In 1982, Sepala Ekanayake hijacked an Alitalia aircraft with 300 passengers on board. His demand: a reunion with his Italian wife and child. Gunadasa Liyanage meets up with him in his new life.
Remember Sepala Ekanayake? He was the Sri Lankan who gained international notoriety when he hijacked an Alitalia Boeing 747 with 340 passengers on June 30, 1982, in midair between New Delhi and Bangkok all for the love of his son. The hijack drama ended peacefully with Sepala obtaining his demands.
Where is Sepala Ekanayake today, and what is he doing? Sepala`s main source of income today is a jeep service at Nuwara Eliya which he operates to take tourists to World`s End.
Sepala Ekanayake was born on June 3, 1949, in the village of Karatota in the Matara District. Educated at the village school and Yodakandiya Vidyalaya in Hambantota, he was a revolutionary even as a child.
In the latter part of the fifties, I was boarded in a room at Poorvarama Road, Kirillapone. The owner of the house was D.L.B. Perera, the then Head Master of the Ananda Primary in Colombo. Some time after I left that room, Sepala who had run away from home after a heated argument with his father, stayed there. It had taken about six months for the father to trace the `lost boy`.
In 1972 Sepala went to West Germany in search of greener pastures. . While in Germany, Sepala Ekanayake cultivated a friendship with an Italian girl called Anna Aldrovandi. They married in 1977. In 1980 they went to live in Modena Italy and had a son who was named Free Ekanayake.
In the meantime, Sepala lost his Italian visa and requested the Italian authorities to issue a fresh one. But their advice was for Sepala to go to Sri Lanka and obtain a visa from the Italian Embassy in Colombo. When he came to Sri Lanka, however the Italian Embassy here asked him to wait for six years to get a visa.
Having failed in every attempt to re-join his wife and son in Italy, Sepala became a very angry and frustrated man. His plan was to hijack an Italian passenger plane and put forward his demands to the Italian authorities through the pilot.
On the 30th of June 1982 Sepala Ekanayake went to New Delhi airport with a number of accomplices and waited for the Alitalia Boeing 747 from Rome on its way to Tokyo. When the plane landed Sepala made himself comfortable in a rear seat.
After taking off from New Delhi airport when the plane rose to the cruising level of 35,000 feet Sepala put his plan into action. First he sent a letter to the pilot, in which he gave the reasons for hijacking and the demands. The first demand was to bring his wife and the son to the Bangkok airport and the second was a ransom of 300,000 US Dollars.
Some of the other instructions to the pilot were as follows:
`This plane must land at Bangkok airport. Doors of the plane should not be open. Our demands must be communicated to the Bangkok airport and the Italian authorities immediately. All discussions with us should be restricted to radio communications only. We have got the most sophisticated bombs manufactured in Italy. If we feel that you are trying to deceive us or to attack us, the plane with all the passengers, will be blown up. Simultaneously with that explosion, or a little later, there will be two more blasts in Modena and another city in Italy.`
After reading Sepala`s letter, the Chief Pilot, Captain Georgo Amarosa brought down the plane to 25,000 feet from 35,000 feet. (Giving evidence in the High Court in Colombo later, Captain Amarosa said he did so to minimise the damage from the impending disaster).
After a few hours of suspense, there came the news that Sepala`s wife, son and the ransom were on the way to Bangkok. The eyes of the world were focused on Bangkok for some 30 odd hours when Anna, Free and the ransom arrived at the Bangkok airport.
Sepala Ekanayake released the exhausted passengers and came out of the plane. The whole world heaved a sigh of relief.
But Sepala was confronted with a new problem: where to go with his wife and son and his newly gained wealth in order to start a new life. Manel Abeysekera, Sri Lanka`s ambassador in Bangkok came to the airport and assured Sepala that he could come to Sri Lanka without any fear. Yet Sepala was rather hesitant.
The Italian government meanwhile was pressing the Sri Lankan government to hand over the highjacker to Italy. But public opinion here was against such a move and the J. R. Jayewardene government was in a dilemma. Consequently Sepala was arrested by the police in Galle and taken to Welikada prison. In the rush the Italian Embassy manoeuvred to `smuggle` Anna and Free out of the country and send them to Italy.
Though Sepala was arrested, the Sri Lankan government did not have legislation to take any action against him.. So the government had to pass new legislation in Parliament in order to try Sepala in courts.
Sepala was tried before the High Court Judge J.J.S.A Dias Upawansa Yapa as the Deputy Solicitor- General conducted the case on behalf of the Attorney-General. Well-known attorney Ranbanda Seneviratne appeared for Sepala Ekanayake. Pilot Amarosa too came to Sri Lanka to give evidence.
At the end of the trial Sepala was sentenced to five years imprisonment. While in prison he produced some plays and became very popular among the other prisoners. Once again, he became free Ekanayake in 1987.
Sepala Ekanayake has now married an English teacher called Yasanganee Madupali. The couple have a daughter called Sally and a son called Wirama. Though Sepala has his jeep business in Nuwara Eliya, his permanent residence is at Battaramulla.
During the last Parliamentary general elections in 1994 Sepala campaigned hard to bring the PA into power, especially in the Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Matale districts. But when the government came out with the `Package` he became a staunch critic of the PA. Recently he published a hard-hitting Sinhala book titled `Uta saha Thota` (To that one and You) where he has devoted a number of pages to attacking the promoters of the Package.