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Testimonial: Maheswari’s Story

March 13, 2009

August 6th, 2008. Maheswari is from Badulla. For the last twelve years or so she has been working in the garment industry as a machine operator in Boralessgamuwa and Bandaragama. For the last ten years she has been working for a very successful BOI approved garment industry in Bandaragama. She is a valued employee and works with great acceptance in this organization which believes in (and has a stated policy of) treating all employees equitably, irrespective of race, religion etc.

Last Saturday, 2nd August she requested leave on Monday and Tuesday to go home for an urgent matter. She is unmarried and does not therefore go home too often. Her leave was readily approved. On Sunday 3rd morning she set out on her journey from the company hostel in Bandaragama. She was in no hurry as she only wanted to reach Badulla before nightfall, and therefore left her boarding soon after 10am.

At Kesbewa, the bus she was traveling in was stopped at the check point on the Kesbewa Piliyandala road, commonly called the 120 road, after the bus route number. The time was about 10.45am. All the passengers alighted, and their papers/IDs and parcels were checked. The policeman who checked her was also from Badulla and dealt with her kindly and she was grateful. She was just about to get back into the bus when some members of the Civil Defense Force who were assisting the police/military at the check point suggested that she (Maheswari) should be further investigated as she is a Tamil. ( According to Mahewari there were about 8-10 members of the Civil defense Force present at the check point) Maheswari says she distinctly heard this comment. She was asked to step aside and not get into the bus. The other passengers got in and the bus proceeded to Colombo / Pettah.

The police then informed her that they have to send her to the police station. There were at this time another five men of varying ages who had been detained at the check point. They were also Tamil. Another bus was stopped and Tamil citizens in this bus, mostly from Ingiriya, had their journeys to see relatives or on some legitimate business interrupted, and were not allowed to proceed. The police hailed a three wheeler plying on the road and asked the driver to take Maheswari and two others to the Piliyandala police station.

No policeman or anyone else from the check point accompanied them. Hardly the way to transport any terrorist suspects! The others followed Maheswari and co. in similar fashion to the Piliyandala police station.

When Maheswari arrived at the police station there were about twenty men and two women who were there, because they were Tamils. Maheswari discovered in the course of time that most of them were from estates in Ingiriya and Ratnapura. Some of them employed in various industries and businesses going about their usual activities on the weekly holiday, such as visiting relatives and friends. There was a young couple from Ingiriya who were going to Pettah to purchase cloth to be sold at a kovil festival in Ingiriya. They had all been rudely made aware of what kind of country we now live in.

Then they all started making contact with friends and family and employers to let them know where they were and why they were late etc., and most importantly to ask their help if possible to get them out of the police station. The available mobile phones were readily shared, up until a burley policeman came there screaming at them and began confiscating the phones. Maheswari tucked her phone in her waist band under her long blouse and retained her phone, and was able to continue using it and share it with others after the danger had passed. Fortunately for Maheswari and the other women, the woman (she wasn’t sure whether she was a WPC or not) in charge of the women detainees was a very kind person who went out of her way to make things comfortable for them. However, nothing could compensate for the state of mind they were in.

(According to Mahewari, there are two Tamil girls who have been at the police station for over two weeks. There is also a young man from Killinochchi who had been working in a bakery at Polgasowita, and who has been at the police station for many days. None of the assurances given by his employer have been able to secure his release.)

More persons forced out of buses at the Kesbewa check point, arrived with three wheeler drivers at the police station. Lunch was provided and consisted of rice, dhall curry and dry fish. By evening there were about 35 persons including five women. Towards evening some of the detainees, according to Maheswari about 8, had been released after the intervention of employers, family members etc., who turned up with more documents to establish their bona fides.

At about 8 pm the men were asked to remove their shirts, if they wore belts they were also removed and then put in the police lock up with common criminals – all this for being Tamil men in a largely Sinhala area. There must have been about twenty such men of all ages who were put in that filthy cell. They remained in the cell till the next evening. The women, including Maheswari were treated better. They were given sheets to be spread on the ground to sleep on. However hardly any of them could sleep.

The Head of the HR department of the company where Maheswari worked arrived at the police station at 7.30 am on Monday 4th August. The OIC had indicated that they will all be produced in the (Kebewa) courts. For what crime? For being Tamil? So saying he had left the police station. It was another, more helpful, police officer who indicated that it was unlikely that they will be produced in court, and suggested to Maheswari’s employer to bring what other documents were available and any reports from the Bandaragama police station where she had been registered.

He came back to the police station about 11.30am, and having stayed in a line met the OIC only to be told that these matters will be considered only after 5pm. The fact that Maheswari (and most of the others) had been at the police station for over 24hours was of no consequence.

A company representative came again with all available documents at 5 pm. She was finally released around 9pm. Many of the others were also released that evening, but perhaps a few more have been detained further…

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