The peninsula of Jaffna, Sri Lanka North – in particular the island of Pungudutivu has been broiling for some time over the gang-rape and murder of schoolgirl Vidhya Sivaloganathan. Our special correspondent visited the area and her family to gather how they are coping, and what the latest developments in the case are.
By Thulasi Muttulingam
Vidhya Sivaloganathan’s family remembers her as sensitive and soft. She had recently cried when her mother said they would have to sell the family’s goat because they couldn’t afford to keep it anymore. “No amma. She’s part of the family now. We’ll reduce our meals and share with her what we eat. Please do not give her away,” she had begged. Every evening as soon as she returned home from school, she would go straight to her ‘pets.’
“We reared the livestock –the goat, the cow and the chickens for eggs and milk but Vidhya always treated them like personal friends,” recalls her mother Saraswathi Sivaloganathan. “I often scolded her over it because she was always cuddling them and getting her white uniform dirty. She would cuddle them before going to school and then cuddle them as soon as she returned from school too. Kutty the goat would beckon with her horned head to Vidhya for more cuddling when she left for school. She would laugh and say, ‘I’ll pet you more, as soon as I get back Kutty.’ That was their ritual. As soon as she returned, all the animals would go to greet her including Chella Mani the hen, clucking all the way. She would pick the hen up, pretend that she could understand its seemingly indignant clucking and say, ‘Oh is that right Chella Mani? Amma hasn’t fed you properly today? How mean of her, here have some biscuits.’
“She would then feed the hen securely tucked under one of her arms, pieces of biscuits with her other hand while still in her school uniform,” recalls her mother tearing up at the memory. “It used to annoy me no end but now all those memories are so bitter-sweet to us. It is who she was. If I ever scolded her for talking to dumb animals as equals, she would say, ‘amma they are not dumb animals. They are intelligent sentient beings without a voice. We have to be extra kind to them.’”
“The animals knew,” says her brother Nishanthan (22). “It was finally the dogs who led us to her body. On the days leading up to her funeral and at the funeral itself, the dogs and goat acted half-crazed against certain individuals, wanting to head-butt or bite them. We thought they had become unbalanced with grief just as we had and tied them up. But it turned out the individuals the animals had been reacting against, were Vidhya’s rapists and murderers. They had had the nerve to show up repeatedly at our house to offer their sympathy until the police caught them.”
Much has been reported in the local Tamil press and online websites about the case but the family deny many of the incidents thus reported as unfactual.
“Firstly, I had no idea who could have done this to my daughter. We had no enemies in the area,” says Vidhya’s mother. “It has been reported that I witnessed a robbery and reported it to the police causing this revenge-killing of my daughter in such a dastardly manner. This is simply not true.
Last year, I had happened to notice one of the houses of my relatives abroad, who kept their house locked up, with its gates wide open. I informed my relative of this –she in turn informed the local police from abroad and they had happened to catch some people on their own. I had nothing to do with it and I don’t think it has any implication in my daughter’s rape and murder.”
Bursts out her brother angrily, “What may I ask is wrong with my mother’s action? People keep blaming us for it as if Vidhya’s fate would have been spared but for this incident. We don’t think so. This island suffers under too much a climate of crime along with too much a climate of fear of exposing the criminals. That is why incidents like these happen again and again. Even in Vidhya’s case, two young boys aged 10 and 13 had seen something but had been too scared to say anything. Though they initially admitted to being witnesses at least in part to the crime, they have now been coached by their parents to retract the story and say they saw nothing.”
pic by: Thulasi Muttulingam ~ More updates on: facebook.com/HumansOfNorthernSriLanka
According to the family, when they went looking for Vidhya after 3.00 pm on May 13th when she still hadn’t returned from school, the only one to talk of seeing her at all was one particular schoolboy. He had said that he and a schoolmate had been trailing behind Vidhya on their cycles when she turned a corner ahead of them and they heard a crash. When they turned the corner themselves, they had seen her overturned bicycle and one shoe but Vidhya herself missing. One of them had also seen a flash of a yellow shirt among the bushes, but nothing more. They had apparently continued on their way to school without thinking to mention this incident to anybody.
“I screamed when I heard this story,” says the mother. “I asked the boy repeatedly why he hadn’t thought to raise the alarm at least to the teachers. At school, the teachers had merely thought Vidhya was absent for the day; but she was a girl who didn’t like to miss school even if she was sick. The rapists had planned it well to kidnap my daughter on her way to school. We didn’t think to look for her until several hours later and by then it was too late.”
After hunting for her in all possible places in and around the stretch from her home to her school, the frantic family finally informed the nearest police station at Kurkattuwan. “There they said they couldn’t lodge complaints and to take our case to the Kayts police station. By the time we reached the Kayts police station, it was 11.00pm,” says Vidhya’s mother.
She denies reports that the police were rude to her but says that it was difficult to communicate with them as they spoke only Sinhala.
“Only the three-wheel driver who took us to the station could manage a conversation in Sinhala and he haltingly explained our situation to the police. They said that with girls of her age (18 years), elopements were common but they weren’t rude about it. They sympathetically told me not to worry, that it might after all turn out to be a voluntary elopement and to go home; that whatever had happened might come to light the next day. They also told us to keep them informed of any developments.”
It was raining heavily and past midnight by the time the anxious family reached home, yet all the talk of elopement had ironically given them a sense of hope. To their knowledge Vidhya neither had a boyfriend nor was interested romantically in anyone, but at this stage they were desperately hoping that she was alright somewhere, and thus were clutching at straws. They were unwilling to let the thought of any harm having befallen her cross their minds.
“Even the local people when we went looking for her all over the place on the day she went missing (Wednesday May 13) snickered that she must have eloped,” recalls Vidhya’s mother. “When I denied that my daughter had any such inclination, some suggested that perhaps some boy infatuated with her, even without her complicity might have abducted her. All this talk confused me and lured me into thinking it might be a possibility. I kept nervously wondering how and where we would find her but I certainly never ever thought we would find her as we did –gang-raped and brutally murdered.”
She covered her face with her hands at this point to blot out the horror of that memory. The entire family has been deeply psychologically traumatized over the horrific misfortune that befell their beloved youngest member. All of them are apparently repeatedly falling ill due to this and are constantly in and out of hospital as a result. On the day I visited, Vidhya’s father, a stroke recovery patient was at the hospital for further treatment. He had been recovering well from his stroke of two years before but this incident has again heavily impacted his health.
It was Vidhya’s brother Nishanthan who saw her body first. They had set out again to search for Vidhya at the crack of dawn the next morning. The father being debilitated and the sister being away at University, it was the mother and brother accompanied by two neighbours who set out on this second search expedition. Vidhya had had to travel down a sandy narrow path to school. The searchers had split into two pairs to search on either side of this path, with the mother on one side and the brother on the other.
“We didn’t consciously take the dogs with us, they just happened to come along,” explains the mother. “As soon as it dawned, we went out and the dogs who are not usually in the habit of following us outside, came too. I suppose they sensed our grief and perhaps missed Vidhya and wanted to look for her as well.”On the previous day however, Nishanthan had taken the dogs out with him in one of his frantic searches for his sister. They had run about sniffing all over the bushes as if they had sensed his mission and their role in it, and the next day had taken it up again without anyone asking them.
It was eventually one of the dogs Jimmy, who led Nishanthan to his sister’s body. While the youth was scouring about in the bushes, Jimmy appeared with one of Vidhya’s shoes in his mouth. He had then led the dazed Nishanthan to the back of an abandoned derelict house, to where his sister’s body lay on a heavily accumulated pile of fallen leaves.
“I was on the other side of the path, looking into a well when I heard Nishanthan yell out ‘Ammaaaa’“ says Saraswathi, the mother. I immediately ran over, tearing my feet over the thorny bushes in my haste, and found Nishanthan fainted on the ground. From the periphery of my vision, I saw my daughter’s discarded uniform and looked no further. To this day, I have not looked at what condition she was found in, although I understand it has been made widely public all over the internet. I do not want to know.”
Bursts out her elder daughter Lishanthini (24), Vidhya’s sister, at this point, “Why are people doing such despicable things as sharing my poor sister’s photo like that over the internet? We as a family find it deeply offensive and insensitive to Vidhya’s memory.”
Her brother has another point to add: “They say, that photo circulating of Vidhya’s body was taken by local vigilantes to raise awareness on what had happened to her. That is not true. If you look at the picture, you can see her dry body on a dry pile of leaves with blood stains from her mouth to her chin. It had been raining the night before we found her. I was the first to see her body and it was water logged, lying on muddy water-soaked leaves and all stains including blood had been washed off from her body by then.”
“In fact,” he adds, “the police when they eventually showed up at 10.00 am told us that the rain might have done much damage in washing away whatever evidence there were. I think it was the perpetrators themselves who took this photo and then released it. They felt so invincible and proud of their actions that they felt able to do this.”
Nishanthan also believes that the abandoned house behind which his sister’s body was discovered is not the actual scene of her rape and murder. “I went out the previous day along that path to search for her. The dogs accompanied me then too. How come they didn’t sense her there at that time? I think the perpetrators had abducted her to one of their houses and then simply dumped her body there past midnight.”
Some of the arrested suspects’ houses have been damaged – fully or in part, by angry villagers. Or so the story goes. There is an uneasy suspicion on the part of some people including Vidhya’s family that this might be a good way to get rid of evidence as well.
Udeni Thewarapperuma, a women’s rights activist and lawyer following this case, has the same concern: “We don’t yet know if it was protestors or the perpetrators themselves who damaged those houses – but people should be alert to the possibility of evidences being obscured via this method and should not become unwittingly complicit in it. At this stage in the investigations we should have strong evidence collected against the suspects – and it worries me that we still haven’t heard of what that evidence is, or how strong is the case against the arrested suspects. As with the recent Kotakethana murder acquittal case, we do not want to hear some years down the line that the suspects have been let go of due to lack of evidence.”
This issue might be more of a real worry than many people euphoric over nine suspects being caught might think. According to several online websites which the local Tamils are following voraciously, the perpetrators were caught with the rape videoed on their mobile phones. It has even been alleged that this entire tragedy was enacted due to one of the suspects, a Swiss PR Resident, being in the business of extreme sado-masochistic pornography; that Vidhya was raped and killed for the sake of such a pornographic video and that this high definition video had been apprehended too.
Police spokesperson ASP Ruwan Gunasekara however denies this. “The suspects were caught on the information of local people. We have no video evidence of the crime and while forensic investigations are ongoing to match samples of DNA between suspects and what was found at the crime scene, the results are not out yet; they will take some time.”
“In any case,” ASP Gunasekara further clarified, “this investigation is not in the hands of the police anymore. A special unit of the CID is investigating the case now. The special investigations unit is also investigating whether there were any lapses in the Jaffna police’s handling of the case, due to widespread people’s protests over the issue.
That issue in question would be on how one of the main suspects apprehended and handed over to the Jaffna police – the Swiss Resident had been spotted on the loose in Wellawatte, Colombo the next day. Due to massive people’s protests in Jaffna, he had then been apprehended by the Wellawatte police and brought back to Jaffna. A leading law academic has been implicated in the matter by the online Tamil websites and local press but he has refuted the allegations as baseless. ASP Gunasekara declined to say more on the matter other than that investigations are on-going.
Meanwhile calls to the editors of two popular Jaffna Daily papers also gave some contrasting information. According to one editor, it was unprofessional online websites which had made the claim that video evidence and thus the right set of suspects had been caught, with a strong case against them. “We did not make that claim until two days ago when Minister Rajitha Senaratne too said this seems to have been a case of pornography –related crime. We then quoted him on the matter but we did not make that claim otherwise, as it had not been substantiated till then.”
According to the other editor however, local vigilantes who had caught and beaten the suspects before handing them over to the police had reported that they had checked the suspects’ mobile phones and found the video evidence. “They said that they handed this evidence over to the police too. If the police are now saying they have no such evidence, we wonder how much of mishandling has occurred over the investigations on this case,” was his response.
President Maithripala Sirisena when he met the family in Jaffna had promised them a fast-track court and swift investigations to bring the criminals to book. That is all they have now to look forward to. Their gentle, animal-loving Vidhya who had skipped off to school on May 13th after telling her pet goat that she would get back to pet her some more, will no more turn in through their gate to do just that. All that her grieving family can hope for is that the perpetrators of the horrible crime against their beloved girl be brought to book.
It might not seem like much but in Pungudutivu, Vidhya’s mother had been told not to expect even that much. ”This is not the first time a horrific rape /murder has happened here. The perpetrators in each case are never bought to book, and as soon as her body was found, people told me that those who had done this to Vidhya would never be brought to book either.
I have faith however. I went to the temple and tried to light camphor to send my prayers up to God. It was raining and I couldn’t light the camphor. I raged at God for not giving me even this solace but then it stopped raining. The rain stopped only until I could finish lighting the camphor and make my prayers demanding that the perpetrators be caught. As soon as I finished and turned back to go home, it started pouring again. God head my prayer. That very day, I heard three people had been arrested and many more arrests followed in the days after. I want justice for Vidhya.
President Maithripala told us that it was not within his power to deliver Vidhya back to us – but that he would do all he could within his power to deliver justice. We are waiting.”