Ghostly shrieks from Welikada | Daily News

Ghostly shrieks from Welikada

Thirty-five years ago on July 23, around 11.30 pm at Thinnaveli in Jaffna, a bomb was detonated targeting an army jeep. The soldiers who followed in a truck arrived to help the injured; they were ambushed by LTTE cadres who hurled grenades. The 13 killed on the spot was the highest number of fatalities sustained by the forces in a single event up to the time.

The bodies were flown to Kanatta the next day for last rights when anti-Tamil pogroms commenced in the city and spread to other areas. For five days, hooligans went on a looting, burning and killing spree unconstrained by state security. They destroyed 380 lives an estimated 4,000 houses and over 1,600 business establishments. Initially, it was The Minister of Industries and Technology, Cyril Mathews a well-known Sinhalese chauvinist who was behind instigating his Trade Union men to run riot while the government and President remained mum over the situation for four days.

Welikada Prison massacre

Communal harmony prevailed in prisons until 1983. All prisoners of varied races lived together, without any racial prejudices. Prisoners helped one another to solve their problems and never discriminated against each other. A Group of LTTE suspects detained under the PTA at the army Camp in Panagoda was transferred to Welikada in response to a request by Amnesty International and International Court of Jurists in June 1983.

Newspapers carrying the report on the ambush in Jaffna on the night of July 23, 1983, in which 13 soldiers were ambushed and killed, reached the inmates of Welikada Prison. Prisoners condemned to death read this news on July 24 Sunday evening, there was a massive public commotion going on in Borella when the bodies of 13 soldiers were brought to Kanatta, which the inmates heard. Though the rampage started in the night of 24th, curfew was declared only at 3 p.m. on July 25 Monday.

Fifty-three Tamil prisoners were brutally killed inside Welikada Prison in the high-security zone. The prison had four divisions- A, B, C and D. B3, C3 and D3 housed Tamil detainees, and A3 with almost all Sinhalese criminals were all on the ground floor. There were a total of 16 guards: the respective corridors had entry points to each wing through an iron door. Each wing had guards posted to man the locked cells. Two guards are stationed in the spacious lobby. The massacre occurred in two different dates— 35 Tamil prisoners were attacked and killed on July 25 by Sinhalese inmates on the second day of the pogrom. The second massacre took place two days later when another 18 Tamils and three prison officers were killed. No one has been convicted of the crime relating to these incidents.

In spite of C. T. Jansz, The Acting Commissioner and his staff’s attempt to control the mob, some 300 Sinhala prisoners broke out and hurried into the lobby area. Two dozens of attackers reportedly caused bloodshed in B3 and D3. Within a few minutes all inmates of B3 and D3, lay battered, or dead. However, the prisoners in A3 remained locked inside.

The Welikada Prisons riots on the first day started off at about 3.30 p.m. There were among the 23 detainees held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Selvarajah Yogachandran, better-known as Kuttimani, Jegan, Thangathurai, and few others, who had appealed against death sentences on the Neervely bank robbery in 1981. They were in one cell in B3; 28 other Tamils were detained in cells at C3, in addition to 29 other Tamil youths taken on suspicion and detrained in D3. It was the Sinhalese criminals in A3, [including the skyjacker of Alitalia aircraft, Sepala Ekanayake, convicted for his aborted attempt a year ago] who brutally assaulted Tamils with rough implements. The upper levels housed some 800 ordinary convicts, from where the lobby was visible. A few metres away, there were a few Tamil professionals, doctors, clergymen, academics, newspaper editors and architects detained under PTA.

A duty conscious Sinhalese jailer guarding C3 told the inmates “If they are to get you, it will have to be over my dead body.” He hid the cell door keys compelling them to retreat. Lieut. Hathrusinghe, of the 4th Artillery who was commanding the guard at Welikada, on receiving a message from Jansz for help, rushed with a few armed soldiers and the crowd upon seeing them dropped their ‘weapons’ and ran upstairs. Jansz rushed to the Borella police station, only to find that station was short-staff, and when returned to prison, he saw policemen waiting outside the prison gates being reluctant to enter, as the place was guarded by the army.

Security for remaining suspects

The prison authorities apart from the Acting Commissioner Jansz did little to manage the disaster. As revealed, one Sinhalese prison guard at wing C3 had managed to save a few inmates. The prisons commissioner at the inquiry said, “I contacted Sunderalingam DIG, he could not help; next General Attygala, Secretary to Ministry of Defence, he told me that troops are not used inside the prisons.”

The authorities did not transfer the remaining suspects or offer sufficient security to make sure their safety after the catastrophic event. In a second attack on the 27th, another 18 were killed. Among them were a medical practitioner named Dr. Rajasunderam, who was attached to a social service organisation. Fr. Philip Sinnarasa of St. John’s Church was one of the survivors who published his experience in a web.

“The whole sky was filled with darkness and fire… We quickly found out that there was an attack on the political prisoners in the Chapel section. All the Sinhalese criminals were let out. They took whatever they could, and they were killing the Tamil prisoners. Thirty five people were massacred on this day… On the 26th, my group was moved up to the second floor… survivors of the Chapel massacre were moved into the cells on the first floor… On the 27th, the attack took place on the building we were in. The Sinhalese criminals came and they broke all the locks. They came inside and began to take us from our cells. Luckily, they were unable to open up three cells, and nine people survived… they immediately broke the padlocks and opened the gate. Dr. Rajasuntharam tried to reason with them but he was dragged outside, and he was killed on the spot… Eventually, the army came in and fired tear gas... the eight of us and the other nine survivors from the first floor were taken to a truck… The following morning, we were taken out, handcuffed, and then shipped in a small plane. Later, we realized that we had been taken to the Batticaloa Prison. We were let go two months later.”

When the opposition raised the issue in Parliament on August 4th: why it failed to prevent the disaster, the Prime Minister R. Premadasa said,

“One Sinhalese prisoner also had been killed…”-- Hansard; Aug 4, 1983: col. 1285

Analysts believe it was not an isolated act but was one executed meticulously, planned and manipulated by the political authority. Communal disturbances in the country have a long history, which dates back to1956/58. The authorities failed to carry out a proper inquiry in this instance too. The people and various civil organisation should clamour and assist the Government’s effort to bring about a solution to ethnic strife, so that all ethnic groups, communities, irrespective of race, religion, caste and creed, could live in harmony— thereby bring about economic prosperity to the people.

The prisoners who occupy the Chapel section experience recurring ghostly shrieks that reverberate within the walls of B3 and D3 at Welikada. 


There is 1 Comment

Nice article but the killers are out there. Justice can be served by arresting and convicting the perpetrators. This could bring closure to many who suffered the loss of a loved one.


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