By Asif Fuard
BLACK JULY 1983-6
Two days after Sri Lankan Tamils suffered a brutal massacre, sounds of pandemonium were still heard outside the impenetrable walls of the Welikada Prison, while the stench of burnt rubber mixed with the odour of blood and corpses filled the air.
Several Tamil inmates, who had been imprisoned within the confines of the Welikada Prison, considered themselves fortunate as they believed they were safer inside than being Tamils living outside. They feared if they were living outside the walls of the Welikada Prison, many of them would have been targets of the mob that ran riot during the previous days referred to as Black July.
Cornered and massacred
However, their notion of being safer inside turned out to be quite the opposite of what happend. The aftermath of the 23 July riots did not stop with a lull. The massacre of Tamils eventually spread to the Welikada Prison resulting in 35 Tamil political prisoners, detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), being massacred on 25 July 1983. Two days later, on 27 July, 18 more Tamil political prisoners were killed within the confines of the same walls of the Welikada High Security Prison.
A total of 53 Tamil prisoners were butchered while the government at the time turned a blind eye. Very little steps were taken to bring the culprits before justice. Detailed accounts of what happened within the walls of the prison have been recorded. Few of the fortunate Tamil prisoners managed to escape. Some of those who escaped the Welikada Prison carnage still live – to tell the tale from behind closed doors.
If, for whatever reason, one has the desire to relive the horror of the massacre, which took place 29 years ago, a former Tamil political prisoner known as Ram is the man to talk to.
He is one of the few who were fortunate to survive the prison bloodbath during a period of anarchy that led to the killing of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils. “We lost several of our brothers and sisters during that time. This was clearly genocide and no one was there to help us at the time,” he said recalling the bloody scenes of July 1983.
“On the evening of 24 July, we heard screams outside the prison walls. The screams emanated from men and women who were crying and appealing to God and pleading for their lives in Tamil, amidst a hum of voices that mercilessly berated them in Sinhalese. Those of us who heard it knew that something was going on outside the prison. However, we were not sure as to what,” he said.
At that time, Ram, who was held under suspicion, said, when he was taken outside his cell to the courtyard, with the rest of the prisoners, which was the routine, they had discussed what was occurring outside the walls of the prison.
“Are they rounding up and killing all the Tamils? If that’s the case, we are better off being locked up in here than being out there,” one prisoner who was with Ram told the other Tamil prisoners in rage. “They will never do that. The consequences would be much worse than what they would think. This is not Nazi Germany. True, we are fighting against the oppression of Tamils, but they will never go to the extent of exterminating us like what Hitler did in Germany. That era ended a long time ago,” another prisoner replied, commenting on the screams heard outside.
‘Dark Mark’ tattoo in the sky
However, nearly an hour later, the prisoners who were with Ram, could see smoke reaching the clouds and obliterating the skyline, and smelt the stench of burnt rubber and gasoline.
“By afternoon, we heard loud screams inside the prison, the guards were hardly there to be seen. They took axes and iron rods to hack and butcher the Tamil prisoners. You could see blood dripping all over the prison,” he said.
It was eight in the morning on 25 July, when the death-row prisoners were taken to the ground floor to go through the morning newspapers, as usual.
The headlines declared that ‘thirteen Sri Lanka Army soldiers attached to the Four-Four Bravo team had been killed in Jaffna in an ambush during the night.’ “We have great challenges ahead of us. It is only now that our struggle has begun,” Ram said, quoting the Founder and Leader of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), Selvarajah Yogachandran, better-known by his nom de guerre, Kuttimani.
Kuttimani, who was the main suspect in the bank heist at Neerveli, and a man behind the killings of several police officers, was arrested and sentenced to death. When the death sentence had been passed, Kuttimani had said he would donate his eyes to see the birth of Eelam.
When the massacre in the prison broke out, the Sinhala extremist prisoners had gouged his eyes out and hacked him to death.
Leading the mob in prison was prominent convict, Sepala Ekanayake, who had been involved in the hijacking of a commercial aircraft in 1982.
“The massacre broke out once again on the second day. Many who were with us were then transferred to the Batticaloa Prison,” Ram said.
Sri Lanka, which boasts of having one of the oldest civilizations in Asia, went back to the dark ages in 1983. Sinhala extremists ran riot while the democratically-elected government remained mum over the situation.
Mob justice was the order of the day on that fateful Black July. Twenty-nine years later, the haunting screams yet echo within the walls of the Welikada Prison – a grim reminder that nothing much has changed. courtesy: Ceylon Today