The plight of border villages most often comes to light during a time of crises or attacks. The Karametiya village and its neighbouring villages have had their share of pain during the three decades of war that has burdened the country. Bordering the Gal Oya National Park, the village found itself a victim of nightmarish events on 21 February when it sacrificed more than a dozen of its inhabitants to the guns of the LTTE. In an attempt to discover what happened on that fateful day, we found that the conflict was not their only predicament…
The image that remained in my mind was that of a lifeless body of a four-year-old boy, a bullet wound glaring red like a third eye in his head, being cradled in the arms of an STF officer.
“We found the boy, Sajith among bodies under a bed when we went in search of survivors a few hours after the massacre,” J.M. Wijepala, a Karametiya villager, his face etched with pain related, “Even though he had been shot in the head he was moving slightly and a man from the STF and I carried the boy out immediately. Half-way, after seeing the spectacle of the massacre I just did not have any strength left in me and my knees gave way.” The STF person, he said, had then gathered the boy in his arms and run with him the rest of the way.
With 16 people killed and 10 injured by a group of LTTE terrorists last Saturday, the massacre of farmers and their families at Karametiya village in Inginiyagala, Moneragala District sent shockwaves throughout the country. However, the Nelliyadda area where the Karametiya village is situated has been no stranger to LTTE related activity in the past. The Principal of the Nelliyadda school said that in 1991 an LTTE camp had been discovered a few miles within the Gal Oya National Park bordering the village. “Again in 1992, an old farmer from Nelliyadda was murdered in his chena.
He was found with his throat slit. In the late 90’s the LTTE shot six people who had gone near the forest from the village,” he elaborated adding that closer to the main Mahaoya Road three vehicles had been burnt and the people travelling in them killed at the same time. As a result, many of the villages that had sprung up close to the National Park and the river that borders it had been deserted; its inhabitants either setting up roots further away from the forest or crossing over to Ampara to start afresh there.”
“The Kurunduvinna and Damanegama villages that were around three kilometers away from Nelliyadda were all deserted at the time. With the war showing signs of ending in recent times, people have returned to their routine lives and some of them even moved back closer to the forest as the soil is more fertile near the river,” the Nelliyada school Principal continued saying that Karametiya was one such village that had established itself over recent years.
Nothing of such magnitude
“We were inside our houses when there were sounds of gunshots in the distance. It was around 3.30 in the afternoon and as there is an army camp several miles away, we thought they were shooting for practice,” said W.M. Gunapala one of the survivors of Karametiya who was with his wife and three children at the time. “Then we heard the sound of gunfire closer, further up river where my uncle lives. A few minutes later my cousin came running to our house shouting that his mother and father had been killed by men who had shouted at them in Tamil,” he continued adding that at that point he had grabbed his children and his gun and after telling his wife to follow, began to run. “As soon as we came out of the house I saw several men with guns running behind our house. They were in army uniforms. Telling my wife to get to safety with my children I shot into the air. It was then that the attackers moved away and ran back into the forest,” Gunapala said. He had then run a kilometer or so to the neighbouring Nelliyadda village.
“Gunapala came running towards my shop on Saturday evening without a shred of clothing on his body, screaming that all of Karametiya were dead, that they were being shot at,” said W.M. Ranasinghe, a tea shop mudalali in Nelliyadda. “Grabbing my gun I had begun to run down the road to Karametiya when a police jeep pulled up–somebody had already called the police and they had got there in an about 10 minutes. Anyway I ran on ahead and as I neared the periphery of the village I found two more dead, with their bicycles fallen beside them,” he added. Ranasinghe had then gone into one of the houses and found blood close to a doorway. Retreating a few steps, he had shot eight of his 10 bullets into the air as he edged closer. “I heard the sound of a radio, when I went in I saw a small child dead, shot in the head. I ran back out and hid behind a tree and made my way to the other houses,” he said adding that the police had surrounded the area by this time.
“In one house I found one woman injured, she had tried to get under the bed head first and as a result had been shot in the waist. There was another older woman dead beside her. She had crept under the bed feet first, her head was in full view at the end of it and they had shot her just like that. In another house I found Gunapala’s youngest son who had been unable to run away with his parents. He had just a few scrapes on his elbows and head – he had been small enough to fit under the bed so he was safe,” the shopkeeper said.
Later on more bodies had been found a few metres into the forest, where some of the villagers had run to for safety and as Ranasinghe put it, he had not seen anything of this magnitude in his life. The death toll numbered 14 by evening with 10 injured rushed to the Ampara and Kandy hospitals. By Tuesday morning the body of another 14-year old boy was found in one of the houses and a 36-year-old man succumbed to his gunshot injuries in the Kandy Hospital increasing the death toll to 16. Eleven funerals were held on Monday afternoon and a mass grave cut to bury the dead. Out of the 16 families that live in Karametiya, five were laid side by side to rest. Throughout the week, the villagers were expecting to dig more graves and bury more of their families.
“They do not care about us”
Ranasinghe went onto voice much of the fears that the other villagers had. “We are willing to stay in our village if adequate protection is given to us,” he stressed. “It does not need to be the army or STF that has to be posted here–Civil Defence Forces would suffice. The only security given to us is during weekdays are for the school children.
On weekends not a single home guard is posted to the village. If there were at least two last Saturday, this catastrophe could have been prevented.” Moreover, it was mentioned that Civil Defence Forces who know the ins and outs of the village and the chenas should be given for village security. “Most of the time they are posted to Ampara, Akkaraipattu or Siyambalanduwa and it is pointless if we get people who do not know the lay of the land,” said J.M. Wijepala. “Worst of all we have told the local ministers to do something about our roads. Yet the day the incident happened it rained so hard the roads were impassable. We had to bring the bodies in sacks sinking to our knees in mud,” he said adding that authorities were ignorant of their plight and hardly cared about them.
P.B. Nandasena who lost six members of his family in the massacre including his parents and sister said that for the last few days they had nothing to eat. “We cannot go into our homes yet and cook anything. The little grain we stored in our houses is blood spattered. Not only did they kill our families but the LTTE burnt some of our chena’s before they left,” he said adding that a two month long drought had ruined most of their crops even before the attack, leaving them with nothing to eat.
“Not one of our so called leaders gave us a little dry rations to cook and eat, only the army and the police have been kind enough to give us rice parcels and a few things to eat. Soon we might have to resort to eating grass if nothing is given to us,” he said.
“What is worse is that we can’t even afford to go and see our relatives warded in the Kandy Hospital,” T.B. Karunaratne another villager spoke. “Today one of the villagers had lost a family member at the Kandy Hospital and they had asked us to come all the way there to identify the body. In order to bring the body back it would cost us around Rs 20,000. None of us can even dream up that amount.”
The villagers pointed their fingers at the authorities, saying that though they have told them about their issues in the past nothing has ever been done about them. “We wanted a bus badly for this road and we were promised one time and again, but no bus arrived. Finally the Veddah Chieftain in Rathugala, donated us a bus which had been presented to him by someone,” shopkeeper Ranasinghe said. “They only come during the time of elections when they promise to fix the roads and make everything prosper. After that we are only met with emptiness.”
Police spokesman SSP Ranjith Gunasekara said that security has been tightened in the Nelliyadda and Karametiya villages.
“Two bunkers are being built after discussions with the villagers. One has been built in the town centre and another one close to the forest borders.”
I am too afraid to go back to my home,” W.M. Gunapala said. “We stay in our houses at night very much afraid, working in our chena’s is out of the question and so we lose the little crop we have.” Most others in the neighbouring villages too expressed their fears but said that if proper security measures are put in place, they would be able to get back to their lives.