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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Sri Lanka: Bodies on beaches, deaths in queues

BY Ruki Fernando and Jayani Swaris

Alongside deaths in queues, there were alarming reports of dead bodies washing up on beaches, with at least 11 such incidents reported this year. There have also been reports of dead bodies being found in other public places, such as at a roadside in Mount Lavinia, under a bridge in Kolonnawa, and in a railway compartment in Rambukkana.

The fear of such dead bodies is also in the context of tragic memories of bodies being found floating on rivers and on roadsides before, especially during the late 1980s when incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe was a Minister and the present Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa’s father, Ranasinghe Premadasa, was the Prime Minister and subsequently the President.

The most recent dead body found on a beach was on 5 August, in two fertiliser bags, on a beach near the Colombo suburb of Wattala, with the hands and legs tied. One was of a child whose body was found in Waikkala in the Puttalam District, with the Police investigating whether it is the body of a child thrown into a river by a mother attempting suicide in Wattala, in the Colombo District.

All the others have been adult men, with one being a Maldivian. One body has been found in the Kalutara District, while nine have been found on beaches in the Colombo District. Four were found from Wellawatte, and one each has been found on the Bambalapitiya, Wattala, and Mattakkuliya beaches.

Two bodies washing up on Colombo’s Galle Face beach, the epicentre of the peoples’ uprising which overthrew former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and others in the ruling Rajapaksa clan including Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ministers, led to fear. These two bodies were washed up on the Galle Face beach on 29 July and 1 August.

Many wondered whether this was yet another warning signal to protestors, as days after new President Wickremesinghe was sworn in, emergency regulations were declared and the midnight attack on the Galle Face protest site and many arrests of prominent protestors took place.

Significantly, the first 16 days of the Wickremesinghe Presidency have been marked by the discovery of four dead bodies on beaches in Colombo City and six deaths in fuel queues. Along with the other widespread repressive actions, this raises serious doubts about the new President’s and his allies’ promises of economic and political stability.

Queue deaths 

Earlier, specifically since March 2022, long queues to obtain kerosene, petrol, diesel, and liquid petroleum gas (LPG) have been seen across Sri Lanka. The country is experiencing the worst economic crisis in history and the inability of the Government to finance fuel imports has worsened the situation. Time spent in queues gradually extended from hours into days. Stories of people literally camping out on the roadside became common on social media. The economic crisis, political instability, the people’s uprising, and the Government’s attempts to crush protests and dissent were accompanied by regular media reports of deaths in fuel queues and dead bodies washing up on beaches.

During the period from 19 March to 31 July, 27 deaths in queues and deaths associated with queues were reported in the media. That is an average of one death every five days. Five deaths each were reported in March, April, and June, and 12 in July.

Such deaths were reported from six of the nine provinces in the country. More than half of the deaths (14) were reported in the most-populated Western Province (six cases from the Kalutara District, three from the Gampaha District, and five from the Colombo District). Four deaths from the Puttalam District in the North Western Province, four deaths from the Central Province, three from the Galle District in the Southern Province, one from the Vavuniya District in the Northern Province, and one from the Trincomalee District in the Eastern Province have been reported.

All the deceased have been men. Many of the deceased were found to be senior citizens. Five were 60 to 65 years of age while another five were between 70 and 85 years. Ten were between 40 and 60 years of age and six were between 18 to 40 years. Deaths of young adults between 19 and 40 years were due to accidents or violent behaviour.

One death was of a man transporting a cooking gas cylinder to a cooking gas outlet, while all the others were at fuel stations or connected to fuel queues. The majority of the deaths were reported due to illnesses including heart failure. The vulnerable, including the elderly and the sickly, who were compelled to line up in queues in desperation, succumbed to various ailments.

As some people, including the Police, tried to “jump the queues” and engage in other irregularities to obtain fuel and gas, tempers rose among those feeling aggrieved and those being denied privileged access that they had often been used to. As weariness and anger set in and desperation increased, tensions became widespread and three deaths in queues were reported due to violence. Long queues led to massive traffic blocks and roads being closed in order to accommodate the long fuel lines, and three deaths in queues have been reported due to accidents.

Deaths due to heart failure or of heart patients

On 28 March, an 85-year-old who was suffering from heart disease and had come to obtain fuel in a van died while being taken to the hospital from a fuel station in Athurugiriya. On 9 April, a 47-year-old driver who had come to get fuel for a bus from a fuel station on the Dankotuwa-Negombo Road passed away after collapsing due to a heart attack. On 10 April, a 51-year-old driver was found dead in his vehicle at a fuel station in Waikkal (Wennappuwa) due to a heart attack.

On 16 June, a 53-year-old three-wheeler driver who had been waiting in a queue for several hours at a fuel station in Wekada, Panadura, was reported to have died inside the three-wheeler due to a heart attack. On 29 July, a 71-year-old was reported dead after being admitted to a hospital in Gampola after suddenly falling ill while waiting in a fuel queue in Pussellawa due to a heart attack.

Deaths due to sudden illnesses or exhaustion linked to queues

On 20 March, a 70-year-old who had been waiting in a queue to get petrol at a fuel station in Kadawatha died due to acute exhaustion brought on by the scorching heat. On 19 March, a 70-year-old  in a queue to purchase kerosene in Kandy; on 21 March, a 76-year-old  at a fuel station in Meerigama while loading filled petrol barrels into his three-wheeler; on 11 April, a 43-year-old at a fuel station in Tawalama, Galle, inside the driver’s seat; on 27 April, a 55-year-old in a kerosene queue in Hatton; and on 28 April, a 63-year-old in a kerosene queue in Kalutara were reported to have died due to sudden illnesses.

On 23 June, a 63-year-old who had waited in the fuel queue for five days in the Batagoda area in Anguruwatota, Kalutara; on 5 July, an individual in a fuel queue along Tickell Road in Borella; on 7 July, a 60-year-old  in a queue at the Bambalapitiya Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC) fuel station; on 7 July, a 63-year-old at the Payagala LIOC fuel station; on 12 July, a 44-year-old at the LIOC fuel station in Bandaravannian Square in Vavuniya; on 14 July, a 37-year-old on his way from a fuel queue near the Chilaw-Kurunegala Road in the Munneswaram area; on 22 July, a 59-year-old  at a fuel station in Kinniya, Trincomalee; on 22 July, a 70-year-old at a fuel station in the Mathugama, Pelawatte area; and on 31 July, a 51-year-old  at a fuel station in Gampola had all died suddenly.

Deaths in queues due to violence and accidents

The first of three deaths reported in queues due to violence was reported on 20 March at a fuel station in Horagolla, Nittambuwa, in the Gampaha District. The deceased was a 29-year-old who had been stabbed to death following a dispute that night while waiting in a queue for fuel.

On 8 July, a 25-year-old was killed and four others were seriously injured in a brawl between two groups at the Laugfs fuel station in Magalle in the Galle District. On 25 July, a 40-year-old had been murdered after being attacked with a sharp weapon at a fuel queue on Castle Street in Borella in the Colombo District.

Three deaths due to accidents connected to queues have been reported. A 19-year-old had been run over by a container truck while he was waiting in a fuel station queue to get petrol for his motorbike at the Pandulagama fuel station on the Puttalam-Anuradhapura Road on 24 June.

On 29 June, a 53-year-old had been knocked down by a lorry in Dharga Town, Aluthgama, when he was preparing to leave the fuel station in Dharga Town, Aluthgama. On 31 July, a 41-year-old met with an accident while walking to a nearby shop from the fuel station in Meetiyagoda.

Medical opinions

In an article by The Morning, Karapitiya Teaching Hospital Consultant Psychiatrist Dr. Rumi Ruben was quoted as highlighting several main causes for deaths associated with queues including those due to heart attacks as being the result of psychological stress, the lack of nutrition, hydration, and medication.

Dr. Ruben further stated that stress and uncertainty could be experienced when waiting in line for hours or days. As per Dr. Ruben, the possibility of suffering a heart attack in such situations is high. Sri Lanka College of Sexual Health and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Physicians President Specialist Dr. Chitran Hathurusinghe opined that these deaths should be considered homicides.

(Fernando is a human rights activist, trainer, and an Executive Committee Member of the Free Media Movement. Swaris is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Society and Religion)



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