Riots, Witches and Yakas
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday August 21 2011
For the past couple of weeks, there has been much excitement in our Sri Lankan neighbourhood (near Badulla). Villagers are convinced that there is a serial killer on the rampage. The elderly ladies, Tewanee and Meenaachi, who work for us have been telling us that they know for a fact that women have been raped and killed in this vicinity, their breasts bitten off, their hearts torn out. Tewanee’s dogs were killed by having their throats slashed.
The fear is real. We have been told two men have been watching our house, one man dressed all in white, another dressed all in black. There have been reports of two strange men hiding in a drain near our house. A male worker who sometimes does jobs for us told us to be careful. He said the yakas jump from trees. Some might be suspicious about that worker himself. The husband of one of our workers has been expressing fears about our safety but did not worry about going away to work on lorry without telling his wife that he was going. Police have been calling at his house looking for him. His neighbour has three young daughters and his wife is always away working in the Middle East. The man is rarely at home and leaves the daughters to fend for themselves. The girls, aged from five to thirteen, are very scared by the stories of yakas.
Villagers are roaming the roads around our house with sticks and knives and setting fire to the jungle to flush the miscreants out. Strangers come under suspicion. We phoned the police one night when there were shouting mobs roaming the roads. The local police fobbed us off but we later heard that they did come to investigate. One villager said a policeman pleaded, “Please don’t hit me son. I’m a policeman. Hit the Yaka if you catch him. Kill him with your stick if you like but don’t hit me. I’m a police officer!” It does not seem that villagers suspect their own – the emphasis is on fear of strangers – but there is potential for the settling of old scores as in the Salem witch hunts and Guantanamo. The belief that the police are releasing culprits adds to the vigilante frenzy.
It is quite touching that Tewanee has invited us to stay at her home out of fear for our safety. Our neighbours are related to the people living below them. There is no love lost but they insisted that they all stay with them for safety.
We heard of an attack at two-mile post another at seven mile post. We heard that a man had been chased by a mob with sticks and knives and he had hidden in the jungle near the Tea Research Institute. We asked a doctor friend who works in Badulla near the general hospital if there was any truth in these rumours. He said there had been attacks but he had not heard of any deaths. Sightings got closer to our home. We phoned the local police chief. At that very moment he was in a meeting with the manager of the tea estate next to the one on which we live. The OIC (Officer in Charge) told us there was nothing to worry about, These were just wild rumours. He said there was no truth either in stories that children were being abducted from the lines (the estate accommodation for tea pluckers and labourers).
The manager on another tea estate, someone with whom we often socialise, also pooh-poohed the idea of attacks on women. However, later in the conversation, he admitted that he had taken a woman to hospital after she had been attacked on an estate road and badly scratched She had been with another woman who ran away.
The attacks are being blamed on bhuthaya, grease yakas or grease devils. Historically, a “grease devil” was a thief who wore only underwear or went naked and covered his body in grease to make himself difficult to grab if chased. Lately, the “grease devil” has become a night-time prowler who frightens and attacks women. Some of the reported attacks around here have been in daylight.
The name ‘Grease Devils’ was used in connection with the killings of seven elderly women in Kahawatte, near Ratnapura. On July 5, 2011, about 2,000 people protested about the ineffectiveness of the police. According to human rights campaigner Basil Fernando: “The most attractive aspect of policing in Sri Lanka today is no longer investigation into crime and serving the people. It now appears to be the improvement of one’s own position, and to make money. There are many avenues open to senior police officers to do just this which makes worrying about criminal investigations an inconvenience…the authorities are more concerned about damage-control rather than trying to arrest the culprits. After the scandal goes away it will be business as usual, meaning that criminal investigation will remain no one’s business, as before.”
A man was arrested on Friday July 7 in an operation conducted by a special police unit assisted by the CID and the Ratnapura police. He broke the necks of these women before he raped them and dumped the bodies in jungles around Kahawatte. The suspect is a 35-year-old army deserter known as Dhananjaya. The killing spree began in 2008. It is said that the suspect is mentally impaired, having had a bullet graze his skull whilst serving at the front during the war. He deserted from the army while stationed at Vedithilathiv and moved to Kahawatte. He started by stealing women’s underwear and later peeped at women asleep in their beds or taking showers. This escalated to forcibly embracing women. “When I look at young women I am not attracted to them. But when I look at middle-aged women, I am sexually aroused,” Dhananjaya had told the police during interrogation.
There have long been rumours about feral bands of army deserters living in jungles and swooping on remote villages to plunder and rape.
Initially, there was not much in the newspapers despite accusations by the authorities against “the media” about distortion and panic-mongering. All the news was by word of mouth. There were rumours of incidents all over the country. A friend of ours, an Englishwoman who lives in the Kalutara area on the west coast, told us that on three separate occasions she has been scared by three different men staring in through her windows. One of them was naked.
A 16 year-old boy who posed as a ‘Grease Yaka’ and attempted to rob a house in the Badulla area was arrested. The youth along with another friend had rehearsed for the robbery and captured his own photograph on his mobile phone before he was detained by the villagers and handed over to the Police.
Ushanar Marzuka, 31, a mother of two living in a remote area in Valaichchenai in the east, was accosted by two men clad in T-shirts and shorts with faces painted black. One of them cut her with a sharp object he carried in his hand. More than 100 villagers, some of them armed with clubs started searching for the two men. They caught a man and beat him up. He had said he was visiting one of his relatives.
A masked man who was terrorising people in the Sigiriya-Dambulla area was arrested by police on August 13. Police said the 34-year-old suspect was hiding inside a wooded area on the Sigiriya border when he was apprehended around 7.30pm. The police were led to the suspect’s hide out on a tip-off provided by local villagers. At the time of his arrest he was in possession of a bag loaded with women’s under wear.
There have been deaths. Police said that two unfortunate men killed at Thotalagala estate in Haputale, not far from us, were two travelling rug salesmen, though villagers identified them as ‘Grease Devils.’ The police identified the victims as Somasundaram Mahendran (29) and Sylvester Dias Jonny Peter (35). Fifty Special Task Force personnel had been deployed at the Thotalagala Tea Estate. Earlier in the day in the villagers had assaulted two men apparently in the presence of police. This led to a clash between the police and villagers, in which the OIC and a constable were injured. Because of this police had delayed about five hours reaching the scene at Thotalagala estate.
In Daulagala, near Kandy a 23 year old youth who was among a group of villagers giving chase to a suspicious person got entangled in a live electrical wire set to a trap wild boar and was electrocuted.
A mob attacked the navy camp in Kinniya, Trincomalee after assuming that a suspect had taken refuge inside the premises. The mob believed the suspect was a man with grease on his body. Over 500 people gathered around the navy camp, pelted it with stones and also set fire to a jeep which arrived at the scene with police reinforcements. The Sri Lankan police said that at least three people including a police officer were injured in the attack and 25 people were later arrested.