Dark secrets of Sri Lankan asylum seekers
The 12-metre fishing vessel called the Sithumina left Batticaloa on Sri Lanka's east coast at 2.30am on June 12.
The 41 passengers on board had met the ship several hundred metres from the beach after being ferried there in two small boats powered by outboard motors.
Most of the passengers were men who have since freely admitted that they were simply looking for new jobs and a better life in safe and far away New Zealand. After only 14 days at sea they were picked up by the Royal Australian Navy.
On Monday, all 41 passengers were returned by the Australian government to Sri Lanka. A destination where Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said this week, in the capital Colombo, he had no concerns about their safety or wellbeing.
But not everyone on board the Sithumina was just looking for work. Some of the families on board were carrying some dark secrets and now believe their lives are in danger.
In an attempt to bring their circumstances to the attention of the Australian government, or any other government or organisation that can offer them protection, these families have agreed to tell Fairfax Media the chilling stories that really drove them to flee their native country.
Each family has a different story to tell, each one as strange as the other.
Sujeewa Saparamadu, is a 42-year-old mother of three teenagers. She and her husband Ranjith, 44, were successful business people and have lived a life that puts them in the upper tier of Sri Lanka's middle class, able to afford private education for their children.
According to Saparamadu, her troubles began in November 2012 when eight of her relatives including her mother, three brothers, and some nephews and nieces, landed in Australia.
Outspoken supporters of the controversial Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, or People's Liberation Front, a Marxist-Leninist movement that has participated in two armed uprisings against Sri Lankan governments in 1971 and the late 1980s, Saparamadu says they fled for political reasons.
Four of that group of eight, including Saparamadu's mother, have been allowed to stay in Australia and are currently living in Brisbane.
But Saparamadu's three brothers were returned to Sri Lanka. She says two of her bothers, Ajith Krishantha Wanigasinhe, 32, and Susiripala Wanigasinhe, 39, have not been seen since they returned.
"I don't know if they are alive or dead," Saparamadu said. "My third brother, Sunil Wanigasinhe, was arrested six months later ... I think he is in the prison in Negombo but I have no confirmation."
After her four family members were returned to Sri Lanka, Saparamadu gave an interview to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in which she says she was highly critical of the Sri Lankan government, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa since 2005.
"I started getting threats straight away. People calling me, threatening me. Stopping me in the street asking me how could I say such horrible things about my country," says Saparamadu.
As the harassment continued, her husband Ranjith, who is the owner of car export company in Japan where he is entitled to live and work, decided to proceed with an application for permanent residency which was, according to a number of documents shown to Fairfax Media, initiated during 2012.
But as the months passed, and Ranjith continued to work in Japan, the harassment became more threatening. On February 18, 2013, Saparamadu's son Preyon was kidnapped on his way home from school.
"The kidnappers rang me quickly, not more than one hour after he was taken, and demanded money. They wanted 500,000 rupees (NZ$4475) but I told them I only had 400,000 rupees (NZ$3515)."
She met the kidnappers at a nearby location and her son was handed back after she threw them a bag with the money in it.
"They told me if I went to the police, worse would happen to me."
Other things did happen. Windows at her house were smashed. She was being followed by people in white vans. On May 15, 2013, two masked men - one of whom was armed - tried to force their way into her house but could not get past the gate.
Saparamadu showed Fairfax a receipt for the police complaint she lodged that day, but says that no one followed up the incident.
Saparamadu took her children out of school and went into hiding, moving to different locations around the country
"I was very afraid. Two of my brothers are missing. One of my brothers is in a jail, but I cannot visit him."
With her husband home from Japan and, according to Saparamadu, restrictions placed on their ability to leave the country legally, she and her husband decided to take themselves and their children to Australia by boat in June 2013.
They were still on the beach, trying to board the boat, when the Sri Lankan army pounced, arresting all the passengers. Saparamadu showed Fairfax Media a newspaper clipping from June last year reporting their arrest.
Saparamadu alleges that after they were arrested, her husband was taken to a police station and she was taken into the jungle by seven soldiers, along with two other women.
Saparamadu gave a horrific account of what followed, but asked that the details not be published.
"My husband is the only person I have told," she said. "They threatened me, said they would kill me if I told anyone. Said they would kill my children."
Bailed to appear in court for trying to leave the country illegally, Saparamadu said she felt even more desperate.
"My husband could not go back to Japan to work. We didn't know what to do."
Sometime earlier this year, Ranjith and several friends who also felt endangered decided to try to flee the island, pooling their savings to buy the Sithumina fishing vessel. The purchase price was nearly NZ$14,920 and it came with working GPS navigation equipment and not much else.
The boat was registered in Ranjith's name and when he faced a Sri Lankan court on Tuesday this week, he was remanded in custody, accused of being the ringleader of the enterprise.
Two other men who decided to join the voyage and helped pay for the boat were Hemantha Kuruppu, 41, a father of three and a former media co-ordinator for the Ministry of Defence, and his business partner Janaka Gayan Athukorala, 40, a father of two.
The two men run a building material supply company on the coast south of Colombo, but their account of what made them flee is as strange as it is frightening.
"During the civil war, when I was working for the MOD (Ministry of Defence)," says Kuruppu, "I became very friendly with a Buddhist monk in a temple in the north."
Kuruppu says that because his job involved taking video footage of the war, he was often in Sri Lanka's north, near the conflict zones.
"One day he asked me to do him a favour, and gave me a very ancient book, a very precious book," Kuruppu told Fairfax Media.
Kuruppu and Athukorala described the book as an ancient treasure map, that supposedly gave the location of the burial sites of gold and precious stones.
Both men described the book as weighing 13 kilograms, and say that there are several smaller versions in Sri Lanka's national museum. Whether or not the book is an accurate guide to hidden treasure is impossible to verify.
But it is no exaggeration to say that both men sincerely believe the book to be genuine. So did the monk who gave the book to Kuruppu, and so do many other people.
Kuruppu says the monk who gave him the book asked him to take it to another Buddhist temple in the south for safekeeping, because he said people had learned of its whereabouts.
Kuruppu says he did take it to the other temple, where it remained under the guard of a number of monks.
"In January 2013, the monks called me, and they asked me to please take the book away. They said criminal gangs had learned that the book was in their possession. And they felt threatened."
When Kuruppu was asked why he then didn't simply take the book to the police, or the government, he said he feared that they would arrest him for not having bought it to them back in 2008 when he was working for the Ministry of Defence.
"So I took the book, and I stored it, but gradually, because there were people who knew that I was very friendly with the monks in this temple, different gang members started to ask me to give them the book and started threatening me."
Why not give the book up? "At first I didn't want to. Then it was [several] different gangs who were asking and I feared that the ones who I didn't give it to would come after me."
Kuruppu says the gang kept harassing him and in June last year he was beaten, his four four front teeth smashed with the butt of a handgun: "All the time they are coming to my house, calling me, threatening me."
Athukorala says he was not beaten but received similar threats.
On October 20, 2013, both men decided to leave their homes and families and go into hiding together. First they fled to Sri Lanka's west coast.
"All the time, they were ringing our families, the families of our wives," says Athukorala.
On May 20 this year, Kuruppu went to his family home south of Colombo.
"They were waiting for me. They said if I didn't give up the book, they would kill my children. That was the night that I decided to leave the country. I rang Janaka (Athukorala), and he said he would come with me. We thought there was no other way."
When asked why he didn't leave legally by plane, both men said they feared they would be arrested, suspecting that Sri Lankan police were also looking for them to obtain the treasure map.
"I told the people who kidnapped me 'yes, I will give it to you, give me a month to get it and it's yours'," Kuruppu said.
Kuruppu and Athukorala and both their families spent the next weeks frantically organising their passage on board the Sithumina with Ranith and Sujeewa Saparamadu.
"Another gang caught me on June 8, I told them the same story, give me some time, I will give you the book."
On June 12 the two men and their families boarded Sithumina, hoping that once they made it to New Zealand they would be able to organise the sale of their property in Sri Lanka and set up a new life for themselves.
They tried to shield their faces when they appeared in court on Tuesday, but their names and pictures were published in the Sri Lankan media the next day.
"My wife's mother has already been threatened," Kuruppu said. As the interview was being conducted, his wife said she had just received another call, this time from one of her sisters, saying the gangs were also after her now. As Kuruppu's wife broke down in tears, Kuruppu wrung his hands.
Athukorala attested that members of his extended family had already been threatened since Tuesday. Both men believe they are stranded. They fear the Sri Lankan police as much as they fear the gang members.
"What can we do? We have called the United Nations, we have called everyone, no one says they can help us. We are fearing for our lives," Athukorala said.
Fairfax Media can also reveal that the Sri Lankan Special Task Force commando who has been remanded in custody and charged with being a ringleader of the enterprise, Mahinda Indika, 32, had decided to flee for a very different reason.
Although he was a member of the country's elite Special Task Force, Fairfax Media understands that Indika has, for the last eight years, been the driver for Sri Lanka's Inspector-General of Police, N. K. Illangakoon.
It is understood that earlier this year, Indika was approached by an underworld gang who wanted his help to assassinate Illangakoon.
"The gang wanted him to tell them the IG's whereabouts," said one source who briefed Fairfax Media on the matter. "He loved his boss, he didn't want to do that. But unless he cooperated with the gang they told him they would kill him."
Indika, whose wife had just given birth through Caesarean section four weeks earlier, took the only choice he believed was open to him.
"He learned about this boat that was leaving for New Zealand, and he decided that was his only choice to save himself," the source said.
All of the people who were interviewed by Fairfax Media said that they each told their stories to Australian Immigration officials via satellite phone.
"The interviews were 20 to 30 minutes long, but it was very difficult to describe our situation," Saparamadu said. "The line kept dropping out, it was very noisy on the deck of the ship, they couldn't hear properly, I was crying a lot."
Hemantha Kuruppu and Janaka Athukorala spoke of the same experience, adding that they were further hampered because they had to conduct their interviews in front of the other Sri Lankan passengers.
"There were three phones, so when my interview took place, there were two standing next to me and I didn't want them to really know everything about my situation," Kuruppu said.
Several days later, Kuruppu and Saparamadu say the next thing they knew was they were being given a card by Australian Customs and Border Protection officials telling them they were being returned to Sri Lanka.
"I broke down on the floor of the ship, crying, begging them not to take me back to Sri Lanka," says Kuruppu.
Now they don't know their fate. They are hiding out in a half-built house with little bedding and no cooking facilities in the middle of the Sri Lankan jungle, waiting for the unexpected.
"We are not poor, I know we are not refugees like other people, but we have reasons to fear. Somebody please help us," said Saparamadu.
Sydney Morning Herald