As the dead of the Kebethigollawa tragedy were laid to rest in a mass grave amidst the wails of loved ones, we can only ask ourselves...

Reports from Athula Bandara and Rohana Chandradasa

The CTB bus, packed with children, women and men had travelled 25 minutes into its 45 minute- long journey from Talgaswewa to Kebethigollawa last Thursday morning, when it was hit by a terrorist mine in one of the cruelest acts perpetrated against innocent civilians since the 2002 ceasefire agreement.

It was not a routine ride, for some on board, who were heading for the funeral of a homeguard killed in Vavuniya, the previous day in an LTTE attack. For others it was a routine journey with many women and children heading to the Kebethigollawa government hospital to attend the clinic. Others were headed to the main town to attend to their daily chores.

The villagers had requested a large bus because many of them wanted to attend the funeral and it was packed well beyond its full capacity, with more than 160 passengers in it.

The bus was passing Vihara Halmillewa when it was hit by two explosions within seconds of each other. More than 58 of the passengers lay dead and scores of others injured. Eight more died in hospitals bringing the death toll to 66. Eight of the seriously injured were airlifted to Colombo. Among the dead were 15 children, 17 homeguards , 23 women and two Buddhist monks.

An army route-clearing patrol was reported to be on the road the same time the bus was travelling. The bus is reported to have overtaken the army patrol. It was these soldiers who rushed to the scene to rescue the passengers and take them to hospital with the help of villagers.

The attack was the biggest against a civilian target, since the Dehiwela train blast that claimed about 70 people in July 1996. The government, other political parties and several foreign nations were quick to condemn the attack

Terror spares no one

President Mahinda Rajapaksa along with the North Central Province Chief Minister Bertie Premalal Dissanayake, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his Secretary Lalith weeratunga visited the Kebethigollawa hospital and the Anuradhapura hospital later in the day to condole with the families and to see that assistance was provided to the affected families. The President assured the villagers that they would be provided with more security. He also reaffirmed the government’s commitment to usher in peace. “Whatever savage and barbaric acts the LTTE may indulge in, we will never allow our search for peace to be derailed,” the President said in a condolence message.

Government defence spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said the attack carried all the hallmarks of the LTTE.

However, within hours of the incident, the LTTE denied any responsibility. Condemning the attack, the LTTE called it "senseless violence used for political ends.” The group also said acts targeting civilians cannot be justified under any circumstances.

The LTTE also charged that Sri Lankan armed elements who have intensified their attacks on Tamil civilians for political ends for having begun targeting Sinhala civilians with the aim of blaming it on the Tigers.

Final resting place: A mass grave

But their claims appeared to have been ignored by both local and international organizations as well as foreign countries.

The villagers who were the first eye witnesses to the gruesome sight of bodies strewn all over the place soon overcame their shock and horror and started to rush the injured patients in tractors to the Kebethigollawa Base hospital. Soon Security force and police personnel arrived on the scene and began transporting more of the injured along with the dead to the Kebethigollawa hospital.

With the news of the explosion reaching the villagers, distraught family members rushed to the two hospitals to see if their loved ones were among the dead and injured.

It was inconsolable grief for many who found bodies of their relatives laid out in rows

in the make shift mortuary at the Kebethigollawa hospital.

Some of the more fortunate ones found their loved ones injured but alive.

The government soon made arrangements to fly in journalists from Colombo to the scene of the blast. Many of them broke down. It was especially difficult to see young survivors crying out for their dead mothers and mothers wailing near the bodies of their dead children.

A silent salute Pix by Dinuka Liyanawatte and Berty Mendis

Thirteen year old Palitha Kumara was one of the lucky ones who survived the attack, but he lost his mother Somawathie. Palitha was travelling with his parents and two sisters to visit his uncle in Kachchakodiya, he said.

Describing the terrible moment, Palitha said as the explosion hit the bus, the driver along with many others fell unconscious. The bus then went off the road and came to a halt on hitting a culvert.

Palitha along with another friend had managed to jump out of the bus and hid themselves out of fear, for a while before running to get help. They were later taken to hospital to get treatment.

Bandula Gamini of Handagala, who was injured in the blast, said he had boarded the bus along with his wife, mother-in-law, brother in law and son around 7.15 am. “I only remember hearing a deafening noise. When I got my senses back, a baby was crying and there was mayhem all round. Fortunately my wife and child had survived but brother in law died,” said Bandula breaking down.

Home guard N.Dissanayake said that he was on his way to his nephew’s funeral, a fellow home guard killed by terrorists. “There were many homeguards and their relatives, going for the funeral. We got in at Yakawewa.

There were about 75 passengers who got in with us. As the bus reached Kongolla there was a loud sound. I was on the footboard and when the bus turned over I was pinned under it but I managed to escape,” he said.

After the incident many villagers have started to leave the area in fear of further attacks. Piyal Karunatilleke a staff member of Kebethigollawa Maha Vidyalaya said the people had been living in fear for some time. “They were afraid there was inadequate security, but the police said we had nothing to worry. Now this tragedy occurred despite several police and army posts,” he lamented.

The government is providing cooked food for the affected families and it has assured the people that they would be provided with dry rations for a month while security has been beefed up. But the villagers wonder for how long would they be provided with extra security. Sixty seven of the passengers on the bus had been from the village of Yakawewa. A two month old infant lost his mother in the explosion. A young man lost eight members of his family and in some instances the whole family was wiped out.

As the dead were laid to rest in a mass grave, the sounds of wailing of their loved ones filled the air.

Death toll now 66

The death toll in the Kebethigollawa claymore mine attack has risen to 66, with two more deaths reported from the Colombo National Hospital, in the past two days.

Of the nine injured people admitted to the Colombo National Hospital, one died on Friday and the other last morning. They were identified as Premawathi (50) and Senanayake (35), Hospital sources said. Meanwhile, at the Anuradhapura General Hospital, 65 patients are still receiving treatment.

Hospital Director Dr. Lakshman Gamlath said, of the 84 patients admitted, those with head injuries were transferred to the Colombo National Hospital. He said, in the aftermath of the blast, 43 patients had to undergo immediate surgery and they were recovering.

Those who were admitted to Kebethigollawa Hospital have been discharged or transferred to other hospitals, The Sunday Times learns.


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