Prison Break

by JK Sivalingam, 2012

“I just had a call from an old school friend. His old Ayah’s son is a prison guard at Welikade. Apparently 35 Tamil political prisoners were killed by rioting inmates” he said. “These were mostly political prisoners awaiting trial”.

Welikade – the very utterance of this word was enough to strike terror into the heart of any Tamil person. For years, the stories of cruel punishment and torture of political detainees had leaked out. Now Murali was not talking about breaking out, but breaking in to this massive prison, which housed some of the most hardened criminals in Sri Lanka.

I had to admire Murali. Two days ago, we had just managed to escape a rampaging mob intent on killing us, for no other crime than being Tamil. It was thanks to some quick talking by Murali and his fluent Sinhalese that we managed to escape. He had persuaded them that we were just visiting from Singapore and was helped by the fact that we wore western clothing and did not dare say a word that might betray us.

What surprised me was that the police did not try and help us. They stood at the back of the baying mob and did nothing throughout the agonising ten minutes that it took Murali to get us out of the mess.

We were back at Uncle Sivam’s house in Cinnamon Gardens and were working out how soon we could get out of the country and back to the safety of London when Murali started on about Welikade.

“I just had a call from an old school friend. His old Ayah’s son is a prison guard at Welikade. Apparently 35 Tamil political prisoners were killed by rioting inmates” he said. “These were mostly political prisoners awaiting trial”.

I have to say that when I had planned to come to Sri Lanka during my summer holidays this was not what I expected. I had been looking forward to sun, sea and catching up with some old friends. Dodging murderous crowds and discussing political murders were not on my list of top things to do while on holiday. Little did I know that it was soon going to get worse.

“We have to do something” said Murali earnestly. “There are many more political prisoners at the prison and more could be killed any day.”

Luckily the rest of us had no stomach for this. We managed to talk him out of this frame of mind and went back to seeing how fast we could get out of Colombo.

“There have been more killings” said Murali, two days later. “Another 18 have been killed today. Apparently most of the warders were given the day off and the prison was running on a skeleton staff.”

We knew what this meant. Someone senior in the government would have given the nod to OK this. What better way to avoid embarrassing trials where allegations of torture would have come out. A simple prison riot with some unfortunate casualties could be quickly swept under the carpet.

Appalling as this was, what did this have to do with us?  None of us had any interest in Tamil Eelam. Most of our parents had emigrated years ago from a country that was fast becoming uncomfortable for us Tamils. Discrimination in education and employment meant that we did not have a level playing field anymore. Political connections, bribery, religion and ethnicity dictated whether you got a good education and a decent job. Better to live as minority in a country that appreciated your skills, as opposed to living as a second class citizen in a country that resented you and was jealous of your achievements.

“Father Joseph is in Welikade” said Murali quietly.

This had the desired effect on us. If there was any one adult that we all respected it was Father Joseph. He had been an inspiration to us at the youth club he ran. We all loved and respected him.

“He moved north to Jaffna a few years ago” continued Murali. “He was involved in some Ghandian projects with Dr. Rajasunderam. The Government has accused the movement of being a front for Tamil militants and thrown many of the leaders into jail.”

“They killed Dr Rajasunderam today. Father Joseph only managed to escape by breaking the legs off a table and fending off the attackers along with another priest and a Methodist Minister”.

I guess the thought of this peaceful priest forced to fight for his life was the turning point for us. If Dr Rajasunderam, the leader of the peaceful Ghandian movement could be killed, then what were the chances of Father Joseph surviving in Welikade?

Once Murali sensed our mood, he was quick to start making plans. “Gunasene will help us. He is a decent type and detests what he has seen going on”.  He was the prison warden that had been Murali’s source.

“Our ally is speed and surprise” said Murali. “With the riots there is a lot of confusion and no one is quite sure what is going on.  We have to make use of this to our advantage.”

Later that night we were ready. A borrowed truck had been painted in army camouflage. Sita had run up four realistic looking uniforms. Authentic looking paperwork had been drawn up in Sinhalese.

“Leave all the talking to me and Anton” said Murali. I was worried about my courage deserting me. Not talking was certainly not a problem for me, especially with my poor command of Sinhalese.

“Remember, speed and surprise!” was Murali’s last command to us before he drove up to the entrance of the prison in a cloud of dust around 5 o’clock the following morning.

The rest of that morning is still a blur to me. There was a lot of shouting, mostly from Murali. In the outfit of a Major in the Sri Lankan army, this seemed perfectly normal. There was much flashing of paperwork. I sat with Ranjan in the back of the truck hoping that no one was looking too closely at our ‘rifles’ which had been quickly crafted from bits of wood and metal tubing.

After what seemed like an eternity which Murali assured me later was only ten minutes, eight prisoners were quickly bundled out of the gates of the prison and into the back of the truck. Murali shouted one last time at the prison guards before speeding away.

We had chosen the time carefully. The senior warders were not yet on duty and the prison guards did not have any means of checking the orders presented by Murali. Gunasene had passed a message to Father Joseph. This guaranteed that they would all cooperate and not cause any last minute holdups. He had also supplied the names of the eight remaining political detainees to list on the order.

We dumped the truck some two miles from the prison. The detainees dispersed in ones and twos and in various modes of transport but not before Father Joseph could thank us. Some just took the bus to Jaffna, others hid in the back of trucks carrying goods. We ourselves made a getaway from Colombo early the next day.

Murali now works for Greenpeace harassing Japanese whalers. I am sure that the role requires a lot of shouting. Ranjan and Anton work for Amnesty International. I have settled down to a quiet job as a university lecturer in politics. We all meet up occasionally, but never in Sri Lanka. Nearly thirty years on, life for political prisoners has not improved much. Given our political views none of us have any wish to end up inside Welikade.

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  1. Vibhushana

    The riots were abhorrent. Everyone responsible should be ashamed.

    Appalling as this was, what did this have to do with us? None of us had any interest in Tamil Eelam.

    They say when good people do nothing evil flourish. One can ask what did this have to do with me? Perhaps when Prabarakan made his first kill in 1974 and upto 1983 there were 9 years something could have been done to stop him. Instead we know most Tamils including TULF politicians either looked away or gave their tacit approval.