Rathupaswela: Back at Ground Zero six years later | Sunday Observer

Rathupaswela: Back at Ground Zero six years later

On August 1, 2013 a villagers’ battle for clean water took a deadly turn. Troops sent in to quell the agitation shot at civilians, killing three including two schoolboys and injuring scores of others. Now, with the AG ready to prosecute four army personnel for the crime, the Sunday Observer returned the village that was under siege six years ago

RATHUPASWELA: He pointed at the tiled floor by the entrance of the St. Anthony’s Church.

“That is where it happened. They kicked him and beat him with wooden poles.”

How many?

“About seven of them. They were all in army uniform. Some wore helmets.”

What was the man doing?

“He was trying to get up. He lifted his hands to protect himself. I think he also tried to scream, but instead blood spurted out of his mouth. There was a lot of blood. I will never forget that day, that incident,” Nishantha Kumara told the Sunday Observer.

Kumara, a Dengue Control Unit employee and father of two, was among the group of residents from Weliweriya and surrounding villages who sought refuge at St. Anthony’s Church six years ago. It was August 01, 2013 and Kumara remembers the time to be around 7.30pm. Their town was under siege that day, after the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa sent troops armed to the teeth in to quell a civilian demonstration for clean water.

Army personnel stormed into the church premises. First they damaged the street lamps that were at the church’s gate, but light from inside the church was enough for Kumara to see exactly what was happening.

“They screamed at us. ‘Dan ubalage chandikam iwarai. Danagahapalla! (Now your heroics are over. Kneel!)’ So we knelt,” he recalled.

The man Kumara watched being attacked until blood poured from his mouth, was at a bus stop nearby when the crowd, thousands of protesters, started running and screaming for help. When the troops charged on the protestors, he also ran into the church with few others hoping for sanctuary.

He was later identified as Nilantha Pushpakumara, a 29-year-old employee of MAS group and resident of Gampola. Pushpakumara is among the three persons who were killed by troops on the rampage in the little Gampaha village that fateful night.

This week, on Wednesday (11), the Attorney General filed indictments against accused in the ‘Rathupaswela shooting’ before a trial-at-bar at the Gampaha High Court. Indictments were filed against Brigadier Anura Deshapriya Gunawardena and army personnel Dingiri Arunage Sirisena, Jayasundara Mudayanselage Thilakarathne and Lalith Grey. They were filed against the four suspects over the murder of the three civilians and injuries caused to 45 others.

This development in the case comes after Attorney General Dappula de Livera requested Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, in late August, to appoint trials-at-bar at the High Court to hear cases of Rathupaswela shooting, Avant Garde and the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda.

A little over six years ago residents of Rathupaswela, Weliweriya, Balummahara and several other villages were agitated when they found their well water was contaminated. Some villagers say they were cautioned when an elephant owned by a businessman in the area refused to drink water drawn from the wells. Villagers held protests near a rubber glove factory- Venigros of Dipped Products Company- claiming its toxic waste was contaminating the water.

On July 23, 2013, the OIC of Weliweriya with an order from Gampaha Additional Magistrate asked the Government Analyst, Geological Survey and Mines Bureau and the Central Environment Authority to conduct relevant tests.

The report from the Government Analyst stated that water was not suitable for human consumption. Rathupaswela residents got frantic.

They linked unexplained rashes, asthma attacks and other ailments villagers suffered from to the contaminated water. The next day July 24, 2013 a large crowd gathered at the controversial factory. A monk, the chief incumbent of Galloluwa Sri Sambuddhatva Jayanthi Vihara Theripaha Siridhamma Thero, joined the group. He commenced a fast unto death demanding the factory’s closure.

Protests continued, and on August 01, 2013 nearly 6000 residents in Weliweriya and adjoining villages took to the streets demanding fresh water to drink. The demonstration blocked traffic on the Kandy main road and New Kandy Road.

That day, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa called for a meeting with a group of villagers at the Defence Ministry at 3.00pm.

But meanwhile, in the once peaceful area, a little over an hour’s drive from Colombo, the situation was heating up. Police attempts to disperse the crowd proved futile. This is when Brigadier Gunawardena accompanied by some 140 army personnel approached the area. They also were also armed with guns and poles, backed by the Riot police, officers of the Special Task Force and two water tanks.

The first thing the troops did was to confiscate cameras and other equipment from the journalists covering the demonstration. But defying the tacit blackout orders, reporters and cameramen hid in bushes or high up on roofs to shoot the incident in its entirety. Then they smuggled the footage out of the area. At least one correspondent stayed overnight in a hen coop, while army personnel conducted a cordon and search operation for demonstrators and “subversives” from outside the area the Government claimed was instigating the agitation.

The time was around 6.15pm. The protesters started to agitate with the arrival of the army personnel, some on motorbikes. The protesters started to hoot and throw poles, clubs and bottles filled with sand at the personnel.

Then, Attorney General writes in his request to Chief Justice for the constitution of a High Court trial-at-bar, an eyewitness states Brigadier Gunawardena lifted his right hand, giving his team the cue to shoot at the crowd. The troops shot live bullets into the masses of residents protesting on the streets.

“When I heard the shooting I went to where the army officers were. I pleaded with them not to shoot. They shot at me,” said Chinthaka Perera, an army soldier turned three-wheel driver. He had to undergo a hip replacement six years ago after he was injured.

Perera recalled the army shooting at the sky first in a bid to disperse the crowd but when it failed they started to shoot at the people. Perera received Rs. 750,000 from the Presidential Fund as compensation.

A few metres away in the church, Kumara was with a crowd of about hundred trying to seek protection. He heard several gunshots.

“The army officers assaulted me too. Two of them lifted me and threw me over the church fence. I landed on the grass,” Kumara said. He had to take treatment for his injured eye and hip.

A nun from the church wished to remain anonymous saying ‘with the elections around the corner I don’t know what they will do to us’. But she recalled in an interview with the Sunday Observer electricity in the area was cut off that night. She and another sister were trying to protect a group of villagers, including children and women, who hid in their convent. They stood at the gate stopping the army personnel who tried to get in.

One officer has told her that this has happened in India and Pakistan too, but they would somehow “get” the hiding residents. She heard shots being fired.

Then 13-year-old Pethum Sudaraka was among the few who last spoke to 17-year-old Akila Dinesh. Sudaraka’s family was among the protesters.

“So I went too. At the top of the road I met Akila ayya with his friend. He asked me what I was doing there and asked me to join him to go a little further,” Sudaraka said. He had lost sight of Akila after a while and returned home when the shooting started.

The next day they were looking for Akila. Soon Sudaraka heard that Akila ayya, he remembers to be very helpful and good in sports, was shot and killed.

Kumara recalls the blood from the shooting and assaults was mostly washed the next morning, the sea of cartridges that was lying on the ground going missing. Venigros was closed. It was later relocated to the Biyagama Free Trade Zone.

Three years later, in March 2016 the then Inspector General of Police handed the case over to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). In October the same year a court ruled the shooting a crime. In 2015 the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission found that Sri Lanka Army was responsible for the shooting and assaults that resulted in the deaths in Weliweriya.

The Government Analyst was able to trace the used cartridges found in the crime scene to three weapons used by the army. In March 2017 three army personnel responsible for shooting were arrested by the CID, in May the same year Brigadier Gunawardena was arrested, and in August he and another army soldier were enlarged on bail.

In October 2018, the CID informed courts that the investigation file had been handed over to the Attorney General. With indictments served on accused, the trial is set to begin soon. For victims of the brutal crackdown, justice has been a long time coming. Remarkably, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who steered the entire security establishment and sent Brigadier Gunewardane and his men into Rathupaswela to quell the demonstration, has escaped prosecution.

In contrast, the Attorney General named former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and suspended IGP Pujith Jayasundara as first and second suspects in the Easter Sunday terror attacks, charging them both with murder under the penal code for failure to prevent the attacks despite having prior intelligence. Rajapaksa has also escaped prosecution in connection with the Avant Garde floating armoury despite having given the Sri Lanka Navy approval to lease weapons to the shady private security firm, and has not even recorded a statement in connection with the Prageeth Ekneligoda abduction and suspected murder before indictments were filed. In the Ekneligoda investigation at least two witnesses have given confessions before a magistrate that Rajapaksa allegedly ordered the abduction of the journalist in 2010, Sunday Observer learns.

The shocking 2013 incident in Rathupaswela left three families grieving a killed loved one, 16 people who were shot and wounded, eight others who sustained grave injuries from assault, and 21 more who sustained minor injuries. Most families in the villages, including Sudaraka’s continue to buy bottled water for consumption.

August 1, 2013 turned Margaret Perera’s life upside down. Her son, Chamli Ravishan Perera was 18 years old when he was shot and killed during the Rathupaswela shooting. The family has since left the village.

“How can we live in that house anymore? There are too many memories there,” Perera told the Sunday Observer.

Ravishan was waiting for Margaret to return from work at the Co-operative in Miriswatte. It was only three kilometers from their house using a shortcut through the village.

“I spoke to him over the phone several times when the protest was going on. I said “Puthé oya gedara inna. Mama ennan. (Son, you stay home. I will come)” but he came to the main road to meet me,” Margaret said.

When she returned home, Ravishan was not there. She called him again and he told her she was on his way home. That is when the shooting started. In their final phone call Margaret told him to stay wherever he thought it would be safe. Then she heard shots from close to their home. The family stayed up the entire night. The next day they were told Ravishan was taken to the Gampaha District General Hospital with injuries. Later they heard he was transferred to the National Hospital in Colombo. Around noon on August 2, 2013 the mother was told her son had been shot and killed.

Ravishan would have been 24 this year. His mother says he could have been working at a good job. Ravishan was a good student and was to sit for the GCE Advanced Level examination the same month he was killed.

Ravishan’s family was given Rs. 1 million as compensation by the Government.

“I lost my son when we asked for clean water to drink. Now no one comes to see us. No one cares,” Margaret said.