be sent to other detention centres, but they never returned. On Monday, it was his turn to get into a truck at night to be taken to another detention centre and he was able to see what happened there. He said that when the vehicle goes through dark, open stretches of land, they were all with their hands tied behind their backs, there were two other vehicles following the truck in which they were being taken. At some point, the police officer who would be inside with the detainees would push one person down and say ‘run.’ When the person falls down and starts running, somebody from the other vehicle will shoot, target practice. And this fellow will get shot, and the body lies there. The third vehicle that is following behind stops at the body, somebody gets down with a petrol can, pours petrol on their face, sets fire to him. They get back into the vehicle and the caravan goes on. When it came to his turn to be pushed out, fortunately he said, the vehicle that had the petrol shouted saying ‘enough for the day. The petrol is over.’ And so it happened that he was not pushed, he was taken back to the camp. And everybody in the camp called him the lucky one. Then, due to certain circumstances, after that he was sent to a rehabilitation centre, and he was released a few years later. He came before the commission to narrate all that he saw in that place. This also, I can’t forget, because that boy was a young chap, he was about 18 or 20. The way he narrated all that happened, and the way he said those boys were tortured. The commission made it a point to report this to the president and ask that this Laksham Senevirathna be transferred out of the district because witnesses were afraid to come and give evidence when he was in that area. After much pressure, he was transferred out from Kandy to Kurunegalle and we were able to learn that because he was a classmate of the Defence Minister at that time, he was able to see that he wasn’t punished by being sent further away.
Then I come to the case of Anamaduwa where several young boys were being taken away by the officer in charge of Anamaduwa at that time called Indran. He was an inspector of police at that time. He was working in close contact with the MP of that area and his name had been passed as being responsible for a large number of disappearances in the district. But in this particular case, he had taken 5 or 6 boys in the middle of the night and lined them up and shot. Fortunately, one fellow had a grazing wound, just above his ear but he also fell and pretended that he was dead. And the police officers left the dead bodies and went away. After some time he was able to get on his feet, and in the distance he saw a hut with a light burning. He managed to get there, and pleaded with the inmates of that house to save him. They treated him, and he was in hiding until the commissions were appointed. And he came before the commission and gave evidence on this matter. After the evidence was recorded (we were in Chilaw at that time) a few days later he comes running back and says, oh my G-d, I gave evidence, Inspector Indran who is now an ASP in Colombo had come in his jeep searching for me, and threatened my parents saying that if I opened my mouth again, my whole family would be wiped out. He said, I’m living in fear, I can’t go back to my house. There was nothing we could do, except to say that he should be in hiding for some time. But a special report was made to the president, to have this officer dealt with for threatening witnesses. I’m only saying that because it was recorded in Interim Report 7, page 20, where the name of the officer is also given, and the report to the president is also given. But he continued to be there, and he is now an ASP, still in service.
Then I come to another instance that I can’t forget. Mostly, it’s the mothers that come in to talk about their children and cry out. But in this instance, the father, who was a labourer, who had managed to find money to educate his three sons, up to university level. One was a lecturer, the other was a teacher, and the third was as yet unemployed, but he had passed his exams. These sons had been abducted, and he came and wailed and said that he toiled so hard to earn money to educate his children and brought them up to this level, but now they have disappeared. Then he narrated an instance where at some time during that period, the military came with one of the sons tied to the bonnet of the vehicle, with his arms stretched and his hands tied to the reflector glasses, and the feet tied to the buffer. He had injuries, and he was shown and was asked whether this was his son. He said, yes, this is my son. Why have you tortured him? They said, we have brought him for you to kill him. They gave him a bayonet and asked him to stab the son. He refused and started crying out, I can’t kill my son. Then he was assaulted by the military officers, and they said if you can’t, we will show you how to stab. They took the bayonet and stabbed the son who was alive, tied to the bonnet, in the presence of his father. And he said this and started wailing, we had to wait till he finished sobbing. This is one of the cases that remain in my heart, for a long time, I can’t forget that.
Then I speak of another case in Polgahawela where 16 youths of that village were killed by the air force officers who had no duties to perform in Polgahawela. They had been brought there by one of the air force officers in a jeep to take revenge for someone having killed his father in the village. He thought one of the boys in the area must have been responsible, and he wanted to kill all the boys. He went from house to house and took all these boys, killed them and dumped their bodies in a well there. One of the sisters of the boys was brave enough, she ventured out in the dark and climbed a tree and was watching from there all that was happening. After they went away, she came down and saw all the dead bodies in the well and she was able to collect the empty shells of the guns that were fired at them. She collected all of them and presented them to the magistrate, and there was a magisterial enquiry, following which, this particular military officer (I forget his name) there was a case pending against him for the murder of these boys. I don’t know what happened to that case.
Then I can remember the case of a 13-year old girl who came and gave evidence before the commission about how the whole family; her brothers, sisters, father, mother, all of them were burnt inside the house on a pile of furniture that had been smashed up by the police officers who came. This girl, fortunately, had gone to the neighbouring house to play, and when this commotion was going on, she was trying to rush back to the house, but the neighbours restrained her and she waited. And they watched from their house what was going on next door. So she came and told us how the police truck was outside, and all these people went in, smashed up the furniture, got hold of the parents and children, killed all of them, and put their bodies on top of the furniture and set fire to the whole house. That is another case that I can’t forget.
Then another case of a police officer who went searching for a suspect to a house, and the mother said he is not here, he has gone somewhere and was pleading with them not to harass her son because he was not involved in any activities. And the police officers said, okay, we will stop harassing him if you can oblige us. And with a gun by his side, they dragged that woman to the bed and raped her. She gave evidence saying that the gun was by their side and she couldn’t even scream. After they raped her, they went away saying, we will not harass you again.
There were several other cases which I can give you briefly. In Jaffna for instance, the LTTE had abducted somebody for being an informant of the army and when the parents pleaded, they wouldn’t let him go. Then the following morning, when they opened the door, they found the dead body of the son on their doorstep. He was killed and had been placed on the doorstep. That’s another gory instance that I can’t forget.
Then there was another case which happened when the army people who were caught inside the Jaffna Fort were being rescued by a military operation led by Denzel Kobbekaduwa. Now, this operation was launched from across the lagoon. When the operation was in progress, to avoid being caught in the crossfire, the people were taking refuge in the neighbouring temples and churches. After a few days, while the operation was in progress, the military went from church to church, and came to this particular church called Philip Mary Church in Mandatiwu where some of the inmates came and gave evidence. They asked for the young men among the refugees to stand out separately. They wanted their assistance to put up the camps, and the young men volunteered, and they were taken away and told that they would be sent back after they had set up the camps. Since they didn’t return at the end of that day and still after a few days, some of the elders went up to the camp and asked after them. And they were told, we don’t have them here, after work they have been released to the EPDP, who at that time was in charge on the islands. So they went and asked the EPDP and they denied having taken charge of these young men, 21 people in all. Then when the operation was over, the soldiers in Jaffna had been redeemed and the army moved away, and the civilians were told to go back to their villages, and when they went back, bodies of many of them were found in the wells in that area. That is one instance in which persons who gave evidence said that innocent boys, some of them who were school students, had been killed and dumped into the wells. These bodies were later sent to the university for medical students to examine after the post-mortem was over.
Then I can remember a case of estate remedy, from Indian labourers who were working in the estates. One family had a very promising boy who was going to school systematically and a police officer who had a small pot of tea wanted the service of this boy to pluck tea on a particular day. The mother said that since he has his exams these days, he will not be able to come. She pleaded with him, but he insisted. She pleaded, saying that his studies were very important for him, he has to go for his exams. And he said, what is study for you estate labourers? I’ll teach you all a lesson. And that night, that boy disappeared. He was a boy of about 16 years. When she gave evidence before the commission, we asked her whether she knew this person. She said she knew him by the name – Silva (I might be wrong, it was a common name, either Silva or Perrera) but she didn’t know anything more than that, except that he was working at the local police station. So the commissioners asked if she could identify this man if she could see him, and she said yes. And through the officers in the investigation unit, we got down all those officers in the Badulla range with the name ending in Perera or Silva (I can’t remember which one, it was one of those names.) About seven of them were brought and this lady was kept where they couldn’t see her and these officers were brought one by one to the secretary so that he could ask them some questions. The lady was asked to observe who came, and she was able to point out the person when he was speaking to the secretary, and that person’s name was checked. It was found that he had been in that particular police area at that time and he was identified as the perpetrator of the disappearance of this young boy.
Then I can remember a young girl who came and gave evidence before the commission saying that her brothers – one of them was a doctor, the other was a lecturer at the university – they lived in Katugasthota and she was in love with a young boy in that area, much against the wishes of her brothers and her parents. She was so much in love with him that she did not want to yield to all the pressure to give up her affair with him. Subsequently, her brother who was a lecturer at the university visited them and said that he was making a last appeal to her to give up the affair. She said no. And the brother knew the officer in charge at that police station, and he had met him before he went back to Colombo. And this boy disappeared subsequently. Knowing that her brother was responsible for the disappearance of the boy, she abandoned the family, went to Colombo and struggled for an existence. She found employment in a government factory in Ratmalana. She came and gave evidence from that place. And she persisted, saying that her brothers were responsible for the disappearance of this young man.
Then I can remember the case of a police officer who had a paddy field that had to be harvested. He had asked the cultivator of the adjoining plot to harvest his paddy field as well while he was harvesting his own. He said that he might be found out by the JVP that he did that for a police officer and so he said, I’m sorry, I can’t do it. The police officer insisted, but because he still said he wouldn’t do it, he was taken away and forcibly disappeared.
Then I can remember the case of a poor old lady from who came and said that her husband was a labourer and would work for anyone who needed his services. One day, the JVPers got his services to climb a lamppost and hang red flags there. While he was doing that, the police saw him. They thought he was a JVP’er and shot him dead.
Then I can remember another instance of a mother being showed her son who had been taken into custody, and was tortured in front of her by the police. The abductors brought him to the mother and said, is this your son? And she said, yes this is my son, I have been looking for him. Then the police said, look at what we are going to do to him. They tied his hands and linked him up to the jeep and dragged him up and down the road while he was screaming in pain, and the mother was also screaming, saying, spare my son. They dragged him up and down the road several times then he was bleeding, and then they took him away after that. And that was the last she saw of her son.
Then amongst the cases where foreigners were involved, there was a tourist bus from Nilavalley in Trinkomallee set out during the early part of the 1990s when the troubles had started in the east. And because there were several seats vacant on the bus, some of the employees of the hotel who were living in Colombo wanted to travel back in that bus. So they got into the bus along with the tourists thinking they would be safe since they were with tourists. At Horowpathana the bus was stopped, police officers got onto the bus and told the local travellers on the bus to get down. They allowed the tourists to pass. While on the bus, one of the hotel employees had been having a conversation with one of the tourists and had been thoughtful enough to give his contact number in Colombo for the tourist to contact him if they needed any assistance in Colombo. This tourist had the number with them and went back, and soon after, called that number and said that that boy had been detained at Horowpathana so if you are searching for him, he is in Horowpathana not at the hotel. That tourist was good, he was a German tourist. He passed the message to the number that he had been given. This person was detained for several days at Horowpathana police station. When this message was conveyed, the relations of this hotel employee in Colombo had known an Inspector at the station, and said these boys have been detained at Horowpathana can you please help to see that no harm comes to them? It is in evidence, and the Inspector was called to give evidence because he had retired at that time, he came and gave evidence. He said that he did speak to the officer in charge at Horowpathana police and said they are safe, they are in detention there. They will be sending them after recording their statements. Subsequently, they had all gone missing. And when the commission started its investigations, a directive had been issued by the Inspector General of Police on the request of the commissioners to say that all information books of police stations have to serve. In this particular instance, since we had information that they had been detained at the Horowpathana police station, investigating officers went to collect the books to check the entries made there, and we found that all the books had been destroyed. A report was made to the president, to say that the persons who have violated this directive must be dealt with. But whether any action was taken against them, one does not know but the fact remains that the Horowpathana police had caused the disappearance of 10 or 15 people who were detained from that bus. And all the books that were there had been destroyed, contravening a direction from the Inspector General of Police to preserve them.
I can talk at length about hundreds of other cases which I remember, but I think I have said enough, just to give you a sample of the brutality that existed at that time.