The Sunday Leader

The Big Bang Theories

  • Rising from the ashes of the Salawa Armoury Disaster

by Ashanthi Warunasuirya

While a large number of Sri Lankans were battered by a double dose of natural disasters in the form of floods and landslides caused by torrential rains, another devastating man-made disaster wreaked havoc in a populated part of the country when one of the key armouries that belonged to the Sri Lanka Army in Salawa, Awissawella, exploded.

Before being converted into an arsenal of deadly weapons and explosives, the Salawa armoury was a storage facility belonging to the Timber Corporation. In 1994 the premises were brought under military control on the instructions of the Defense Ministry.

Investigations into what caused the explosion are still being carried out by the military. Sharing his experience on that fateful day, one army officer said that suddenly a fire had started on the side of the building and they had tried to put out the fire using water.

According to him, within a short time, bombs had started to explode inside the building and the soldiers had fled outside carrying whatever weapons they could save. The devastation caused by the explosion cannot be described in words. Most of the houses situated near the armoury have been reduced to ashes. Even houses situated as far as 4km to 6 km were slammed by bits of shrapnel. When the explosions were going on, many residents had fled towards Colombo leaving everything behind. The actual property damage has not yet been properly assessed. According to reports, only one person died from the explosions. The deceased was an army corporal who had been stationed in Killinochchi and had arrived at Salawa that day with his commanding officer to hand over some inventory.  Apart from that, several soldiers have been injured in the incident. However, the residents of Awissawella who live near the army camp have become enraged over this incident. They had objected to the setting up of an army camp in the vicinity even in 1994. This time they are determined on stopping the armoury from being re-opened. They have also demanded compensation for the damage caused to their properties.

Meanwhile, the usual uncivilized conduct of certain elements has once again been displayed in this incident as well. While the residents were fleeing for their lives, some of their houses were robbed by looters. At present the area is placed under heavy military guard.

Intelligence units of the tri-forces as well as other criminal investigation units have now been deployed to investigate the matter. However, questions remain as to how such devastation occurred and why the government allowed such an armoury to be stationed in close proximity to a densely populated area. Following are some of the comments made by intellectuals and civil society representatives addressing these pressing concerns

 

Brigadier Jayanath Jayaweera

Military Media Spokesman 

The Security Council has taken a decision to move the ammunition storage facilities to un-populated areas and it has been passed down to the three forces commanders for implementation. But it will take some time as the specific lands have to be allocated for that then the construction of the ammunition dumps and the security aspect all have to be taken into account. It’s a somewhat long process.

In the case of people’s houses apparently being looted, when the fire erupted the police and the STF gave general security coverage to that area, while the army troops engaged in controlling and dousing the fire. It was the STF and the police who were in charge of the security in that area and if the people’s houses had been looted then they need to go to the nearest police station and lodge a complaint.

 

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South now feels the North’s pain

Brito Fernando – Chairman, Association of the Disappeared

I remember there were demonstrations and protests against the setting up of military camps in populated areas and the threats they pose to the safety of the residents in those areas. This danger has now been proved by this incident. It is now clear how dangerous setting up these armouries near populated areas is. On the other hand, a military must possess weapons. But the government must be wise enough to set up military camps in suitable areas where public life is not threatened.

Now even the Rajapaksa faction is claiming that it was engaged in clearing these armouries. The same is said by the new administration as well. That means this is the extent of damage that takes place after three years of ‘clearing up’. Once an incident has taken place, the best excuse used by everyone is that they had engaged in the clearing process.

Others try to analyse this from a psychological aspect, blaming it on the mental stress of the soldiers. Some have even charged that these are the results of the government’s recent steps taken to investigate illegal deeds and assassinations that had been carried out during the previous regime.

On one hand I have to admit that I have a frivolous sense of joy by seeing this. I think the southerners now feel what the people in the north felt for decades. They lived in constant fear of explosions. They ran for their lives and sought refuge inside bunkers. They saw their loved ones die in front of their own eyes. Even for a brief moment, the same was experienced by the southerners in this incident. When they asked for mercy, we cooked milk rice. This is not something that should have happened. At least now the people must understand how evil and disastrous war is.

Clearly, the responsibility lies with the government to look in to the matter and take necessary steps to prevent this from repeating in the future. As civil society organisations, we have not yet had the time to discuss the matter at length. This is an important topic for social dialogue.

In the north, the government set up military camps in the past by grabbing the lands of civilians by force. If something like this happens in the north, the damage is going to be far more severe. So we are vigilant of the new developments in this incident.

 

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This could be used for political agendas

Ranjith Vithanage, Chairman, Organisation for the Protection of Consumer Rights

Although days have passed since the incident, those affected have not yet been provided relief. The government must take action to immediately provide the necessary relief to these people. Every time, the majority of the facilities and relief provided to the public are only confined to mere circulars and press releases. If the camp had been set up there with the involvement of the government, then it is the government’s responsibility to take care of things. It is thus bound to provide relief to the affected people.

At present the government has failed even to properly distribute flood relief to the affected people. They are still battling with circulars. The place this armoury had been set up was initially used as the storage facility of the Timber Corporation. This is not a suitable place for an armoury. There are many issues regarding this matter. The government must do something about this soon. In general the people are still living in a disastrous situation.

Politicians may try to use this as a scapegoat for their political agendas. But that is not going to benefit the people. The government must compensate the losses incurred to life and property from this accident. It must find houses for the displaced. We have personally requested the government to initiate the relief effort as soon as possible.

We can only see this as an extension of the present government’s irresponsible conduct. At least now the government must take steps to move these armories away from populated areas. This is an injustice caused to the entire Sri Lankan population. We would continue to urge the government to mitigate it.

 

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Five years for impact to wear off

Thilak Kandegama, Environmentalist

The military must not station themselves near civilians. We cannot deny the necessity of weapons for an armed force. We have faced a threat to our sovereignty and territorial integrity. There are conflicts going on both locally and internationally. Separatists are biding their time to make their move. Even the international community is trying to reap benefits by putting us in trouble. At a time like this our armies must remain strong. There is no debate about it. But the military must be careful when setting up their armouries in the middle of a populated area. If by some misfortune an explosion does takes place, someone has to be held responsible. Everyone was just boasting about the war victory. No one was thinking about the potential threats involved in setting up armories in populated areas. Either naturally or artificially, the damage has been done. This gave a clear picture to the people in the south what it was like to be in a war zone. The entire area has been vaporised. After this the people would fear even to travel near an army camp.

Hence the wisest thing to do now is to look in to the causes of this incident and take steps to prevent any future disaster from happening. There must be careful consideration in the future about the establishment of military facilities. There are ample places where these weapons could be safely stored. There are acres of government land that are uninhabited. Soon, the people in the south, like their northern brethren, will urge the government to move these military camps away from their neighborhoods. If that happens it would create a big problem for the government. Now the government must find out how this disaster took place. Imposing of mere punishments will not suffice. An armoury must be established in an area where weapons could be transported easily. To prevent electricity leakage, the army must be careful not to even install live electricity wires in the area. Light could be obtained by using battery operated flashlights.

The environmental pollution caused by this devastation cannot be undone for a long time. The water in the area has become contaminated. The lifestyle of animals has become disrupted. The government may compensate for the loss of people’s property but what is going to happen to the destroyed lives of animals? This is going to cause the circle of nature to break down. There will be no fruits growing in trees for some time. So it will take a long time for things to fall back to normal. It takes at least five years for a tree to grow. So I think it will take at least five years for the impact to wear off.

 

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Shift armouries to safer areas

Gamini Viyangoda, Social Activist

Military facilities such as armouries have to be established as far as possible away from populated areas. But unfortunately in Sri Lanka there are no such traditions. For a long time now we have been used to the system where a politician or a high ranking official decides something and that is carried out without further question. There are countless examples of such decisions going wrong. We saw how irregular constructions increased the damage caused by the recent floods. Everything happens for a reason. This is no exception.

An armoury is a sensitive construction. An explosion in such a facility is not only going to pose a threat to the environment, but also to the lives and property of those who are living in the vicinity. Luckily no civilian casualties were reported this time; the situation could have been worse. What happened here was giving prominence to military needs. Here, it overrides all other necessities. We are only talking about an exploded armoury in the South. How many military camps have been set up in the north based solely on military purpose? During the past, lands of civilians were snatched arbitrarily to build military camps. Later they were called ‘High Security Zones.’ Civilians were chased away from these lands. These people have been living in refugee camps for over 15-20 years. This was not felt by the people in the south.

But since the incident has now happened in the south, it has attracted massive interest. I’m not saying that we should not be sensitive to this matter. But when similar things happened in the north, those did not receive such focus. There is a difference in treatment. But the same feelings are generated in the people whose lands and loved ones are lost.

Maybe the rulers at that time thought that military need was more important than timber. In a war the needs of the military takes prominence. This was carried out in the north and south alike for many years.

As the war has now ended, at least now we must take action to correct these mistakes. The duty of the Army in war has now come to an end. Hence the troops must now be confined to their barracks and the armouries shifted to areas that are not harmful for ordinary citizens.

An armoury must also be built to the proper standards to prevent any harm from being caused in the event of an explosion. There must be no haste like in the war days. I’m not aware of the exact reasons that caused this explosion. Once the inquiries are concluded, steps must be taken to redress the lapses.

 

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Society must be re-structured

Dr. Tudor Weerasinghe

The 30 year war has affected the entire social lifestyle in Sri Lanka. For a long time it was subjected to severe militarisation. In order to cater to the needs at the time, military camps and armouries were built in many places in the country. There was no major objection from the public to it. As the country was being dragged through a brutal war against separatists, the people expressed their support to the Army. Therefore there was no social dialogue against the setting up of armouries in populated areas. After war, every society must be re-structured for a new way of living. We can see similar stories in other countries. It’s the government’s responsibility to initiate such transformational schemes. This disaster is a result of the delay in transforming in to a new society. So the authorities should at least now consider moving these stashes of weapons away from populated areas. We cannot say that these are totally unwanted products of war. For the future safety of the country and its inhabitants, the Army must be well equipped. But what is important is maintaining them properly during peace times.

This is not the first time these kinds of tragedies have taken place. No one can totally guarantee that this won’t happen again. But we must do our best to prevent them from
happening.

 

1 Comment for “The Big Bang Theories”

  1. gamarala

    An explosion and fire can cover up a lot of missing items. Grenades and guns are being used in robberies and assaults, how were they obtained. Illicit arms fetch good prices in the underground international arms trade.
    If the armoury was patrolled regularly inside and out the fire should have been snuffed out when it started, using extinguishers which surely would/should have been available.

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