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Sri Lanka's forgotten massacre

Mass grave in the village of Palliyathidal

By Andrew Hosken
Today programme, Colombo

For one rural village in Sri Lanka, the scars of the 30-year civil war will not be easily overcome.

On 15 October 1992, the small fishing village of Palliyathidal became the scene of one of the worst massacres suffered by any community during the 30 year Sri Lankan civil war.

In just four hours, eyewitnesses in the village say, some 285 men, women and children, around a third of the population, were killed by a 1,000 strong force of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers.

At the time, the Sri Lankan military stated that at least 160 people were killed by some 150 attackers.

'We saw the Tamil Tigers armed with guns and knives (machetes). I heard them say 'we will kill everyone and then celebrate in your mosque'," says Pitchathambi Ishabdeen, the local shopkeeper.

"I was lying among six bodies. Lying in their blood."

Forgotten massacre

Mr Wellalebbe Mudalian, the village leader
Everyone was buried together - parts of pregnant women, parts of bodies and children.
Wellalebbe Mudalian, village leader

The killing in the village known by Tamils as Palliyathidal (Palliyagodella by the Sinhalese) has been largely forgotten; no one remembers a visit from any journalist.

After the massacre, the village was abandoned for three years and a road reaching it was not built until more than decade later. It appears on few maps in Sri Lanka.

The conflict, which ended with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers more two months ago, has been portrayed mainly as a fight between Tamil separatists and the Sinhalese majority in control of the government.

All but 40 of the victims of the Palliyathidal massacre were Muslim; the rest were Sinhalese.

All three of the main ethnic groups in Sri Lanka - Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim - have been victim of atrocities in a conflict which has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives.

In 1992, the village stood in the way of the Tamil Tigers' brutal campaign to ethnically cleanse parts of northern and eastern Sri Lanka which they wanted as part of their state of Tamil Eelam.

Despite decades of close relations between Muslims and Tamils, the LTTE began to see the Muslims as outsiders who supported the Sinhalese majority.

In October 1992, Palliyathidal was one of 17 Muslim villages in the border region of the northern part of Sri Lanka controlled by the Tigers. The villagers feared they were being used as a buffer between the LTTE and Sinhalese communities.

Children in the village of Palliyathidal
There are hopes that upcoming elections will reunite Sri Lanka

On the night of October 14th 1992, around 500 Tamil Tigers, allegedly supported by armed Tamil civilians from nearby villages, surrounded Palliyathidal. The attack began with explosives at 4 o'clock the following morning.

Security forces had advised villagers to go straight to the mosque in the event of any attack and blow whistles for armed protection. This played straight into the LTTE's hands.

The defending force of 12 policemen was quickly killed before the Tigers started to massacre the civilians.

They threw grenades into the mosque killing around 40 people and slaughtered another 240 people with machetes and guns.

Forty-five children were among the victims as were pregnant women and their unborn babies. The LTTE called off the massacre at 8 o'clock when army helicopters arrived.

Completely destroyed

The villagers were first awoken by the sound of explosives shortly before Morning Prayer.

The police had long anticipated an attack and said they would alert the village as soon as it began.

Pitchathambi Ishabdeen, local shopkeeper who lost four members of his family in the attack
I was lying among six bodies. Lying in their blood.
Pitchathambi Ishabdeen, shopkeeper

"The police had told us they would make a sound and then everyone should gather in the mosque," Mr Ishabdeen told us.

"We heard that sound, so half the people rushed to the mosque but others didn't."

Most of those who did as the police advised died; others who fled into the surrounding paddy fields and forest survived.

Abdul Hamid Anwar was 11-years-old at the time of the massacre. He described how his family were woken by gun shots and rushed to the mosque. His mother and brother were killed when the terrorists threw grenades into the building.

Wellalebbe Mudalian, the village leader, told us how the attackers massacred the approximately 200 people - women, children and pregnant mothers - in the area outside the ruined mosque.

When the killing was over, the Tamil Tigers used their machetes to cut down coconuts and drank from them before retreating back into the jungle.

Mr Mudalian led us to the rough ground by the mosque where villagers, according to Islamic tradition, buried their dead the same day.

"We started to bury the bodies but they were completely destroyed," says Mr Mudalian.

"Some bodies were missing heads; some people were burying their mothers, their fathers, their brothers.

The fishing village of Palliyathidal
The massacre was part of a Tamil Tiger campaign of ethnic cleansing

"Everyone was buried together- parts of pregnant women, parts of bodies and children.

"Normally we would dig separate graves but we used machines to dig long pits. We had no choice."

The hope is that the Sri Lankan communities forced apart in the civil war can be reunited in forthcoming provincial elections.

But some villagers say they can never forgive the Tamil people for the events of that morning.

Others, like the shopkeeper, Mr Ishabdeen, say the defeat of the Tamil Tigers and its leadership at the end of the May does provide prospects for peace.

"Now Tamil people are very friendly," he says.

"Muslims, Sinhalese people and Tamils can all move freely. After the massacre, there was no peace. Now that the LTTE have been defeated we can take our cattle to those places we couldn't go in the past.

"Now we are happy - we have no fear."

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