The Mango Tree

Jungle clearings attract both prey and predator. Nothing, however, moved on the pre-dawn streets of this clearing in Borella, an eastern suburb of Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, Colombo. An unseasonal November rain, pushed by the winds of the northeastern monsoon soaking the far side of the island, had crossed the Central Highlands and slicked down the dark streets of the city. Rain dripped from the leaves of the huge old trees that dotted the clearing. A few sleepy crows cawed in annoyance at the wetness. The intersection of Baseline, Kynsey, and Bullers roads, next to the Kanatte General Cemetery was an open expanse of a hundred and fifty metres across, a clearing in the manmade jungle of the city. Beyond its landscaped roundabout and trimmed islands, the concrete, brick, and tin of the jungle crept in, topped by the tangled vines of telephone and power cables. And like any jungle, it stank. Of man, and other animals. Of garbage, urine, and oil. Of rotting food, dead animals, betel juice, and crow droppings. But most of all, it stank of fear.

It was Bastille Day, November 13th 1989; but if the date was the celebration of the birth of revolution, it would never be that again in Sri Lanka. This was how a revolution died – not with heroic words and brave last stands, but with betrayal, corruption, and murder in the dark.

If the government-imposed dusk-to-dawn curfew had not cleared the streets, the terror most certainly would have. Even here, at the heart of the administration, regular citizens did not walk the streets at 4am. The death squads on both sides had ‘disappeared’ enough people in the past two years to hammer the lesson home. However, even a casual observer would have seen little. The streets around the Kanatte General Cemetery were cloaked in inky darkness that was unbroken by usual city lights, and anyone peering out of a nearby house would have seen that the streetlights too had been killed by the power failure. It wasn’t a genuine failure, for the Sri Lanka Electricity Board control rooms were manned by Air Force emergency services technicians this night; and a single telephone call had ensured that the power to the areas immediately bordering the cemetery was switched off.

Headlights lit up the massive trunks of the flame-of-the-forest trees that surrounded the intersection. The convoy of four canvas-topped Tata 1210 trucks was led by a single long-wheel base Land Rover Defender; driving fast, they came up Baseline Road from the south, from the direction of the Army Field Engineers base at Narahenpita. The dark green Land Rover peeled out of the convoy, followed by the first two trucks, and rode up onto the pavement in front of the cemetery’s main gates. While the three vehicles braked smoothly to a halt and switched off their headlights, the other two trucks roared past, taking a hard right at the roundabout onto Buller’s Road, heading for the side and rear gates of the huge burial grounds.

Soldiers spilled out of the Land Rover and the first two trucks, heavy boots clattering on the tarred road, platoon and section commanders barking orders as they ran to seal off the intersection. Like all predators entering a jungle clearing, they were tense and wary, for it was easy for hunter to be hunted. A machine-gun team set up in the middle of the landscaped roundabout, settling down behind their RPD light machine-gun. The gunner clicked the receiver of the weapon down over the belt of ammunition and worked the cocking handle, seating the first 7.62-mm round into the chamber. The clash of steel echoed across the dark intersection.

A corporal jogged across to the Land Rover where the two officers were lighting up.

“Set, sir,” he said.

With a nod, the captain sent him on his way back to his section and turned to the radio operator sitting in the back of the soft-topped Land Rover. “Ready?” he asked, exhaling smoke.

“All gates covered, boss,” came the reply.

“OK, tell Ops we’re set up.” As the radio operator spoke softly into the handset, the captain dropped his Bristol half-smoked into a puddle and looked across at his second-in-command, a lieutenant. “Now we wait.”

It had to be something unusual, for Ops Combine to request a full company as security, right here in Colombo. It definitely wasn’t a cordon-and-search operation – what was there to search for in the cemetery? But it was big, Captain Jehan de Mel knew that. Even if the midnight call hadn’t come from the Ops Combine 2/ic – Colonel Lucky Algama himself – he’d still have known it was important. There had been several big operations over the past few days, right across southern Sri Lanka. Some big players on the hit list had been lifted. It was all top secret, but rumours abounded.

The Government of Sri Lanka had been fighting a brutal war against a communist revolt for two years now, with neither side giving quarter. If the term ‘dirty war’ had ever been coined with Sri Lanka in mind, it had been a perfect choice. A hallmark of the war had been the death squads on both sides, raiding the homes of the enemy, killing or capturing their targets when possible, often killing the families if not. The conflict had done far more to brutalise the Sri Lankan psyche than all the years of war against the Tamil separatists in the north. This war was at home, amongst neighbours, between families.

Captain de Mel’s own family had narrowly escaped. A grenade had been thrown onto the veranda of the ancestral home in Aluthgama, on the coast south of Colombo. Only the fact that it hadn’t gone off had saved his ageing father’s life as he sat in his easy chair reading the Sunday papers. De Mel had then persuaded his parents to give out the house on rent and move in with his uncle, a Singha Regiment lieutenant colonel with secure military housing in Ambepussa.

The communist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna – National Liberation Front – had been inspired by the Marxist revolutionaries of the ‘60s, styling themselves on Castro and Che. They had tried once in 1971 and failed. This was their second attempt; and they had come perilously close to toppling the conservative government. The gloves had come off this time, and the military had traded atrocity for atrocity, brutality for brutality; learning from its enemy, often bettering them.

Terror stalked the streets and jungle tracks of the island nation. Young people stayed at home after dark, regardless of their loyalties. The military, however, had won the advantage after the bad times of 1987, weeding out the traitors in its ranks, securing its families. This was the peak of development for special operations and intelligence units. This was their war, and they were finally winning.

De Mel lit another cigarette. He had already smoked a pack since the call at midnight. He didn’t want to screw this up. He needed to look good. He had already applied for the transfer to Int, and he knew they would be watching for mistakes.

It was twenty minutes before headlights flashed once more. A second convoy was approaching, also at speed, but this time from the southwest, along Buller’s Road. There were no trucks in this convoy. Four of the five vehicles were open-topped Land Rovers, and even in the dark, de Mel could see that they were packed with armed men. The vehicles drove straight across the intersection for the main entrance to the cemetery, the first Land Rover braking to a halt in front of the unlocked but still closed gate.

“Why the fuck are those still closed?”

De Mel found himself looking straight into the cold eyes of the officer sitting in the front passenger seat. At least, he thought he was an officer. The man was about the same age as the de Mel himself – late twenties – heavily bearded, his bare head revealing long hair. He was dressed in British DPMs, and there were no rank badges visible. No badges of any sort, in fact. The captain swallowed. Rapid Deployment Force. This was big alright.

Before Captain de Mel could think of anything to say or do, his 2/ic sprang to the gates and started to drag them open. The RDF officer, however, didn’t look at the entrance, holding de Mel’s eyes until he was forced to glance away nervously. As the entrance was cleared, the Land Rover surged forward, leading the convoy into the dark cemetery. De Mel could see that the vehicles were jammed full of special forces soldiers just like the officer in the front seat, all of them calm but wary, their Uzi submachine-guns pointed outboard.

He noted that the third vehicle in the convoy wasn’t a Land Rover but a civilian Mitsubishi Pajero SUV, its windows dark-tinted.

The narrow driveways of the cemetery with their overhanging trees forced the convoy to slow down. Once the vehicles were several hundred metres into the cemetery, at its very center, the vehicles halted. As with the outer perimeter of sappers, the RDF troops quickly spread out, using the trees and gravestones as cover, sealing off the approaches. Unlike the sappers outside the cemetery, however, the RDF went into action with a minimum of spoken orders, moving into position quietly.

Meanwhile, the Pajero sat where it had halted, its dark windows ominously like the eyes of a reptile. Once the inner perimeter was in place, all four doors of the SUV popped open simultaneously, and the occupants dismounted quickly. The hooded prisoner was hauled out of the backseat, stumbling blindly as he was led through the graves. His hands and arms were unbound and he held onto his guards for balance. The scene looked more like that of an elderly relative being helped by his young nephews than that of a prisoner with his captors. Except for the older man who paced behind the trio, a 9-mm Browning Hi-Power pistol held casually in his right hand, down along his thigh. Unlike the RDF men around, he wore the olive green working uniform of a staff colonel.

“OK,” grunted the colonel, “this’ll do.”

The trio halted beneath the spreading branches of a frangipani tree, the dark grass at its base littered with the pale petals of fallen blossom. One soldier stepped back and away, unslinging his Uzi and slipping off the safety, covering his partner as he turned the prisoner around, pressing the man back against the crooked trunk of the tree.

Somewhere in the east, the sky was lightening. A crow called. Dawn was approaching. A light wind ruffled the leaves of the frangipani tree, spattering the prisoner and his captors with drops of water. The cemetery was not like the jungle clearing next to it; it smelled clean, of wet grass, moss, and flowers.

“Take the hood off,” ordered the colonel.

The prisoners eyes bulged like golf balls in the dark, showing up starkly as he blinked rapidly. His skin was slick with sweat.

“I’ll handle it.” The colonel nodded to the guards, both of whom backed away out of earshot, still keeping their eyes on the prisoner.

The colonel worked the slide on the pistol, chambering a round, and walked upto the prisoner. The man still wore the white shirt, dark trousers, and leather sandals given to him for the television broadcast the previous evening. The shirt and his eyes were the only thing that showed up in the darkness. As the Army officer stepped upto him, the prisoner’s legs gave out, and he crumpled to a squatting position, the rough bark of the frangipani tree dragging the shirt out of his waistband.

As the colonel leveled the pistol, aiming between the white orbs of the prisoner’s eyes, he wondered whether he should say anything, whether this was a moment that deserved a memorable phrase. But memorable for whom, he wondered. This bugger was not going to have any memories. Then the prisoner spoke.

“Is there no other way?”

“O king, other than this mango tree, there are many mango trees,” said the colonel softly. “And other than those other mango trees, there are many trees.” His finger tightened on the trigger. “But not for you. For you, there is this mango tree.”

“I’m glad we met even at this late stage,” the prisoner said quickly. “Will you do me one last favour?”

“What is it?”

“I have a letter for my wife.” He reached towards the breast pocket of his shirt. “Will you give it to her yourself?”

“Yes.” The pistol steady, the colonel reached for the scrap of paper with his left hand. The letter went into his own trouser pocket.

The colonel then shot the prisoner twice between the eyes.

After the double echo of the shots had died away, the two soldiers who had escorted the prisoner to his execution escorted him away from it. The body was loaded back into the Pajero, this time into the back behind the seats. The colonel took his place in the front passenger seat, and the convoy moved on through the cemetery with two of the Land Rovers. The other two vehicles remained behind with half the men, to cover the rear.

A few minutes later, the Pajero drew up at the northeastern corner of the Kanatte General Cemetery. The RDF troops fanned out once more, as the body was dumped unceremoniously onto the ground and a man was sent to find the crematorium operator.

“Is this him?” the operator said when he had been found, looking down at the corpse. “Doesn’t look like the pictures. Where’s his beard and long hair?”

“Just do your job,” the colonel snapped. “It’s him alright.”

The civilian’s face twisted into a grimace of hate. Clearing his throat, he spat on the body. “Son of a whore. I wish I could’ve sent him in alive.”

Turning, he opened the gaping maw of the furnace. The operator had been warned to expect a visit, and he had already started up the fire. There would be nothing left to be identified, much less venerated.

Bending over the corpse, the colonel tucked the letter back into the breast pocket of the now blood-spattered white shirt of the man who had just a few minutes ago entrusted it to him.

In reality, Rohana Wijeweera was murdered on the grounds of the Royal Colombo Golf Course, and not at the Kanatte general cemetery, though his body was cremated at the neighbouring cemetery.

8 thoughts on “The Mango Tree

  1. Stunning story! Vivid enough to make it seem like a recollection of the actually events. You might want to add a note about it being a fictional account up front 😉 in BOLD text

    For the mundane details: the crematorium where Wijeweera’s remains were removed from the eyes of forensics is visible on wikimapia via this link. The Royal Colombo Golf Course is immediate below (south) of the crematorium.

    The Asia Times online has a more complicated article on the back ground of that bloody time in Sri Lanka’s history. David’s story though is obviously better written.

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