Following book review is based on the book titled, Eliyakanda Torture Camp (K-Point) authored by Rohitha Munasinghe, translated into English by Badraji Mahinda Jayatilaka
| by Prabath Sahabandu
( May 28, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Eliyakanda looks a crayoned picture on a cerulean canvass. Its rugged, wind-ravaged bluffs rapidly descend to a craggy shoreline and a restless sea shimmers like an emerald in the setting sun. The Dondra lighthouse towers in a distance above dense palm tops majestically against an azure sky parading skeins of playful cumulus. Rumbustious children gambol and paddle in the foam-filled shallows heedless of calls from their anxious mothers. Young couples reluctantly furl their parasols which have hitherto shielded them from the prying eyes of inquisitive passersby, slowly rise to their unwilling feet, brush the powdery sand off their crumpled raiment and fade lithely into silhouettes.
A weary township readies for its nightly rest.
Matara is quite an eyeful at any time of the day. Yet, it looks so much prettier when swathed in moon rays pirouetting on the perky ripples of comely Nilwala. Nothing pleases a southerner more than a nightly stroll along the flaxen seashore while everyone else is in a blissful slumber.
On moonlit nights Eliyakanda beckons. But, behind its magnificent façade lies a dark secret unknown to many.
It was while motoring up the Eliyakanda ascent recently on a balmy night close to the witching hour that the reviewer, all of a sudden, remembered something horrible revealed in a book sent to him months back by an expat Sri Lankan author who had been a victim of torture.
Rohitha Munasinghe's Eliyakanda Torture Camp (K-Point) is a first person narrative of absolute horror; he shocks us with a gripping story of his harrowing experience in a torture chamber on Eliyakanda towards the tail end of the JVP's second abortive uprising (1987-1990) which plunged the South into a bloodbath.
A sense of guilt began to prick the reviewer's conscience; he shouldn't have waited so long to write about that wonderful book about a bloody conflict and its disastrous fallout which he had had a ringside view of as an undergrad.
Munasinghe's story begins with his arrest by the army in the aftermath of the capture and execution in captivity of the founder leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Rohana Wijeweera in 1989. He tells us about the 'extraordinary rendition' of him and other JVP suspects to the Eliyakanda Killing Point (K-Point), where they were all tortured and some of them put to a violent death.
Munasinghe gives the reader a tour of the dreadful torture camp, where suspects are clubbed to death and burnt. In appallingly squalid cells diseases carry off quite a few bags of bones.
Suspects captured and brought to the K-point at the height of JVP terror were less 'fortunate' than Munasinghe. None of them returned home. They were subjected to far more savage forms of torture. One method was to insert a piece of rusty barbed wire into a suspect's rectum with the help of a PVC pipe, which is then taken out, causing him to die a slow, agonising death.
Munasinghe, who cut his teeth on politics as a young JVPer but became disillusioned, uses his narrative, especially the section thereof dealing with his stay at a rehabilitation camp prior to his release, to discuss some socio-political issues. However, his book does not shed much light on the heinous crimes the southern terrorists perpetrated against hapless civilians caught in the nutcracker of terror and counter terror. Not that he has chosen to prescind that aspect of the conflict. Arguably, he could have used the K-Point as a peg to venture far afield and survey some broader issues from the point of view of a disillusioned ex-revolutionary and victim of state terror. Perhaps, he could still do so––maybe in a sequel to the present book.
Death-dealing JVP sparrow units armed with an assortment of weapons like luparas (shotguns with shortened barrels), galkatas (locally produced single-barrel guns) and T-katas (sawn-off T-56 assault rifles) and small firearms unleashed hell. They ordered boycotts, work stoppages and protests at gunpoint and dissent was suppressed in the most brutal manner. Unarmed civilians who dared exercise their franchise in defiance of the southern terrorists' calls for polls boycotts had their heads blown off or limbs severed at the hands of JVP death squads, some of whose victims were burnt alive.
Trade unionists who defied JVP orders were gunned down in broad daylight. Finally, Wijeweera's shock troops became so cocky with the Premadasa government begging for negotiations and the economy teetering on verge of collapse that they trained their guns on the family members of the police and the armed forces. The rest is history.
However, Munasinghe takes a critical look at the fate of the children the JVP craftily lured into joining its ranks and used to put up posters and deliver the much-dreaded 'chits' ordering the closure of shops etc. Young boys who were captured and brought to the Eliyakanda camp were sexually abused by soldiers almost every night, he tells us.
The shocking account of children's suffering reminds the reviewer of a piteous sight he witnessed more than twenty years ago in a far-flung part of Ratnapura. He was part of a media team which, together with some Opposition heavyweights at that time including Chief Minister of the Western Province Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and SLFP MPs Mangala Samaraweera and S. B. Dissanayke, dug out a mass grave on the mist-clad summit of Suriyakanda, which came to be dubbed the Mountain of Death.
The skeletal remains of over one dozen schoolboys from the Embilipitiya Maha Vidyalaya, abducted, tortured, murdered and buried were found in a deep pit. Bootlaces used to truss up the victims were still there. The exhumation proved to be a tedious task. Dusk was falling with a thick blanket of fog enveloping the mountain top. We had to return to Colombo for the night.
We headed for Suriyakanda the following day. At several places near Pelmadulla, where we broke journey, we found rotting corpses removed from nearby cemeteries and dumped on the roadside by pro-government thugs as a warning to us. Worse, cattle bones had been put into the partially dug up mass grave. However, digging continued without any untoward incident and more human bones were found; all of them were taken to the Embilipitiya Court under magisterial supervision and subsequently sent for forensic examination. On our way back, one of our vehicles came under gun fire. Luckily, nobody was hurt.
The killers of the students including some military personnel and a school principal were arrested, tried for murder and sentenced to jail.
Eliyakande Torture Camp has an interesting account of a meeting between some Ruhuna undergrads occupying the Matara Teachers' Training College converted into a university hostel and Munasinghe during his visit to the abandoned torture chamber two decades later. They tell him that the place is haunted and they have heard some strange noises emanating from that place at night.
It must have been a strong desire to come face to face with the Eliyakande ghosts that prompted the reviewer on his nocturnal ride to pull over near the former Teachers' College and step out in the dead of the night. But, much to his disappointment, he heard only the mournful howl of a lone canine in a distance, and the wailing of coniferous trees around. Maybe, the spirits haunting the place were publicity-shy. Or, they were so mistrustful of the cynical scribe that they were wary of making an appearance like the harassed, resentful phantom in Oscar Wilde's beautiful story, Canterville Ghost.
Munasingha's book looks somewhat hurriedly written. It must have been a cathartic experience for him. However, he has narrated his story forcefully. Badraji Mahinda Jayatilaka, a multi-faceted personality, is no stranger in Sri Lankan literary circles. He is fluent in English, but as for the translation in question he is not at his literary best. This usually happens to some good writers when they undertake translations or other writing assignments and race against time to meet deadlines. Perhaps, he will be able to improve the text which needs some tightening and cleaning, when the next edition is put out. However, his prose facilitates the swift flow of Munasinghe's narrative.
Overall, Eliyakande Torture Camp is a very good read which casts a lurid light on a dark period in Sri Lanka's post Independence political history.