Life in the bustling town of Sainthamaruthu, 50km south-east of Batticaloa, is virtually dead after sunset. Populated largely by Muslims, the urbanised stretch of the east coast is home to many entrepreneurs, traders and fishermen. It was about a quarter past six as darkness fell on Sainthamaruthu on April 26. “There was a massive noise [...]


Fearful town shuns strangers after suicide blasts

How an elderly couple paved the way for bombers to move into hideout

Life in the bustling town of Sainthamaruthu, 50km south-east of Batticaloa, is virtually dead after sunset. Populated largely by Muslims, the urbanised stretch of the east coast is home to many entrepreneurs, traders and fishermen.

Police forensic officers and troops inspect weapons, ammunition and explosives found in a search operation

It was about a quarter past six as darkness fell on Sainthamaruthu on April 26.

“There was a massive noise and a bright flash of light. That was the first and the biggest explosion,” a 48-year-old resident said, vividly recalling the incident in which 15 people, including six children, were killed in a suicide bombing suspected to have been carried out by three people. A woman and a child believed to be the wife and the child of suspected suicide bomb squad leader Zahran Cassim escaped death.

The final rites for the dead adults were held this week, shorn of religious ritual, while religious rites were observed for the children who lost their lives.

A little more than a week later, the incident still remains a mystery to the local people and terror and mistrust send the lives of people plunging into darkness every night.

As April 26 dawned there was a sense of suspicion in the mind of Fathima Ameera who owned and had recently rented out the house next to the home where she, her mother and two daughters lived. A close friend said Ameera had told her on April 15 that she had rented the house through a broker to an elderly couple on April 18 for Rs. 5,000 a month and a deposit of Rs. 50,000.

Ameera was puzzled because the couple including the man in a wheelchair, had come to the house on just two occasions since April 18. On April 26, they returned.

That day, batches of people began entering the house with “large black bags” in a “white van”, according to eyewitnesses. Brand-new housing appliances were brought into the home. The people, however, never came outside.

Ameera’s mother, sensing something amiss, asked the elderly female renter why several people were moving in when the house was rented out only to two people.

The elderly woman shot back that that was none of her business. She said the other people were family members and would leave the next day.

“A man then emerged from within the house and fired gunshots into the air,” said the 48-year-old man who spoke to The Sunday Times, showing us where the shooter had been standing.

The empty street in 'Boliverian Village' (a tsunami housing scheme) where 15 were killed as three individuals blew themselves up in a small house after a gun battle with security forces

He said local residents had called police to investigate but to no avail.

“We had to go to and fetch a team of army personnel who were on duty. They came and fired at the house. The people in the house did not return fire and committed suicide by blowing themselves up,” the 48-year-old said. A father of six, he did not want his name known for fear of retaliation.

The man said he heard three blasts in quick succession while he was standing right next to the house.

“An old woman cried out my name, begging me to help her out of her house which is next to the place where the explosions occurred,” he said.

Police believe 15 people in the house perished: six men and three women (including the elderly couple), and six children. Also in the house were the wife and child of Zahran Cassim, the suspected bomber of the Shangri La Hotel in Colombo in the catastrophic Easter Sunday suicide bombings. The mother and daughter survived and are now in hospital.

According to witnesses, a small white car was seen speeding away from the vicinity of the house after the argument between the occupants and Ameera’s mother. It is as yet unknown how many people had been in the car and whether they had been in the house.

“We used to live peacefully while going about our daily work. Now, we have lost all the peace we enjoyed after the war ended and the country is in a worse situation,” the 48-year-old man who spoke to this paper said, grieving.

Residents of this area have been struck by a double whammy – first by the 2004 tsunami and now by these explosions. Padlocked gates translate the feelings of the people for anyone who visits the area.

“I was relocated here after I lost my house in the tsunami. I sell stringhoppers and manage to earn around Rs. 5,000 per day but now my earnings have been affected because most people have left the area since the bomb explosions,” a 38-year-old mother of two who also requested anonymity told The Sunday Times.

The woman was among those who fled the area in fear that night when the bombs went off. When she returned the next morning, she discovered her house was in total disarray as a result of widespread search operations following the bomb blasts.

“The security forces broke open three padlocks in my house. They even broke the locks of my cupboards. How can I pay to repair all this damage? I only manage to make a small living,” she told us sadly.

Residents along the street feel unsafe despite the heavy protection in the general area.

They are concerned that only two police officers are deployed for security in their street during the day. As night falls, there are no security personnel to be seen, they said.

They want the authorities to open up and clean the area, which has been cordoned off as a crime scene, to help dispel the sense of fear among the local people and to prevent the spread of disease from the detritus in the bombed-out house – maggots feed in pools of congealed blood on the ground and fragments of flesh from the bodies that had been blasted apart can be seen on the walls and rafters.

The entire street stinks of death and explosives, reminiscent of wartime. Parents say the odour frightens the children in this densely-packed neighbourhood.

The Sunday Times was able to locate the house in Maligaikadu at which the suspected terrorists had stayed before moving to the Sainthamaruthu house, about 1.5km away, on April 26.

Fathima Banu (name changed to protect identity), 64, is a teacher who had rented out her house to this group of people but had later asked them to vacate the premises because her newly-married son wanted to move in. Her husband is under police custody, being questioned regarding the matter.

She said on April 15, a person calling himself Niyaz had reached her through a house broker in the area. The broker who had recommended Niyaz is also now under police custody.

Niyaz had arranged to pay Rs. 5,000 a month in rent for the house and had wanted to move in on April 19 but that was not possible since Fathima Banu was going to be away from home that day.

In a telephone call during the process of arranging the rental, the man had told her that he had bought house appliances worth Rs. 17,000 and would have to occupy the house as early as possible.

“An elderly couple occupied the house on April 21 along with their daughter who was pregnant at that time. The daughter told me that she was expected to deliver the baby on April 28,” Fathima Banu recalled.

Other people then began to join the household, she added. This included two children – a “chubby little girl” and a boy. Fathima Banu observed that the people did not interact with their neighbours. The children, too, never came out to play.

“We could only hear the sound of the children. The adults always maintained pin-drop silence,” she said, pointing to the residence which is adjacent to her house.

After being told, on Banu’s son’s instructions, to quit the house, the people had left – it was later learned, for the house at Sainthamaruthu.

Following the explosions at Sainthamaruthu security forces descended on the house at Maligaikadu, and Banu said she was startled to see equipment such as generators being taken out of the dwelling during their search of the premises.

“I wouldn’t have rented out my house if I had only known that these people were terrorists. This incident has now destroyed my reputation as a teacher,” she sobbed.

Little ones huddle together at night in fear 

The latest string of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings has traumatised people living in the stricken areas, especially the children.

“I am feeling afraid now. I saw pieces of human flesh, bone fragments as well as maggots in the house [in which the suicide bombings took place in Sainthamaruthu]. I feel afraid to live down this street any more. I am afraid to go to school as well,” a 13-year old child told The Sunday Times.

With schools set to reopen for the second term tomorrow, parents show great reluctance to send their kids to school, and the children are nervous too.

Sainthamaruthu residents say that their kids are too frightened to leave their rooms at night to go to the toilet. The little ones sleep huddled together due to the fear that envelopes their minds.

“My seven-year-old son was holding his hands on his head and shouting out for me when the explosions were taking place. He has been petrified since then,” a mother told us.

Distrust is growing between people. Some argue that the Ameera, the owner, should not have rented out her house to a person who was not from their area. Others support her, saying she needed a rental quickly as she was desperate to pay off her debts.

All residents are adamant that they will never trust a stranger who walks onto their street again.


Weapons, explosives turn up in mass searches

“The people in the area are disturbed by what happened but some have come forward with information. They have opened their doors to us and are reassured by our presence,” said Major-General Mahinda Mudalige, Officer Commanding 24 Division, Ampara.

A cordon and search operation that morning had yielded a freshly buried container with two pistols, a loaded T-56 magazine, 161 rounds of T-56 ammunition, shotgun cartridges and 200 detonators. “We work closely with the police and patrol the sector to ensure public safety,” Maj-Gen. Mudalige pointed out.

A police source who did not want to be named claimed one suspect is a driver of a parliamentarian and that this person had been taken in for questioning over the weapons discovery.

Commenting on the magnitude of the investigation that spans the island, the source said the number of CID officers with the necessary expertise was stretched thin due to deployments to multiple locations.

A short walk from the abandoned property where the weapons were found, security forces found a stock of 200 sticks of “water-gel” explosives and four sacks of ammonium nitrate. The owner of the house where the explosives were found claimed he had a licence for it as he had a quarry but the stock was seized until the registration is verified.

There is a heavy security forces presence on the streets in the Ampara region: checkpoints have been set up near most junctions and patrols comb the many narrow densely populated streets of the area.

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