The biggest church in Sri Lanka has been desecrated by innocent blood being shed [in it] by unjust aggressors, the Sri Lanka Navy, Bishop of Mannar, Rt. Rev. Dr. Rayappu Joseph, protested this week in a letter to the Vatican, through the Apostolic Nuncio to the island. Today I buried the six civilians murdered by the Navy at Pesalai yesterday, the outraged Bishop wrote Sunday. The local people are mortally afraid of the Navy and when they met the local Navy commander, 7,000 people of Pesalai begged to be allowed to flee to India or LTTE-controlled Vanni, he said.
In his lengthy letter to the Holy See setting out an eyewitness-based account of the navy’s rampage through the coastal village, Bishop Joseph described the cold-blooded summary execution of five fishermen unfortunate enough to be outside working on their boats as vengeful navy personnel stormed through the village.
He also described how the Church of Our Lady of Victory at Pesalai was surrounded by the navy personnel who then fired through holes in the main doors, wounding many people, and then forced open a window and tossed two grenades in, resulting in one lady’s head being blown off in the church and several others sustaining injuries, some serious.
Amongst the dead were three Catholics, including the 75-year old woman, two Hindus and a Muslim, he said.
The Bishop complained how the area commander of the Sri Lanka Army in Mannar had subsequently refused permission for him to go to Pesalai to attend to the casualties and how after much efforts, the Divisional Secretary and myself were able to send the Mannar Police with Ambulances to bring the seriously wounded to the Mannar Hospital.
He protested also that military sources had tried to spread false news stating that there had been an attack by the LTTE on land at Pesalai on the Police and the Navy had to open fire.
All the people of Pesalai say that there was absolutely no [such] incident on that morning and the grenade story as stated by the military sources is adding insult to injury, the Bishop said. Military officials had also been stating that a grenade held by one of those inside the Church had exploded, he protested.
The Bishop said he had invited the local commander of the Navy to an organized meeting with 7,000 people of Pesalai.
They cried for their security against the Security Forces. They wanted him [Commander] not to prevent them from fleeing to India or to go to the LTTE controlled Wanni for their safety, the Bishop said.
If not they said he could bring all his men and shoot all of them once and for all. Even if a sacred place like a Church is unsafe for them, where else will the innocent find safety? was their question, the Bishop added.
And when the commander assured them of their safety, the people pointed out that several incidents of this type had taken place in the past and such assurances had been given by the leading commanders and they all had disappeared as words written on the waters.
The people told him of the threat meted out to all the people in Pesalai and in its sub-villages namely Kaataspathri and Siruthoppu by the Pesalai Navy saying that any LTTE attack on them will result in their wiping out the whole village sparing not even breast feeding infants, the Bishop said.
The people’s immediate expectation is that a neutral force should be brought in to take care of the security of the innocent people in a situation where nearly 95% of the Security Forces in Sri Lanka are Sinhala and, except a few very good officers, almost all of them are prejudiced against the Tamil people, the Bishop said.
Describing the Navy’s rampage on Friday, the Bishop said following sounds of a clash at sea between the SLN and the Sea Tigers, thousands of villagers who had been sheltering in the Church for two days, following an attack on Mannar police station, had huddled inside the building.
As this [sea] battle was dying out around 8.00 AM, the people heard heavy firing coming from the side of the Siruthoppu Navy camp and they knew that the Navy was advancing towards the village of Pesalai and towards the Church.
On the way, the Navy had set fire to the cadjan houses of the fishermen at a costal location known as Vankalai Padu and gutted several of them together with fishing nets, outboard engines and other valuables. This location was deserted by the fishermen who had taken shelter in the Church at Karisal a kilometer away from this their habitation, a towards the interior.
The Navy personnel proceeded further towards Pesali it is related by eye witnesses and on the way they signaled to six fishermen who were returning to the shores at a costal location called Kaataspathri. The fishermen came down from their boats with their Identity Cards in hand. The Navy men asked them to go on their knees and fired at them through the mouths.
Four of them fell dead still holding in their hands their identity cards. The rest of the two had tried to run away and one of them was caught by the Navy and fired through his mouth and his body was found in one of the boats and the other sustained injuries on his stomach and holding his stomach, he ran and fell down at one of the houses at the village and he was immediately taken to the nearby church of Kaataspathri. He was removed by the SLRC to the Mannar hospital after an hour at 9.30 AM and had been sent from Mannar to Anuradahpura hospital for special treatment.
The Navy personnel proceeded to Pesalai blindly firing around and several houses at Pesalai are seen damaged. They came around the Church of Our Lady of Victory at Pesalai and took positions outside its walls.
At this point four men in shorts and t-shirts rushed into the church compound by the main entrance riding on two motor cycles it is said. They started firing at the church walls, doors and windows where over 6000 people, after having fastened all the doors and windows from within, were taking shelter.
Some Navy personnel had fired into the church through the little openings found on the large doors and a good number of innocent civilians there sustained injuries and even the frame on the main altar holding the statue of Our Lady of Victory is seen damaged.
One of the Navy personnel, then had opened one of the windows and hurled one after the other two hand grenades in to the church. One of these fell back striking the window grills and the other blasted in the church with a big noise and heavy smoke resulting in one lady’s head being blown off in the church and several others sustaining injuries, some of whom had received serious injuries.