On the bloody trail of the gay journalist who gave his life to change Sri Lankan history

“Put down. Stand still.” A dead-eyed, 18-year-old soldier was pointing his AK47 straight at me.

As director Willi Richards and I had walked out of the hotel into eyeball-shattering sunlight, a presidential cavalcade of motorbikes, SUVs and armour-plated limos, with a bomb-proof ambulance bringing up the rear, hurtled down the street. I was carrying a case of recording equipment that the young soldier could indeed have mistaken for a bomb. I put it down and stood very still. It was my first time at the wrong end of a loaded machine gun.

Another day, Willi was getting cash from an ATM when a gun-toting soldier hustled him towards a small compound and locked him inside. The President was taking another trip around town. For His Excellency, this was a routine procedure in survival. For Willi, it was his first time in jail.

Helmand? Kabul? Darfur? No, the capital city of a Commonwealth country with the highest level of literacy in southern Asia and a reputation as a luxury tourist destination. Sri Lanka.

We were there to make a Friday Play for BBC Radio 4. Our company, Art and Adventure Ltd, specialises in international, location-recorded radio drama, but this production was turning out to be a drama in itself. It was perhaps to be expected. The play is an account of the life and death of the Sri Lankan journalist Richard de Zoysa, who was executed in 1990, probably by government death squad. Times, politics and administrations have changed in the past 18 years, but De Zoysa is remembered by many as the one person who could have changed the fortunes of this blood-stained island.

It was always going to be a difficult story to tell; though the main players in De Zoysa’s death are themselves dead, victims of bombs and assassinations, there are still people who would be happier if this story was not resurrected. We had to watch our backs.

There was also the matter of Sri Lanka being at war with itself. A ceasefire was lifted at the beginning of the year, and there were full-scale government offensives in the north to wipe out the Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE). Every major advance brought a reciprocal suicide bombing. There were five bombs in the capital, Colombo, during the time we were there, each with considerable loss of life.

The Sri Lankan government has banned journalists from directly reporting from the war front, and the foreign media, especially from countries that give a greater credibility to Amnesty International than does Sri Lanka, are unwelcome. But after we assured officials that we were not a cover for a human-rights organisation, foreign journalist visas were granted, introductions made and ways cleared for us to work untrammelled. The President himself even agreed to contribute.

This was all due to the efforts of Dr Rajiva Wijesinha, secretary-general of the Sri Lankan Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process. An erudite, Oxford-educated intellectual, he had been a close friend of De Zoysa in the 1980s, when they led a renaissance in the cultural life of Colombo. Rajiva wrote the book about him that was the starting point for our production, and he became our script consultant at conferences on the sea-blasted terrace of the Galle Face Hotel, always accompanied by his four bodyguards, discreetly watching over him in case the LTTE tried to assassinate him.

Our documentary drama is not concerned with the LTTE; it takes place at a time when the government of the day was at odds with the JVP, then an ultra-Marxist organisation to which De Zoysa was most likely allied. Most of its supporters were assassinated; the few who survived have mellowed into middle-aged, middle-class respectability.

Willi and I went to Colombo in April to gather testimony from those who knew De Zoysa. He was gay in a country where homosexuality remains unlawful, and this likely played a part in his death. Discussing these issues was difficult for some people. We were often asked to turn off the recorder; there were tears and breakdowns caused by 18 years of suppression.

We returned to Colombo in July to record the scenes we wrote based on the testimonies. We roared around Colombo on a trail bike as De Zoysa did; we did a scene in a swimming pool; we reconstructed his murder on the beach at Mount Lavinia in full monsoon.

We waited for three days on a two-hour standby for our interview with the President. The call never came. Sri Lanka was about to host the Saarc conference, the government was cruising around in cavalcades and the death of a journalist 18 years ago had dropped off the agenda. Not for the first time.

The Last Time I Saw Richard will be broadcast at 9pm on Radio 4 on 28 November.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
businessUber, Snapchat and Facebook founders among those on the 2015 Forbes Billionaire List
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
News
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst - High Wycombe - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst role...

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Sauce Recruitment: New Media Marketing Manager - EMEA - Digital Distribution

£35000 - £45000 per annum + up to £45,000: Sauce Recruitment: The Internation...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003