They found her 12 days after she went missing without a trace, following a routine visit to the Sunday fair in Kahawatte, on the 19th of last month.
The highly mutilated and naked corpse of Manel Jayanthi, 54, was discovered in a wooded area surrounded by a rubber plantation, deep inside Opata Estate, barely eight km from Kahawatte town.
It was the third death in three months, and as the news of the grisly find spread throughout the villages, fear and panic gripped the people- mainly tea pluckers and rubber tappers, who blamed the authorities for doing little in trying to arrest the chilling situation.
|No one dares to walk alone through the rubber estates.
Pix by Saman Kariyawasam
|The abandoned home of Karunawathie who was killed in April
In the case of Jayanthi, she was a spinster, living with her elderly father in the village of Niladura that borders Opata Estate on one side and the forest on the other.
Investigators found no compelling motive for the slaying, except that the two women murdered earlier in the previous two months, were also elderly spinsters, which gave rise to suspicion that a serial killer or killers were on the prowl.
In all three cases, the women were from the same area and had been killed in a similar fashion, the murder-weapon being a sharp one used to deal the fatal blow on the head of each victim.
What has baffled investigators even more is that, three years ago, there was a similar spate of killings and all the victims were spinsters living in the surrounding area.
“However, a man was arrested in connection with those killings and he is presently serving time, so the case ends there,” police said.“Therefore, the latest killings cannot be connected with the happenings three years ago. It appears that someone has become a copy cat,” they said.
The police may say what they believe, but the villagers have little faith in the authorities and are frightened out of their wits. As dusk falls, the entire area is a ghost town.
What is even more damning is that the suspected killer has been sighted by more than one villager.
One such person who is convinced of spotting the man is H.M. Rupika, a mother of one and a resident of Niladura. “This was about two weeks ago. Along with my family, I attended the funeral of a relative and we stayed overnight to help out in the morning. I was washing some cooking utensils when I felt the presence of a person. The stranger was dark in complexion, short with bushy eyebrows and scantily clad. He kept staring at me from the edge of the forest, with one hand placed behind his back, suggesting he was holding some object, may be a weapon, I do not know”.
“I screamed and rushed into the house. A large number of villagers ran towards the forest, but there was no one there. Later, the police was called in but the man had vanished,” Rupika recounted. “This is true. I am not making it up. That man was there and he was staring at me,” she added.
Her account is being treated seriously by the other villagers, with several other people hearing strange sounds at night, and sometimes activities inside their homes.
Today, nearly half the village has emptied, with people seeking shelter with relatives in the town and other areas, while there has been a near 90% drop in school attendance, with parents opting to keep their children at home.
Those who remain in the village do not venture out alone, be it male or female. They go in groups armed with poles, iron rods, flat irons etc. No one is taking chances, even in the daytime.
At night, the villagers sleep together in groups of 25 to 30, while male vigilante squads take turns to patrol the villages.
The spreading fear has also led to adverse affects in other areas such as employment and business.
“Most of the people are staying away from the rubber and tea lands out of fear, and therefore, they buy very little from my shop,” says grocer, P.G. Ajantha adding that it was not good for business, but the people cannot be blamed.
Another villager, Naina Deepali expressed concern that some villagers believe that an evil spirit was roaming the village, with some of them engaging in rituals at Hindu devalas to drive away this so-called evil spirit.
“This is not good, and what is even scarier is, if this kind of thinking is allowed to prevail, it will be a perfect cover for the real killer who could strike at any moment,” Deepali said.
Meanwhile, the village Civil Defence Force (CDF) that was disbanded at the end of the north-east conflict, has been re-activated to beef up security in the area.
N.M. Wijepala, who heads the CDF force at Opata Esate, said that, there are some 15 men on the State payroll and dozens of other volunteers. “The frightening aspect is that the killer or killers could be a member or members of the security forces, police, fellow villager, a self-appointed vigilante, or even someone from the CDF,” he said.
Running away from the ‘Buthaya’
Ms. T. Mohanasundari is a teacher at the local primary Tamil school, and today, she has a problem of a different kind, owing to what is happening around her.
She is forced to travel some 60 km from her parent’s home in Balangoda to school each day. A similar journey awaits her at the end of the day, and all this happened from the beginning of this week.
“All these months I was boarded with a family just metres away from the school in which I teach. But now the fear psychosis has driven the family to live with relatives in the Kahawatte town, and I followed them, since it is too scary to stay alone.”
Fear psychosis spreads its tentacles
At least six women sought treatment at Kahawatte Base Hospital, suffering from fright and shock, and at least two of them refused to return home, saying there was a man out there waiting to kill them.
The hospital’s Medical Superintendent Dr. Tissa Perera told the Sunday Times, that what was happening in that village was a serious issue.
“This is a condition that is difficult to treat because it is something to do with the mind.
The people, no doubt, have got the jitters, and it will take a lot more than just police and army presence in their village for them to think otherwise. The relevant authorities will have to address the issue accordingly, and without delay,” he said.
“This is also a matter that goes beyond education and literacy levels. For example, two lady doctors serving in this hospital are refusing to live alone in their quarters for fear of this so-called ‘buthaya’” he said.
“While one doctor has opted for accommodation elsewhere, the other has got her husband from Colombo to stay with her,” Dr. Perera said.
Village priest takes initiative
The priest at the village Buddhist temple is having sleepless nights these days, with villagers calling on him late at night, with stories of a serial killer and subsequent sightings of him.
Chief incumbent of the Dimbulwela Temple, Ven. Pallegama Dharamaratane Thera, who is also the principal of the village school, said, “First it was all about the serial killer, and this should be taken seriously. After all there are dead bodies. But now, matters have gone further, such as the ‘buthaya’ theory that has put fear into the people.
“Each day, people come up with various stories. Some say their houses are haunted, others say they are being followed, and there are instances where women claim to have been touched by a mysterious person.
“Most of the people here are suffering from fright that has disturbed them mentally, and no doubt, this is a pressing issue.
“The rubber and tea fields are empty, and so are the gem pits, with people opting to stay away, while school attendance is down to near zero, as jittery parents keep their children at home. On the other hand, the relevant authorities have done little to ease the situation.
“Only the other day, some regional politicians dismissed all the happenings here as a farce, going to the extent of saying that the people here are ignorant. This should never be the case. The people here are registered voters and their voice has to be heard”.
“Ever since the first killing took place in early April, I personally took up the matter with the top brass of the police and even the defence minister, but the indifference from that side was deafening”.
“Then, following the recent June incident, I decided that enough was enough, and encouraged the people to take to the streets. It was only then that the authorities responded by sending in the police and security forces personnel to patrol the area.”
hunt for another: IGP
Inspector General of Police N.K.Illangakoon said police were looking for another suspect reported to be involved in the killings in Kahawatta.
He said the suspect arrested on Thursday was involved in two of the murders.
(Additional reporting by Lasantha Niroshan- Kahawatte correspondent)
Who or what
By Mohamad Buharruddeen
Villagers in Galewela too have been frightened by an unidentified man roaming the area.
Some say it’s a ghost, while others say it may be a thief.
Villagers claim they last saw the stranger trying to enter a house early this week, and when the villagers attempted to apprehend him he had disappeared, increasing their fears.Upali Sarath said villagers are full of stories about a ghost with a hairdo wearing a night cabana dress, roaming around scaring young women.
“He apparently makes straight to the women’s rooms and on Sunday, he was given chase by some men only to disappear from view. He is said to have visited about 50 homes and frightened the women,” he said.
Grama Nlladhari Nimal Herath said villagers fear to leave home after dusk, adding that meetings have been held in the village community hall to discuss the situation.
Galewela Police Inspector Premaratne said that his men were doing their best to apprehend the night intruder. After sunset, the villagers are seen guarding their houses with axe in hand to drive away this so-called ghost. Villagers say if the culprit is not apprehended, they will resort to rituals to drive away what they believe is a ghost.