Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Eye witness account of the killing of the fisherman in Chilaw

By Janaka Liyanarachi and Nilantha Madurawela | Sunday Divaina

This article is a translation of a story appeared in the Colombo based Sinhala language Newspaper "Sunday Divaina" on 04th of March, 2012

You can’t grow anything in the Egodawella Village. Salinity is high in the soil. Therefore the only way the people of Egodawella live is by fishing.

Now we are near the Egodawella church. We are with a youth who is standing quietly looking at the small houses around us. In the soft light of the evening people are going and coming out of the church. Suddenly a man speaks to the youth who is with us.

“Who are these people?” he asks. The youth replies “they said they are from the newspapers.”

The man smirks. “Ah! From the newspapers!” “Have you’ll come to see if we too have died?” he asks.

We waited quietly. People started gathering in the church grounds. The youth turns to us and says, “Sir. Not one newspaper has written about what happened to us. Not one TV station has showed it. All of these people are now angry with the media. Didn’t you’ll just come from Anthony’s (the murdered fisherman) house?”

I nodded my head. W. Anthony Fernando was the fisherman killed during the fishermen’s protests on Februrary 15th in Chilaw (main northwestern town - 72.3 km/44.9 miles from the Capital Colombo). The way the incident was reported, it painted a picture in our minds that the death was due to the police firing live bullets, in response to an outrageous mob that had blocked roads and destroyed public property in Chilaw. However only when we went to Egodawella did we understand that the police had fired on unarmed fishermen who were simply preparing to go to Chilaw to protest. We shivered when we realised that the police had not only killed a man, they had also not allowed the people to leave their village and caused a lot of terror in the village.

Three people had been shot. One in the shoulder, one in the stomach and one in the head. Anthony was the one shot in the head. The discoloured stain of his blood on the ground had not still not been erased. The people had put a white flag on the spot where he fell and died when he was shot.

A youth came up to us and asked, “Can you write about our story?”. He added, “I am asking you this question because we told everyone who came here our story. Yet no one has written about it. We are now tired of telling everyone what happened to us. Don’t think badly of us but now we are very angry. If you’ll have come to just listen and go then there is no use. People are being shot. Innocents are being killed. Yet we have no way of telling anyone how they were killed. There are rumours going around that if we tell our story a white van will come and take us (to disappear). What can we do?”

I replied, “We will definitely write your story. I give my word. Just tell us what happened.” After that the youth spoke to us with more confidence.

“My name is Vijaya Warnakulasuriya . Write that I am a worker in the fishing industry. It was on the 13th (Februrary), it was that day that the government increased the price of kerosene oil by 35 rupees. People don’t understand our story. 2500 fishing (one day) vessels go out to fish per day, in the dutch canal zone of the Egodawella village. One vessel uses about 50 litres of kerosene a day. Before the increase our expenses for kerosene was about 1800 rupees. And we found it very difficult to make ends meet. Can you imagine what will happen when in an instant our expenses rise to about 2800 to 3000 rupees?”

“We decided to protest against this because we decided not to die in hunger. We came to this church and we talked about it. There were no politicians there. It was only the village people who got together. And it was the village people who took the decision. The father (priest) in the church told us that he will be with us throughout our struggle. We informed all the fisher community societies in the surrounding villages the 14th we had a protest march in Chilaw Town. We asked that this unfair price increase not be imposed on us. It was a very peaceful protest. The busses went on alternative routes and we did not block any ambulances, school van or doctors vehicles from getting about. We did not destroy any public property. In the afternoon we finished the peaceful protest and went home. We decided we needed to protest again the next day as we had not got a solution to our problem.”

I intervened and said, “but by this time the government had intervened and promised you all a subsidy.”

“What nonsense Sir! What subsidy? Do you know how many times the government has promised us subsidies and fooled us? We are tired of government promises,” said a youth.

I asked him, “ There are fishermen all over the country. Not just in Chilaw. There are thousands of fishermen in the south, north and east, yet not one of them have got on the streets. How come it is only the Chilaw fishermen that cannot bear the price increase?”

A man who had until now been sitting silently next to me, shouted at me saying, “You don’t know what is happening to the people of the north and east. Don’t talk about things you don’t know. The fishermen of the north and east cannot even go to sea because of the Indians. No body takes care of the fishermen of the North and East – no body looks at them. If there is one group that is worse off than us it is them. The people of the south at least have coconut trees. They can sell coconuts and live. We only have the sea. When we are unable to fish what do you want us to do? Eat sand?”

Another youth intervened and calmed him down, saying “Right, Right now let Vijaya tell the story.” Vijaya continued:

“On the 15th we gathered at this church and we were discussing what should our next steps be. We had called fishing societies from all over the province that day to come and join us. The fishermen of all these societies had not gone to sea but were gathering in the neighbouring village of Rideewella to join our protests. Therefore we were planning a big protest. The priests of the churches said they will be with us.”

“When we were having these discussions on how to proceed, we got information that the police had come and started beating the women of Rideewella. We rushed toward Rideewella. When we got there, the police had blocked off the roads with barriers. They had even brought “buffle” vehicles and there were hundreds of army and police carrying weapons surrounding us. I had only seen so many armed forces on TV when they showed the battles of the war (in the north and east). They were treating us like we were trying to take over the country. We were only asking to reduce the price of kerosene.”

“On one side of us we had the police and armed forces with their weapons drawn. On the other side of us was the sea. The only thing between us and the police and armed forces were the priests. We went towards them. They tried to calm us down and they were at the same time talking to the armed forces asking them to be calm as well. Then our people got a little restive. Then suddenly the police started shooting tear gas. Three tear gas canisters we threw back at them. Then there was canister like object that was thrown at us. When on of our boys when to pick it up to throw it back, it burst in his hand. His stomach and hand were injured.”

“After the tear gas they started shooting at us. We started shouting ‘please don’t shoot us.’ But they continued to shoot us. People started screaming and running all over the place. The first person to get shot was Anthony who got shot in the head. We could see him bleeding. Even after they shot him, they (the armed forces) didn’t let us go near him. Anthony’s nephew and other relatives ran toward his body. But they didn’t let them near. In front of us all they kicked his body and trampled it. They beat up the relatives who were trying to get his body. The relatives withstood this and finally managed to get to his body. The relatives dragged Anthony’s body from the melee and got a motorcycle and took him to hospital.” “We could not take the other three people to hospital because all the roads were blocked. Finally we had to take them by boat through the sea route to the hospital. They are still in hospital.”

“We suspect say that the police and armed forces had planned to kill one of us to strike fear in us. We didn’t have any bombs. I swear this is the truth. Yet the police said we had petrol bombs. It is true the people started throwing stones after they heard Anthony had died. They threw stones at the magistrates house. But all of this happened after the police started shooting. After they killed a man and didn’t let us go near the body.”

“Yet the government said the police were forced to shoot because the NGO’s had aroused the crowds against the police. This is total lies. Yet who are we to tell our problems to? Even the Fathers (priests) who said that they will be with us to the end – even they are isolated now. When the leaders of the Catholic church have got together with those who shot at us and left us adrift, what are we to do? Every word I have said is true. If you want you can go and ask those who were injured. They are still in hospital.”

The youth finished speaking. We had nothing to say. We only thought that we were standing in a front of the magistrate’s bungalow where an innocent man was shot and killed. We are in a country where the police present false evidence against him. We are in a country without courts. Can there be a country without courts? We left the Church and went to the hospital.

There was a youth lying there with his arm injured. We did not know when he would be able to regain its use or return to work. We asked him, “do you remember how it happened?”

His young wife who was standing next to him looked at us with fearful eyes. Then when she saw the youth who had come with us she calmed down. The injured boy started speaking. He said, “We were in the church. We only went to the place where the shooting happened because we heard that the people of Rideewella were being beaten up. When we went there, there were lots of police. The only thing between us and the priests were the priests. One Father was pleading with the police, saying ‘sir we are not going to make any trouble. Please let us have this peaceful protest.’ Yet the police did not listen. They started shouting at the Father and pushed him until he fell. When the people saw what the police did to the Father, they got agitated. Then the police started firing tear gas. Because the tear gas was so strong I left the area and went towards the sea to wash my face. When I came back the police had started shooting indiscriminately. I too got shot. We started pleading ‘don’t shoot.’ But they continued. They didn’t let other people get near the injured. It was with great difficulty that someone got to me. Then they could not take me to hospital because the roads were blocked. The people somehow got me here by boat.”

After hearing that we had no more questions to ask him. We understood that was being destroyed was peoples dreams and futures as well.

© Sunday Divaina

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