Report from the school of death: In Sri Lanka, a gruesome discovery - pits full of the bodies of missing boys and for a father, the end of four years' searching. reports Tim McGirk

Tim McGirk
Sunday 18 September 2011 09:59

Sisira Kuma Gunaratne is a practical man. He works on bulldozers at a sugar plantation in southern Sri Lanka, and if an engine breaks down he is comforted by the logic that it failed for a reason and can be fixed. But the horror, the irrationality, of what befell his 19-year-old son, Nalin, and 31 other schoolboys at Embilipitiya Central College, defies his comprehension.

Four years ago, they were abducted by army soldiers and never seen again. The parents believe that a vindictive school headmaster is to blame for the disappearance of most of the boys and their deaths.

Mr Gunaratne, believed that he could find his son within the machinery of the state security much as he would repair a bulldozer, by methodically working through the system, checking part by part. He and the other families wrote 541 letters to government officials, starting with the local magistrate and going up to the then president, Ranasinghe Premadasa. Nobody replied. The families searched the island for their sons, spent their life savings and, when all else failed, consulted Buddhist soothsayers.

Then, nine days ago, the boys' families were tipped off by human rights activists and opposition groups as to the exact location of three mass graves on 4,500ft Mount Sooriya, a place of mist and rainforests. The graves were in an abandoned police camp. When Mr Gunaratne heard of this macabre discovery, he set off immediately. Dropping his tools at the sugar plantation, he ran home to fetch a piece of striped cloth that matched the sarong Nalin had worn that night in January 1990 when eight soldiers came to the house and grabbed him.

The informant had directed the search party to a wide ledge near the top of the mountain. Not long after they began digging through the tall lemon grass, their shovels unearthed human bones, torn blue school uniforms and ballpoint pens. It was known that the soldiers had snatched some of the 31 schoolboys of Embilipitya right out of their classrooms.

The diggers only cleared a shallow depth before, gagging, they abandoned the exhumation. Finally, Mr Gunaratne spotted what he had been looking for - and dreading. Mixed in with the jumble of bones was a sarong identical to his son's. He reeled dizzily at the edge of the windy mountain grave.

'Four years I had waited, and I immediately felt it was my child. I wasn't able to reconstruct my thoughts. My mind was scattered to pieces,' he recalled. 'If these boys hadn't done anything wrong, why should they be killed? Why?'

The government claims these bodies, some as young as 14, were dumped there by the Communists. But whoever dumped the bodies on Mount Sooriya could only have done so with the connivance of the army and police. Few newspapers dared to report the discovery of the corpses. Chandrika Kumartunga, a member of the opposition Sri Lankan Freedom Party, who led the search on Mount Sooriya, received death threats, and one of her colleagues woke up to find a skeleton propped against his front door as a warning.

Today, Sri Lanka's beaches teem with British and German tourists. But, until as recently as 1991, the same white sand beaches were often used to dump corpses, shot or necklaced with burning tyres. It was enough if your face did not happen to agree with a policeman at a checkpoint. Or, if someone at work wanted your job, it was a simple matter to have you denounced as a Communist and soon you disappeared. It was a time of shame and terror that many Sri Lankans have found convenient to pretend never existed.

Most of the missing youths attended the Embilipitya Central College where the headmaster, Dayananda Galappathy, is alleged to have exercised the capricious power of life and death over his teenage students. A vain, middle-aged man with a smug, perfect smile who wraps his long hair up from the sides to hide his baldness, the headmaster often strode around the college carrying a pistol and a hand grenade. Army officers were under orders to purge the schools and universities of rebel supporters. The parents allege that the headmaster used this licence to arrange the execution of at least 18 students for the pettiest reasons imaginable.

The parents suspect that the headmaster ordered the abduction of at least five boys simply because they ridiculed his son, a student at the college, who had dropped a love letter intended for a girl he had a crush on. The boys found the letter and read it aloud in class, mockingly. Shortly after, all the boys were hauled off by soldiers for interrogation and vanished. So did the girl's boyfriend. One former student, Wimal Piyasaman, was in the classroom when the headmaster burst in. 'He threatened us. He said the same thing that happened to the others would happen to us if we didn't stop bothering his son.' Several students who slapped a friend of the headmaster's son at a cricket match also vanished soon after.

Investigations by human rights groups reveal that few, if any, of the students picked by the headmaster for execution were genuine Communists. The government privately admits this. A United Nations inquiry into human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, conducted in October 1992, was told by the government that these '31 students were not suspected of being (Communist) supporters' and that 'the detentions were carried out for other motives, possibly personal'.

Knowing that the headmaster had army connections, some parents initially turned to Mr Galappathy to secure their missing sons' release. 'We soon realised our mistake,' said one mother, bitterly.

Mr Gunaratne's son was targeted through plain bad luck. Nalin approached the headmaster for a job recommendation. It was his ill fortune that he returned to college, after a six-month absence, on a day when the headmaster was convinced that the Communists were trying to assassinate him. Nalin fell suspect, and soon after was abducted. Three days later, when Nalin failed to reappear, the father checked back with the headmaster, who at first pretended not to know him.

The case of the 31 missing Embilipitiya schoolboys was one of the few atrocities commited during the security forces' terror campaign against Communists that ever came to light. Nobody knows the exact toll, but more than 30,000 went missing beween 1988 and 1991. In 1993, Judge Soza, a state-appointed human rights investigator, implicated seven army officers, including a colonel, as well as the headmaster in the Embilipitiya disappearances. So far, none has been punished, and the colonel was elevated to brigadier.

Once the 6th Artillery Unit pulled out of town, the headmaster became a hollow tyrant. The students jeered and often pelted him with stones. He was transferred to Ratnapura, a provincial town. Several journalists and I barged into his office and confronted him with the charge that he had arranged the murder of his students. At first he answered every accusation with a wide, smug smile. Then he allowed that his lawyer had advised him not to make any statements. 'I'm an innocent person,' he said, finally. 'I wasn't involved in this.' The ex-headmaster is in line for a promotion.

Few Sri Lankans and diplomats believe that anyone will be punished for killing the 300 or so bodies found on Mount Sooriya. Although President Premadasa, who unleashed the repression, was himself assassinated in May 1993, his United National Party remains in power. As one diplomat explained: 'The killers are still around. Every army and police officer above a certain rank was involved in the disappearances.' Ominous signs are surfacing that the same dirty tactics are being used again by the Sri Lankan security forces.

Up on the mountain, when the shock died down, and the wind blew the thoughts back into Mr Gunaratne's mind, he kept asking himself: Why was my child killed? Why? 'What can we do? We have no arms. We can only weep and tell the world about this crime.'

(Photographs omitted)

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