A deadly drive to work
At around 8 am on the morning of January 8 Lasantha Wickrematunge was at his residence in Nugegoda when he was to get a call from his wife Sonali Samarasinghe asking him to come to their home in Battaramulla as the domestic assistant there had taken ill.
He had arrived at their Battaramulla home at about 8.20. It was even as he alighted from his car that he was to receive a call from the Sunday Leader office that some people had observed suspicious activity and that he was being followed.
His driver who was at Nugegoda had been warned by one of his friends - a three wheeler driver, that two persons on a motor bike pared at a nearby boutique had acted suspiciously and no sooner than Lasantha had taken off in his car one had been heard to say to the other , Eya pittath wuna (he has left now). At which point one of the two who was smoking had butted out his cigarette and they had been seen following Lasantha's car.
The driver had immediately gone to The Sunday Leader office in Ratmalana but finding that Lasantha had not arrived yet he was to quickly go into the office and call Lasantha on his mobile phone. Lasantha was in Battaramulla at the time. The driver's mobile phone was in Lasantha's car.
Lasantha and Sonali left for a nearby pharmaceutical shop to buy medicines for the servant. Even on their way, Sonali had noticed a motorbike following the car. She however lost sight of it, as a three wheeler had intercepted.
However, once they neared their house, a large black motorbike with two persons had whizzed past the car and had gone into the land next to the house which is a dead end in a suspicious and intimidating way.
Alerted Sonali had first alighted from the car and immediately pulled Lasantha into their house locking the doors. However after some time Lasantha was determined to go to office to commence writing his column and also to take steps against this new threat. Since Sonali had to still see to some domestic matters he said he would go on ahead and that his wife should come in her car. He also said he wanted to investigate the whole motorbike incident and make some calls on the matter.
Wickrematunge, on his way to the office had asked his driver to meet him in Nugegoda. He handed over to him some documents and then proceeded towards office.
It would turn out to be the deadliest ride to work he would ever take.
His wife meanwhile not 15 minutes after they parted was to hear the dreaded news and quickly rush to the Kalubowila Hospital. The driver too, received the news through an employee at the Leader office.
One of the people, who witnessed the attack on The Sunday Leader Editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge and volunteered to take him to the Kalubowila Hospital said that he was checking a stock of printing goods prepared for delivery that day when the incident happened.
He (name withheld on request) said he came out of his office on Attidiya Road, upon seeing a lot of activity on the road.
"I saw some motorbikes speeding off and people started to move towards a car that was parked on the other side of the road. I too walked towards the car and saw that the window on one side was smashed with damage to the main windscreen as well," he said.
He had then peered into the vehicle and found a person lying across the two front seats.
"I saw that he was finding it difficult to breathe. Then I called on some of the people standing around to carry him to a van that was there. We carried him into the van. He was bleeding heavily from the head," he said.
The eyewitness said that while Wickrematunge was being taken to hospital, his mobile phone, which he had been holding on to firmly, had started to ring.
"The phone rang. Since I was holding the injured person with another, the person on the front passenger seat answered the phone and told the caller that if he knew the owner of the phone, to come to the Kalubowila Hospital immediately," he said.
Amidst all the chaos, it was not till the van reached the hospital that they all realised that the injured man in the vehicle was none other than Lasantha Wickrematunge.
"We have always admired him as a fearless man who stood for the rights of the people. We were all sad to find out that it was this man who was shot," the eyewitness said.
Nadhan, driver of the van that took Wickrematunge to the hospital said that he was on his way to Avissawella for a delivery when the van was held up in a traffic jam in Attidiya.
"We saw people surrounding a car, but they looked afraid to go near. They may have been afraid to get close as it was a shooting incident," he said.
Nadhan said that while most people looked on, vehicles passed by without even stopping to have a second look.
Rushed to hospital
"We stopped to look and when we heard there was an injured person , we allowed the people to carry him to our van. Along with two other people and my sales manager, we drove straight to the Kalubowila Hospital," he said.
Like the other eyewitnesses, Nadhan also recognised the victim only upon reaching the hospital.
"When Wickrematunge's phone rang in the vehicle, we informed the caller of the incident."
One of the others who saw the incident as Wickrematunge was being taken into the van was Lakmal Nanayakkara, who works at Irudina, The Sunday Leader's sister paper. "I was in the bus getting ready to get off when the bus all of sudden got stuck in traffic," he said.
"First I thought it was an accident, then we realised that something else would have happened when we saw a man dressed in dark trouser was taken into a van, injured. I saw his head move inside the car when the people opened the door. I saw the vehicle and called office and asked Mr. Mohan (Lal Piyadasa, editor of the Irudina) whether Mr. Lasantha was in office, whether his car was there. He said no. Then I told him that there was a shooting and Mr. Lasantha was being taken to hospital. I got off the bus and tried to get in the van that was taking him but I could not."
Director, Colombo South Teaching (Kalubowila) Hospital, Dr. Anil Jasinghe said that all efforts made by the medical staff at the hospital and the other specialists brought into help Wickrematunge were not fruitful due to the severe injuries sustained by the victim to his head.
After three hours of extensive surgery, Lasantha succumbed to his injuries at around 2.30 p.m. last Thursday (8).
Meanwhile, Police Media Spokesperson, SSP Ranjith Gunasekera told The Sunday Leader that the IGP had assigned four teams to investigate into Wickrematunge's assassination.
He added that the teams have found some clues that would lead to the suspects. However, he said that he had not yet been given a detailed report, as the investigating teams did not want details to be revealed since it would hamper the progress of the investigation.
He said that SSP Mt Lavinia Police was heading the four teams.