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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.