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Story of a Massacre: Witnesses and the Grisly Remains

April 18, 1987

KANTALAI, Sri Lanka (AP) _ The bodies were laid out Saturday in a narrow hospital hallway, a corridor of death crowded with sobbing relatives and hospital workers putting small tags on the remains from Friday’s jungle highway massacre.

A total of 126 people were killed when Tamil rebels stopped three buses, two trucks and a car along a jungle road, then sprayed most of the occupants with gunfire. Sixty-four other people were wounded.

Survivors who talked to reporters taken to the area of the slaughter told of being forced to push their stalled bus, and of smearing themselves and children with the blood of other victims to feign death.

The death toll was among the worst among many massacres since Tamil rebels began fighting nearly four years ago against the government dominated by the Sinhalese majority. Both sides have been accused of slaying civilians.

Military officials and survivors said Tamil fighters stopped the vehicles by masquerading in Sri Lankan military uniforms. Then more militants emerged from the jungle to help in the killing.

″At first we thought they were military officers, but after they started hitting us, we knew they were terrorists,″ said Simon Silva, a 68-year-old businessman who survived by hiding under a bus seat.

Another survivor, Nimal Jayatissa, a 24-year-old mason, said the attackers asked Tamils and Moslems to get off the bus. Then one gunmen at the front and one in the back opened fire.

″They shot most in the head,″ said Jayatissa. He said he survived by smearing himself with blood from wounded passengers and staying very still.

On Saturday, soldiers brought the dead to Kantalai, the nearby village of Habarana and the port city of Trincomalee. The killings took place in a jungle clearing near Ayuth Oya, about 11 miles from Kantalai.

The hospital hallway here contained 64 victims, 15 of them women and seven small children. Only 10 had been identified by Saturday afternoon and the rest had only numbered tags, tied to a wrist or pinned to torn, blood-soaked clothes.

The victims were apparently almost all from the island’s Sinhalese majority.

The government took reporters Saturday to see the bodies, the bullet- riddled buses and the jungle clearing where the Tamils sprayed their victims with assault guns a day earlier.

Vehicles carrying the reporters went quickly past the jungle clearing, halfway between two government check points about five miles apart.

Nothing could be seen there except for some discarded cans and orange peels.

The buses, trucks and the Volvo car had been hauled away. The Volvo belonged to a Swedish construction firm, but military officials said no foreigners were involved.

The buses’ windows were smashed. Inside, the floorboards were covered with blood, discarded food and shoes passengers had removed for the journey.

According to witnesses, the Tamils stopped the vehicles, then forced them off the road so others coming along the highway could be convinced to halt also.

Jayatissa, the mason who survived, said a truck was already parked in the clearing when his bus arrived.

He recalled the bus engine stalled, giving those aboard a few minutes more of life.

He said the killers stopped the bus and ordered Tamil and Moslem passengers off. There were only two or three. Most Tamils follow the Hindu faith, and the Sinhalese the Buddhist religion.

Then the attackers told the driver to pull into the clearing about 50 yards ahead. When the bus would not start, they ordered four passengers off to push it. The bus still would not start, and about 15 men emerged from the jungle to push it off the road.

Jayatissa said a whimpering girl about two years old was near him when the attackers opened fire. She was unhurt in an initial burst of gunfire.

″I rubbed her face with blood to make her look dead and held her to keep her quiet,″ he said. He added the girl survived.

Jayatissa said before the killing, the militants took cash and other valuables, beating those who refused to hand over belongings.

Military officials estimated there were 40 assailants. They and witnesses said the attackers spoke Sinhalese to passengers and the Tamil language to each other. They said the militants talked constantly into walkie-talkies.

The officials, who spoke on condition they not be identified, said at least 20 military personnel traveling in civilian clothes because of leaves were among the dead.

Sarath Ranasinghe, 31, another survivor, said the assailants found an army uniform and broke a man’s hand to make him confess he was an officer.

He said men suspected of being soldiers or sailors were dragged off and shot separately.

At Habarana, where bodies were also taken, villager Lionel Atukurale helped to carry the corpses into the hospital. He blamed the slaying on the government for taking too long to settle the conflict and the militants for being unwilling to reach agreement.

One villager, who would not give his name, looked in disgust as reporters were brought Saturday to look at the dead bodies.

″Only when Sinhalese are killed does the government bring people here,″ he said.

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