I have been a torture victim not for hours or days or months but for years. It started in May 1989, worsened by the end of the year and was slightly better in mid-1990 but continued until late 1992, the time I was freed after an enforced rehabilitation.
Member of the JVP since 84
I had been an activist of the People’s Liberation Front (JVP) since 1984. After the party was banned unfairly, the JVP converted into a militant movement in early 1986 and resorted to violence on the path to power. The party conducted robberies, attacks, torture, political killings and attacks against the military, paramilitary and police. Who started the violence is immaterial; the government, opposition, leftists, police, military, paramilitary, public service as well as the JVP added fuel to the fire.
By the end of 1989, the annihilation of JVP was imminent. Almost all its leaders were executed illegally. Most of them were arrested, grilled and then shot dead. Its leader, Rohana Wijeweera, was tortured and killed.
Arrested in May 1989
I was taken into custody along with a group of activists in May 1989 in Matara. During that time the emergency regulations did not function since President Ranasinghe Premadasa had discontinued them. He held negotiations with the LTTE and wanted to settle the insurrection in the south as well. One of my colleagues arrested with me was a student at the University of Ruhuna. He was immediately freed due to student protests. The other three people, including myself, were sent to the notorious Eliya Kanda torture centre.
The infamous Eliya Kanda camp
Eliya Kanda was not a legal detention place. It was run by the army intelligence of the Matara district military command, which was headquartered in the Matara Fort. It was initially managed by a team of 4th Light Infantry led by a captain who was soon promoted to the rank of major. The commanding officer was a notorious sub lieutenant. The military used torture methods such as hanging people either by the legs or thumbs, beating with bludgeons, electrocuting and sinking heads in water tanks.
The shopping bag torture
There was a young lance corporal who wore green batik shirts. He recorded statements from the suspects after electrocuting them. He invented shopping bags as torture equipment. He took a couple of shopping bags, put them over the head of the suspect and held the mouth of the bag tight under the chin so it was airtight. After several breaths in and out, the man starts to suffocate. The torturer released the grip only when the suspect says, “I will say”. He improvised this gadget using several drops of petrol inside the shopping bag.
Survived due to young age
I was severely beaten as soon as I was taken there: my ear drum was split. I was kept handcuffed and blindfolded. My ear was infected and I covered it with a piece of cloth torn from my sarong. There was a greenish-grey sticky clump of pus. I can still smell the stench of my wound in my ear. I was young and healthy and with time the wound naturally healed, saving my hearing.
I was blindfolded for about eight months continuously. The piece of cloth was removed only for eating and washing the face. The whole day I was handcuffed to another person and in the night, they created a human chain in the hall to prevent us escape. All had one of their hands handcuffed to another man’s leg and the leg of the other side handcuffed to another man’s hand. Nights were sleepless and painful.
Hidden in abandoned toilets till they die
The number of prisoners increased day by day. They removed me from the main hall and put me and several others in a small room with handcuffs fixed to a chain fitted into the wall with a metal ring. People were hidden in abandoned toilets and they soon disappeared.
4th Sri Lanka Light Infantry
The 4th Sri Lanka Light Infantry team that manned Eliya Kanda was cruel and the next team from Gampaha who replaced it, which belonged to the 6th Artillery, was also brutal.
Eating was part of the torture
They continued to torture more prisoners. The men who sat on the floor of the main hall handcuffed and blindfolded were not allowed to lean to the wall. People had to do everything including eating and going to the toilet at double speed. From morning until night, the military kicked, punched and beat people with blunt bludgeons and hoses without any reason. Eating was part of the torture and prisoners had to hurry and swallow their food. They were relentlessly beaten while eating sitting on the floor. Many choked but the military did not care. By dinner time they were often drunk.
The toilet was a pit. The two pieces of concrete slabs were dragged apart to make an eight inch opening for you to urinate along with five others. Whether you had finished or not or washed or not, you had to move forward.
The mango torture tree
There was extreme physical exercises such as forward roll, backward roll and running with heavy weights such as tree trunks on our shoulders. If a man could not continue, he was beaten and forced to climb a mango tree. The military threw stones at him and forced him to climb further up. One man fell from the tree and broke his limbs. He was dragged into an abandoned toilet and died there after a few days of loud screams that sent shock waves through the camp.
Killings became normal
Soon, the killings were normal. They killed men during the daytime and dumped the bodies in the backyard near a gutter into which the prisoners urinated at night. The bodies were taken away in the night in a yellow double cab. The same vehicle transported the officers and food for the camp from the kitchen of the Gemunu camp in the town.
Tied to a chain with dead bodies
By the end of 1989, the camp housed over 200 men in every room, toilet, kitchen, shed and a few thatched huts surrounded by barbed wire. Smallpox, measles and a deadly diarrhea epidemic erupted; death was everywhere and life was sheer luck. The chain to which I was handcuffed was unfixed and diarrhea patients were attached to it. Naked men lived day and night near the toilet pit. Dehydrated men died in the chain and the others dragged them to the toilet pit when they wanted to use it. The chain was hell but still some people survived.
During this time, a bombardier discovered that a man could fall unconscious when the back of the neck was hit with a blunt stick. When hit hard, a man could die, so they did it carefully. Men collapsed and were injured but became conscious after a few seconds.
Habeas corpus by the family
My family had filed a habeas corpus and Matara police obtained a detention order for me. They said that I had been detained by Matara police, where I had never spent even an hour. I was never produced before court although my family was urged to withdraw the case. Another person arrested with me faced the same situation and he disappeared from Eliya Kanda after a few months despite the habeas corpus.
ICRC changed the situation
The situation changed only when the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) started to visit the camp. Before they came, the military hid the majority of the prisoners in other places. I had a detention order and was shown to the ICRC. We managed to convey what was happening and one day the ICRC team raided the camp and found the hidden people. All of them were registered by the ICRC. Killings decreased and many people were sent to Boossa detention centre.
When the LTTE breached the ceasefire agreement in 1990, the government wanted to shift the military forces from south to north and east. The army decided to shut Eliya Kanda and the prisoners were transferred to Weerawila prison in Hambantota District. I was sent with them although I had not initially been selected to go. Around 40 hardcore rebels were handed over to the police and all of them simply disappeared. I was supposed to be with them and only sheer luck saved me.
Courtesy of Groundviews.