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Grease-devil proves a slippery customer

Cities on edge fear semi-mythical naked attackers

Tense situation at Navatkuda in Katankudy in the east of Sri Lanka Tense situation at Navatkuda in Katankudy in the east of Sri Lanka
  • ucanews.com, reporter, Mannar
  • Sri Lanka
  • August 26, 2011
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Despite repeated assurances by government officials and religious leaders that it is a myth, a bizarre phenomenon known as the grease-devil is wreaking havoc in Sri Lanka.

At least five people have been killed in recent days and many more injured, as vigilante mobs of frightened citizens set upon people they suspect of being grease-devils. The dead include a police officer who was lynched for trying to save a suspect and a chronic epileptic who had escaped from hospital and was running away semi-naked. He was mistaken for a grease-devil and beaten to death in the street.

So what is a grease-devil, or grease-yaka as it is locally called? Originally, the term referred to a night-time prowler who would steal from properties or molest women. He would strip to his underwear and cover himself in grease to make it easier to evade pursuit. But in the recent epidemic, the grease-devils' activities have been focused only on attacking women. Around 30 such incidents have been reported since late July.

The scare started in rural parts of the north and east but has now spread to relatively sophisticated centers such as Colombo. In some areas it has put the public on a collision course with law enforcement authorities.

Rayappu Joseph, the bishop of Mannar, urged Catholics in the fishing town of Pessalai to stay calm. “Don’t take the law into your hands and punish a stranger, just hand him over to the police,” he said. “They will take proper action.”

His appeal followed an extraordinary incident where it was claimed that a stranger had been seen trying to enter a house on the beach. Once he was spotted, local people used the Catholic church’s bells to sound the alarm and the suspect ran into a navy camp. The naval forces then started firing  into the air and tried to quell the uproar by attacking the villagers with sticks and guns. Several villagers were wounded.

The atmosphere in Pessalai remains tense, as it does in many other places. “People are afraid to go out in the dark,” said one villager.  “The ones who would usually come out to help, if neighbors were in trouble, now prefer to lock their doors if any strange noises are heard.”

“This is Ramadan season,” another villager said. “Muslims need to go to the mosque at night for their religious service but due to the grease-devil they’re afraid to go out after six.”

Concern has now reached parliamentary level with special security forces ordered onto the streets in some cities to defuse the tension. On August 23,  100 people were arrested and sticks and rocks were thrown at police in a night of clashes in Colombo.

Unsurprisingly, the phenomenon has given rise to a number of different interpretations, conspiracy theories and accusations of political motives. The opposition has described it as a government ruse to frighten the public and make a case for retaining the state of emergency, which has been in force almost continually since 1983.

This theory was sunk when the government announced on August 25 that the state of emergency will be lifted in the first week of September.

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