The Sunday Leader

The Cry For Water At Weliweriya

By Nirmala Kannangara in Weliweriya
Pictures by Lalith Perera

Sri Lanka is legally bound by international human rights treaties to respect and protect the right to life and provide effective remedy when this right is violated. However, questions are being raised as to whether the government is abiding by these laws or whether they are limited only to paper.

Following the August 1 mayhem at Weliweriya which killed three people and severely injured more than 40 villagers reportadly, residents of Weliweriya and its neighbouring villages are pointing their fingers at the government for sending barrels of live ammunition instead of barrels of drinking water.

It is alleged by Rathupaswela villagers that the government had taken steps to safeguard the interest of Dipped Products PLC, a subsidiary of Hayleys Group of Companies.

When the villagers of Weliweriya and 12 neighouring villages reportedly came to know that their natural water resources have been contaminated due to untreated waste chemicals discharged by Dipped Products PLC- Vinigros Pvt Ltd, they made an appeal to the government to shut the factory and provide them with clean drinking water.

Meanwhile, the villagers were reportadly aware that there are containers of hard toxic chemicals within the Venigros Factory premises and wanted the authorities concerned to carry out a check to ascertain whether it is these chemicals that have contaminated their natural water sources. As a result the Ven. Therippahe Siri Dhamma Thero from the Galoluwa Temple commenced a fast unto death in front of Vinigros Ltd.

According to villagers, when the pressure was building up against the Vinigros factory, they realized that the factory would remove all their hard chemicals ‘to show that they do not use them in the rubber glove manufacturing process.

“To stop them taking these toxic chemicals out, Ven. Therippahe Siri Dhamma Thero started a fast unto death in front of the factory’s main gate on July 27 demanding the government to send a team from relevant authorities to hold an inquiry as to how the factory disposed their waste and to check what the toxic chemicals they are using.

Instead of sending a team for a probe, the government announced that the factory will be closed for two weeks to which Siri Dhamma Thero agreed to call off the fast unto death protest on August 1 without realizing that the government wanted to disperse the crowd from the factory gate to pave the way for the Vinigros Management to remove containers that allegedly carried toxic chemicals immediately out of the factory,” alleged one villager who requested his name be withheld.According to villagers, these containers were removed soon after the fast unto death protest was called off and the protestors dispersed.
According to the villagers, a majority of them had voted to bring the ruling party into power and were supportive of the war.

“We were happy as we were part and parcel of bringing this regime into power to crush the LTTE and always had a high esteem for the heroic security forces especially the Sri Lanka Army for bringing peace to the country. That is why we held an annual blood donation camp to donate blood for our ‘friends’ in the army,” said the villagers.

When The Sunday Leader visited Weliweriya for the second time last week, white flags were fluttering all over. Pictures of Akila Dinesh, Ravishan Perera and the victim from Gampola were displayed all over. The villagers were yet to come to terms as to what happened to them when requested for clean drinking water.

An eye witness who was in the forefront in the protest meanwhile recounted what exactly happened on that fateful evening.

“While we were protesting in Weliweriya we came to know that the army had manhandled the protestors who were blocking the Kandy Road. By this time two protest marches came from two opposite direction to Weliweriya and joined us demanding the closure of the factory and for clean drinking water. By this time two army motor bicycles came to Weliweriya and went back. We assumed that they came to find out the Weliweriya situation for the Brigadier who arrived after a while.

While we were waiting for the army’s arrival, the Weliweriya police were with the protestors discharging their duties peacefully. Around 5.30pm army troops started approaching us but suddenly they stopped for a while in front of the Weliweriya police. It was then only we saw as to how they were breaking branches from the Kottamba tree which was in front of the police station,” said the eye witness who wished to remain anonymous.

According to the sources, when a Brigadier came and told them that the factory had decided to close down for two weeks and that the government had decided to provide pipe borne water to the villages within 1 ½ months, the protestors decided to disperse but had wanted 30 minutes to inform the decision to those who had gathered in their numbers.

“When we amicably decided to disperse and began to remove the tents, the Brigadier who was able to convince the protestors received a call to his mobile and was talking with the caller for a few minutes. This very same army officer, who was all smiles a few minutes ago, suddenly came back shouting at one of the protestors who was having a club in his hand. When he was shouting at the boy, the protestors who were far behind thought that he was manhandling the boy and started hooting at the officer,” he added.

The Brigadier got offended. According to the sources, the army had first fired into the air.
According to him, once the army started firing live ammunition, most of the people ran to St Anthony’s Church for safety.

“A religious place is holy and no one would enter such a place to kill even an insect. But the army did not consider such beliefs but came running to the church chasing the protestors firing all over. Then one priest wanted the army to stop shooting, but the army blamed him for giving refuge to the protestors”.

He further said as to how he saw the army washing the blood stains on the roads after cordoning off the entire area.

“Around 12.30 midnight I saw the army washing the roads. Early morning next day, they collected the ammunition that were strewn all over the roads and washed the blood stains in the church corridor as well,” he said.

The 18-year-old Ravishan Perera was to sit for his A/L examination with many hopes to do his higher studies so that he could provide a comfortable life to his parents who are labourers but had to bid good bye before achieving his target.

Ravishan’s uncle said as to how they searched for Ravishan on that fateful day when he got late to come after tuition classes.

“When Ravishan got late his mother called him to find out where he was. The son said that he is fine and promised to come home around 8pm. Since the boy did not return, the mother called the son once again around 8.10pm. He said that he was in Heraliwatte and would be coming soon. When she called for the third time there was no answer although the phone was ringing. We did not sleep that night as Ravishan did not return.

However the next morning we came to know that our son had been shot the previous evening. When his mother went to the Gampaha hospital, his name was not in the admission list. She had then been directed to the Watupitiwala hospital and from there to the Colombo Accident Ward. When she went to the Accident Ward, her son was in the ICU on the life support machine. It was on Sunday early morning when a soldier came and broken the bad news to the mother,” said the uncle.

According to him, although the family had gone to the police morgue to take the body on Sunday morning, it was not released till 7pm until Akila’s funeral was over.

“The government is giving everything to the dead but nothing to the living. About two or three critically injured people who were bleeding profusely were kept under arrest by the Weliweriya police. We saw how injured people were dragged from the town to the police. It was the church priests and Buddhist clergy who came and got the injured released from police and sent them to the hospital. Anyhow the army learnt a good lesson that they did not learn either from the Katunayake Free

Trade Zone protestors or from Chilaw fishermen. After the incident around 10pm people started throwing stones at the army who were patrolling the town,” Ravishan’s uncle said.
Meanwhile, The Sunday Leader visited a house, which the army has allegedly entered by force in search of protestors and had smashed their toilet.

“They came and wanted us to open the door. Since we did not, they broke the main door and came inside and started assaulting with rifle butts. As there was a boy hiding in the toilet they smashed the toilet as well,” said one of the victims. She further said that her six-year-old son gets high fever every evening due to the mental trauma he had undergone.


I will not allow Hayleys factory to open: Therippahe Siri Dhamma Thero

I won’t allow the Hayleys factory to start their operations in Rathupaswala again, Ven. Therippahe Siri Dhamma Thero said.

According to Ven. Siri Dhamma Thero he has received many threats from unknown parties but added that it is a shame for the Police Department to provide security for the factory that has contaminated water in 12 villages but not given any protection for him for standing by the people.

“I am not scared of facing death if our villagers get a solution. They are attacking those who asked for their rights,” said Ven. Siri Dhamma Thero.

Speaking further, the Thero said that he will wait another 1 ½ months to see whether the government will honour its promise – to provide pipe borne water to all the 12 villages that have been badly affected.

“These villagers are very poor as most of them do odd jobs for their survival. In such a backdrop, they cannot give money for water connections. So we request the authorities concerned to give water connections free of charge to these villages. In addition, we want this glove factory to be closed immediately. Now the government will come to us with various certificates confirming that this factory waste has nothing to do with the ground water contamination, but it was due to the acid in the soil due to chemical waste.

We will not accept any such report as we do know as to how the government is capable of meddling with the authorities concerned to get the reports in favour of the factory. So before these reports are released, we are saying that we will not accept any such reports. Please get your machinery removed and re-locate the factory where ever there are no human beings,” said the Thero.

The Thero further requested the villagers not to disrupt his protest if he starts it once again in the event the villagers do not get the water connection they were promised.

“Let those who do not want to participate in the protest leave those who want to protest. But do not come to disrupt our plans. I am a person with a strong back bone that would not bow to injustice,” added the Thero.

“We were blocking the gate without allowing the company to remove the said containers. Until I left the place after calling off the fast, the factory was unable to remove the containers. But I cannot comment on what happened afterwards as I did not see that. Anyhow we have appointed a team to visit the factory and find out what is going on inside and what happened there,” said the monk.


The pain of the injured

Some of the patients who are at Ward 7 in the Gampaha General Hospital narrated their tale woe to The Sunday Leader from their hospital bed. They allowed the cameraman to photograph them but the rest neither wanted to be photographed nor speak to us in fear of their lives.

Forty-three-year-old K. M. P. C. Perera, a retired army corporal, was shot on his pelvic area. The bullet had gone from the posterior to anterior damaging his hip bone.

“I was at the war front fighting terrorists for fifteen years. I was shot on many occasions while in the battlefield but those wounds are now healed. But here in Weliweriya, we were simply asking for drinking water and the army shot us and due to these wounds I am permanently disabled. The doctors say that I may never be able to walk again,” the former war hero said from his hospital bed.

Another, Sunil Joseph (54 years) was unable to raise his head for a while due to a blood clot in his brain.

Not only is he unable even to raise his head but also cannot consume food as he throws out whatever he swallows.

“He is on saline as he cannot swallow any food,” said a nurse in Ward 7.
“I made it a point to go to St Anthony’s Church every evening for prayers. As usual on this fateful day I went for my prayers around 4pm. Since there was an agitation building up in the town, I stayed back in the church till the protesters dispersed. Shortly after 6pm the protestors came running to the church for their dear lives. The army too came to the church chasing the protestors. No sooner the army came in they started firing to the lights.
“I was near the church bell and a soldier came behind and struck my head.
I was bleeding on the ground and that was all I remember.

When I gained consciousness I was lying on a pool of blood unattended. Later two young boys came and carried me to a three wheeler that was parked in a shrubland and brought me to the hospital,” said Joseph.
According to the nurse, since Joseph’s condition was critical with severe head injuries, he was immediately transferred to the Accident Ward Colombo.

“After a head surgery, the patient was sent back to Gampaha hospital but his condition is the same as there is a blood clot in his brain which cannot be removed immediately. He is being given medicine to dissolve the blood clot. Because of this he gets a giddy feeling if he raises his head and we are investigating as to why he throws out the food he takes,” said the nurse.

Twenty-two-year-old Chinthaka Perera from Weliweriya was seated on his hospital bed with serious injuries to his chest.

“I was on my way from office – a Japanese Company in Biyagama – when I was shot on my back and the bullet came out causing grave injuries to my chest. I fainted and when I gained consciousness, I was in the hospital,” said Chinthaka.

Supun Lakmala is a Grade 11 student in Siddhartha Vidyalaya Gampaha and was on his way back from his tuition class when he had to face this unfortunate incident.

“I heard the firing from the Church side and I immediately wanted to rush home. When I crossed the road to go to Embaraluwa Road, I was shot on my ankle. I somehow tried to go further with the bleeding injury but I fell down. A little while later two villagers came and took me to a three wheeler and brought me to Gampaha Hospital,” he added.

Lakmal’s mother said that it was when she called his son on his mobile she came to know that he had been shot.

“Since my son got late to come I kept on calling him. When I first called he told me that he is trapped and wanted me not to get frightened as he would come through the cemetery. Since he got late I called him once again and then I heard him shouting.

Then we knew that he was injured and we took a three-wheeler and came to the hospital. We had to take a long route to come to the hospital as the army did not allow us to go on the main road,” said the grieving mother.
She further accused the local government authorities for not supplying drinking water for them despite the many requests.

“For the places where their supporters live, water tanks have been kept but not in by roads. We were facing this problem over the past six months but did not know the reason for it. When this issue cropped up we took the water sample to the checking centres and we were told the pH level in the water is below 4.3 which is not suitable for consumption. If the authorities do not supply drinking water what else can we do other than using the well water which is unhealthy,” said the mother.

Himaya was on his way from Pasyala Bureau after paying money to go abroad when he had to face one of the worst situations in his life at Weliweriya.

“It was around 5.30pm when I came to Weliweriya. I was witnessing as to what was going on in the junction. Dinesh Aiya was amongst the protestors and I saw how the Brigadier came and assaulted him when the protestors were removing the tents to disperse. No sooner the Brigadier assaulted Dinesh Aiya the crowd who were about to leave the place started hooting at him,” said Himaya.

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