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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Robbery at the Journalists Residence: Two of the gang took out all the files from and went through them

“What Happened That Night”:Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema Recounts Her Ordeal

 Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
The past week has been a nightmare. Apart from the trauma experienced by my family and myself due to the pre-dawn break in at our residence on Saturday (24), the biggest disappointment has been the actions of certain sections of the media and their false reportage of the incident.

There have been many statements made about the incident as well as the jewellery recovered from the assailants who broke into my house.

Identification of the jewellery has now revealed that the amount of gold jewellery taken from my house is far less than what has been published in various media reports. The police, following the identification of goods recovered, have found that claims that there were 14 gold chains in my house were incorrect.
However, let me now write down about the incident.

The incident early last Saturday, albeit being reported as a robbery, is part of a series of events that took place during the past two weeks. Two weeks ago, I was cautioned by persons close to me to be careful of my actions – as a journalist and the head of the Sri Lanka Journalists’ Trade Union (SLJTU).

A week later, a Sinhala weekly newspaper in one of its columns referred to me in innuendo as one among three media personnel to have had a secret meeting with officials from a foreign diplomatic mission in Colombo to discuss a report to be handed over to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.
The following Thursday (22) night, the carcass of a dead cat was found at my door step. The suspicion over the incident is because the cat that had been long dead had been placed at my doorstep within a period of half an hour.

On Friday (23) I returned home early from my office in Ratmalana and continued with my work from home having heeded advice from my colleagues. My husband, Romesh Abeywickrema, after completing the business pages, left the house around 9.30 p.m. However, he telephoned my mobile around 10.30 p.m. and informed me that he was parking his vehicle in the garden and leaving in a cab since one of the rear tires was slashed.

Uneasy with the series of events, I asked Romesh to be careful and he too asked to lock the house carefully before going to sleep.

I went to bed after finishing my work around 1.30 a.m. However, I was unable to fall asleep since my mind was not at ease. As a result, I felt some movements in the bedroom around 2-2.30 a.m. I opened my eyes and saw someone darting out of the room. I always sleep with the light switched on.
I shouted “Who is it?” (Kawda?)

Seconds later four men with their heads and face covered entered the room with knives. Their eyes were visible. One person held a manna knife to my neck while another held a knife to my chest. They asked me not to shout, threatening to kill me if I did. One person took my mobile phone and removed the battery.
I said I will keep quiet and asked them what they wanted. They asked me to give whatever I had in the house. I asked them to take whatever they wanted.

They asked me for the rings I was wearing and I gave them. They then asked me what were in the wardrobes. I said one was mine and the other was my husband’s. They opened my wardrobe and broke the door of my husband’s.

One person then asked me to hand over whatever cash I had with me. I took my purse and gave them three one thousand rupee notes and another Rs 120.

They asked me if that was all the money I had and I said yes. They had also by then taken Rs 5,000 from an envelope (the money was given to my daughter for her birthday by her grandmother)

A mobile phone of one of the gang members rang and he went to a corner of the room and answered it.

In the meantime, I was asked what was in the chest of drawers in the bedroom. I said it contained files and documents. They asked me to open it and I said I did not have the key since it belonged to my husband. One of the assailants then punched me twice in the face.

I told them to break the lock and open the chest of drawers, which they eventually did. The person who punched me then kept a knife to my right arm causing a minor slash. He then asked me to cover my head with a towel and sit on the bed. I felt as if someone had climbed on to the bed. I removed the towel and looked back to see the person who punched me standing behind me holding a knife pointed at me.
I threw the towel and asked one of the four assailants what was going on (I had by then started to talk with two of the four member group). I asked one of the persons I was communicating with to be close to me since two of their gang were very violent. Two of the gang had taken out all the files from my husband’s chest of drawers and were going through them. I was asked about the valuables in my parents’ side of the house.
I said I did not know. When they asked to go to that side, I asked them not to hurt my parents and my daughter and told them that I will cooperate.

When we entered my parents’ side, the fifth member of the group was standing at the door to my father’s room. I showed them my mother’s wardrobe, which is in my father’s room. They asked me for the key.
I said I did not have it and asked them to break the lock, which they did. They said that they would stab my father if he woke up and made a sound. At that moment my father woke up and one of the gang members tried to stab him. I jumped near my father and asked him to remain calm since I was there with him. I asked the gang members not to harm him since he did not make any noise.

It was then that my mother came out of her room to go to the bathroom. She was pushed to the wall and a knife held to her neck. Once again I asked my mother not to panic and asked her to sit down on my father’s bed. I told the gang members that they had agreed not to harm anyone if I cooperated.

One of the violent members in the group slowly made his way towards my mother’s room with a knife at hand. Since my 10 year old daughter was sleeping in the room I followed him along with one of the members I was communicating with.

My daughter had woken up to the noise. I stroked her head and asked her to go back to sleep saying I was there with her. She asked me what was happening and I said that the house was being searched. She wanted to know where her grandmother was.

I asked the gang to allow my mother to be with my daughter. After much begging they agreed. Despite this, one of the gang members held a knife to my daughter’s neck and asked her to tell them what her parents’ jobs were.

They asked her not to lie, saying her parents would be assaulted if she did not speak the truth. Unable to bear the shock and fear, she started to cry.

I asked the gang what they were after since they were threatening even my daughter. The person who was conversing with me then said that they were carrying out a contract. “Understand that this is a contract given to us.

We were asked to take stuff from your house and to take care of you,” he said. He added that whatever is taken from my house would be given to the person who had contracted them and they would then get their promised share. They asked me where my husband was and what time he would return. I said he would return in the morning.

At 4.30 a.m. I heard someone knocking on the door. I continued to talk to the gang members fearing that my husband might be attacked if they realized he had returned. After a few minutes I asked the person who was with me why they were not leaving if they had got what they wanted. He then asked one of the gang members to “ask what’s to be done?”

Finally, closer to 5 a.m., one of the gang members said they had taken too much time at my place and said “let’s finish it off.”

I was standing in my father’s room and they were walking towards me when I heard footsteps outside my father’s window. The assailants then shouted that it was the police. I later learned that my husband had dialled the emergency line after noticing something had happened.

The gang then ran to the front of the house and broke the door in the hall and the door in the veranda. When the police entered from the front, the gang ran to my father’s room to run out through the back of the house. A policeman who had entered my father’s room was pushed to the ground by the gang trying to escape.
The policeman fired a shot in self defence and I asked my father not to move. I ran to my mother’s room, locked the door and asked my mother and daughter to remain calm. After a few minutes of chaos that felt like ages, there was silence.

My husband came and knocked on the door and I helped my father into my mother’s room. I asked my mother to lock the room door and open it only if my husband or I asked them to do so.

A large number of police officers in civvies and in uniform were in the garden and they managed to arrest the five persons who broke into the house. A grenade that is believed to have fallen from one of the gang members when they were trying to escape was found near the back wall of the house.
The incidents that have taken place in the last few weeks have been horrific to say the least. I am now constantly being asked why I want to continue doing what I do.

Having honed my skills in journalism under the guidance of the late Lasantha Wickrematunge, the last paragraph of the editorial published on The Sunday Leader issue of January 11, 2009 (following his death on January 8, 2009), I believe has the answer: ‘If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted.

Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried’.

A Word Of Appreciation
A word of appreciation has to be extended to the police officers who acted promptly on that Saturday morning. Four police officers who entered the house first were stabbed by the assailants while they were trying to escape. One officer sustained severe stab wounds. It was the quick action of the police that resulted in all five members of the gang being arrested within a few hours.



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