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In Deraniyagala – the terror was real


12 August 2013 03:59 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Disillusionment produces pain. We can be disillusioned about people, about friendships and relationships. Dreams and hopes can bring disillusionment. We can be disillusioned about politics, religion, about any branch of knowledge, about what we know and don’t know. And we can be disillusioned about geographical places, countries or cities, or the countryside.

I remember Deraniyagala as a place full of natural wonders. After a first visit about twelve  years ago, I was mesmerised, and returned to the area several times to hike in the wilderness. ‘Wilderness’ here is a synonym for sleepy villages scattered around the Maliboda area. This is where Puwakmal Ella, the first of seven fabled water falls, (‘Eli Hatha’) is situated. The source of all seven falls is Hithuwak Oya, which is fed by a tributary of the Kelani River known as Sitawaka Ganga.

" It was hard to believe that the entire Nooriya region was a terrorised fiefdom of a familiar phenomenon in Sri Lankan politics – a thug and criminal, who wins local political power and becomes warlord of his area ..."                          
Puwakmal Ella, a superb sight during the monsoon months and a tranquil, meditative place during the calm, can now be reached by car (though the final few kilometres are still heavy going) .When I first went there, only four wheel drives could manage the feat via this neglected tea estate road, along with tipper trucks carrying cement and crushed metal to a construction site overlooking the fall where a small power station was being built.

The remaining six water falls are in the true wilderness and require several days of trekking in the jungle, a feat I never managed as I lacked the time. Puwakmal Ella itself has few visitors because the route is so difficult. When I went there for the last time (two years ago) with some friends, a small group of young men were the only visitors apart from us.

In other words, it hadn’t yet turned into a crowded ‘scenic spot,’ the fate of many waterfalls throughout Sri Lanka after newspapers and television began highlighting them during the 1990s. In short, it remains idyllic. While the area is a maze of winding roads connecting it to important highways (Hatton and the Sri Pada region can be reached from here), the difficulty of access and undoubtedly the lack of a major site of pilgrimage locally ensures that the region has not yet attracted mass tourism, local or foreign. It’s a blessing because this is just about the only idyllic retreat in this country to remain unaffected by the vagaries of tourism and related commerce.
But, as it turns out now, life was anything but idyllic for the inhabitants of Nooriya, about 25 km to the northeast of idyllic Maliboda. The story broke out soon after the gruesome murder during the first week of July  of an aged tea Estate Superintendant in Nooriya.

The sheer brutality of the murder (the victim was mutilated) was shocking enough; the tale of horror, which came in its wake was even more so. It was hard to believe that the entire Nooriya region was a terrorised fiefdom of a familiar phenomenon in Sri Lankan politics – a thug and criminal, who wins local political power and becomes warlord of his area, waging war with small arms, psychological terror and insidious means.

Such characters sometimes have big ambitions and make it all the way to the parliament. But Atha Kota, PC chairman, ‘warlord’ and mafia boss of Nooriya, didn’t need such ambition, for what he had under total control was his own fiefdom where his word was law, with thousands of people (mostly Tamil estate workers) functioning merely as his slaves.

The gory details of his brutal reign, including illegal timber felling, appropriation of tea estate land, illicit liquor business and other rackets, have been written about profusely during the past few weeks, and there’s no need here for repetition. It’s terrifying to think of a populated region of Sri Lanka where the police were totally subservient to a local mafia (hence, law courts next to useless), where the laws were made by the ‘don’ (Atha Kota), with brutal punishment anyone who aroused the mafia’s wrath (the man had one house functioning as permanent torture chamber and another used for gang rape). Surely, the racial elements of this story should not escape anyone; Tamil victims would be naturally reticent about complaining to the police, and the police were part of the mafia in this case. Tamil estate workers here were thus no more than Atha Kota’s slaves.

And all this went on for fifteen years under the blessings of a national-level politician. It’s not the first such story I have heard, but the scale of this operation is nauseating. It’s to escape from such sordid realities that I chose to hike in this haven. But it’s both astonishing and depressing that I didn’t learn about Atha Kota’s fiefdom until the story broke out in the media.

" I have lived the better part of my life in a big city. It’s no stranger to terror (apart from regular bombs and mob violence, I have known  a friend to be abducted and killed "
Maliboda region, where I trekked, wasn’t part of this psychopath’s territory, but a couple of its villages were, and in any case it’s incredible that the inhabitants here didn’t know about what was happening so close to home (Nooriya is as close as ten miles if you take short cuts). I never met any Tamils during my treks, but many of this mafia’s victims were Sinhalese, too. Therefore, it was pure terror, not racial prejudice, which prevented anyone from telling me about Atha Kota.

I have lived the better part of my life in a big city. It’s no stranger to terror (apart from regular bombs and mob violence, I have known  a friend to be abducted and killed). Nonetheless, I can’t imagine this kind of terror, in this day and age of electronic communication instant feedback. I try to imagine Deraniyagala at night – small villages, a few small towns here and there, wilderness in between, totally dark, no major highway and not much traffic passing through. A dog’s bark can be menacing. It could Atha Kota’s henchmen. Going to the police would be suicidal. In that kind of atmosphere, even a whisper could mean cruel punishment and death.

The disillusionment isn’t merely with Deraniyagala. Like a tsunami, it threatens to engulf my total view of Sri Lanka. The idyllic part was in my mind. The terror was real. I know I shall return to Deraniyagala one day, but it won’t look the same ever again.

“But it’s incredible that for 15 years no one in any official capacity --  a conscientious PS member, policeman, opposition politician or activist, monk, grama sevaka, area correspondent, doctor -- thought of informing the highest levels, even if only anonymously, of this reign of terror. Possibly, everyone had lost faith in the system and thought only of their own safety. If so, that silence speaks volumes for what Sri Lanka has become over the years.”

  Comments - 1

  • Suren Sarathkumara Tuesday, 13 August 2013 05:16 AM

    Last paragraph of the article grabbed my attention more since such saying is not only relevant to this particular incident. The silence of the public about irregularities speak volumes of not only what we have come through, it also clears out where we are heading too.

    The government hospitals,.for example, has a fierce lack of medicine - a high proportion of medicine a patient need has to be bought from outside except for few common tablets. This practice is never complained about and talked broadly. People seems to accept this silently and make the money ready by some means before they go to the government free health care institutions. This will soon become an accepted norm and Sri Lankan free health care will gradually be fully off the table.

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