Remembering July 1983: 'The holocaust started for me with the death of my father'

Amongst memories of the cataclysmic violence that spread across Sri Lanka and which still marks this time of year as Black July, instances of incredible individual bravery and compassion stand out. But can the government match the honour of its people?

Lilani Jayatilaka
27 July 2012

A foreign friend asked me recently what my experiences had been during July 1983. I felt a momentary reluctance to tap into my memories of that horrendous time. Since then, I have lived a lifetime, faced further tragedy and loss of a personal nature and my coping mechanism has been not to revisit the sites of pain. I understand now, in a way I did not earlier, the wisdom underlying the Biblical saying, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. However, my friend was quite insistent that people should not merely remember but record for posterity, the stories of that time. Why, I asked myself, should I do so? Is it merely to feed the LTTE propaganda machine, as some eminent persons have claimed recently in loud and hysterical accents in the daily newspapers? Is it to add more mud and plaster to the paranoid effigies we have built up of “the other” ethnic community? Or is it rather to bring about a measure of healing, not by covering up unpalatable truths, but by exposing to the balmy (?!) air, the wounds in our psyche. By “our”, I refer not to any one ethnic community, but to all Sri Lankans. Once again I quote from the Bible (not from any religious bias, I hasten to add, but rather because of my greater familiarity with Christianity), that beautiful line, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”.

So what are my memories of July 1983? The holocaust started for me with the death of my father on the 9th of July. Every child thinks their father is the greatest father alive. However my father had a quality of “being” that made him loved and respected wherever he went. He was the hub of our universe, the barometer against which we measured our thoughts and actions; a man whose concern for the less well to do and the marginalized was such that he turned down fairly lucrative employment opportunities in favour of working towards his goal of bringing about peace through social justice. Later, in the first couple of years after his retirement, he wrote papers for the Marga Institute, and ironically, on the 8th of July, he was working on a paper detailing the volatility of the situation in the island and the escalation of tension between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. He seemed beset by a sense of urgency, because he did not leave his desk, except to grab some lunch, and had merely to write the concluding paragraph, when he decided to take a break, late in the evening. He was never to write that concluding paragraph. Two hours later he suffered a massive heart attack and by the early hours of the next morning, he was dead.  A week later, without the benefit of either hindsight, or the foresight that he seemed to possess, I put in the finishing touches to my father’s paper.

Thus we were dazed and perhaps even somewhat indifferent, to the rumours that were circulating a couple of weeks later, of riotous crowds gathering outside the funeral parlour, housing the remains of the 13 soldiers killed in Jaffna. Our world had fallen apart; surely nothing worse could happen?  – or so we believed.  On the 23rd of July my sister Shirani and family who were on a visit from Nigeria where they were resident, my mother and I were at lunch, when some neighbours rushed in and asked us to leave our home and come to theirs immediately as a band of thugs was making its way down Templar’s road, Mount Lavinia, systematically attacking all the Tamil homes on their way. A short while before this, in response to frantic messages from some other neighbours, we had packed a suitcase each of our valuables and handed these over to them. (Incidentally, it is an interesting if bizarre experience, to have to choose within the space of half an hour, the things we value the most from amongst the collections of a lifetime).

Some friends who lived behind our house, the Satkunams, had urgently outlined a plan of action in case we were attacked. We were to climb the wall into their compound if our house were to be attacked and vice versa. In the event we did not follow this outline, but took shelter in the home of our other neighbours, though the Satkunam’s son, Lalith, did jump into our compound and hide in the servant’s bathroom. We were to hear of this twenty years later from Lalith himself, a neurophysician now in Canada, when our paths crossed serendipitously.  Mrs Satkunam, did manage to scale her wall into another neighbour’s home, but Mr Satkunam, unnerved and paralysed into inaction, hid behind his car and was discovered. The rioters then manhandled him into the car and were about to set him ablaze along with his car, when their neighbour’s  twenty year old daughter rushed in, threw herself at their feet and pleaded with them not to harm Mr Satkunam. Her pleas were heeded and Mr Satkunam’s life was spared.

My mother and I in the meanwhile, stayed hidden in our neighbour’s house, wondering fearfully what had become of my three sisters and their families. What were their experiences? My sister Shirani and family, who had been staying with us, had been whisked away by her sister in law and her Sinhalese husband, ostensibly to safety in their Colombo house. However they had a nerve- wracking ride from Mount Lavinia to Colombo as their car was stopped several times, as rioters checked the occupants to see whether there were any Tamils within and others siphoned off petrol to set fire to the homes of Tamils.

My sister Suhendrini had been at home with her young daughter when the rioters marched down the road. My uncle and family lived in the flat below theirs, and though my aunt and cousins did manage to scale their neighbours’ walls, my sister could not do so with her toddler in her arms, and my uncle refused to abandon her. The three of them hid in the outside bathroom, while they listened to the sounds emanating from their homes. Furniture and anything breakable was being smashed. After a while the sounds ceased and my sister emerged to find a conflagration in the middle of the floor. She then set about putting the fire out. While she was doing this another wave of rioters appeared and relit the bonfire which she put out once again. She was caught by the third wave of rioters who threatened to kill both her and her young daughter.

Having lived abroad for long periods of her adult life, her Sinhalese was a trifle shaky. However at that moment of confrontation, she seemed to find within herself a fluency and a facility with the language that she did not know she possessed. She debated with the man she identified as the leader of the gang, whose eyes she described later as ‘bloodshot and burning’, asking him why he wanted to kill the two of them. “Because you killed our brothers in Jaffna" he replied. “Did I do this?” she then countered. He stood nonplussed for a moment, before emitting a loud yell and rushing, it seemed to her, at her with his axe. However he merely rushed past her to bring his axe down on the TV behind her, with a resounding crash. The gang then proceeded to systematically destroy the other items of furniture in the house. They examined her washing machine, which was still in its packaging after she had brought it back from Scotland after long years there, and then flung it over the balcony. (They were able to retrieve it later, virtually undamaged). Soon after this incident, my sister Arulini’s husband rescued her and brought her to us, while my uncle took refuge next door.

My sister Arulini in the meanwhile, was at the bus halt in Fort waiting for a bus to bring her home. After years of taking the same bus, at the same time from the same halt, the other passengers and she had virtually become a family. On that momentous day, they noticed an eerie calm prevailing in the Fort area. There seemed to be no movement of traffic and no pedestrians on the road, all the shops and businesses seemed to have put up their shutters early and there was no sign of their bus. They scanned the road nervously, willing their bus to appear. What did appear was a gang of goons, who threw Molotov cocktails at some shops opposite Grindlay’s Bank, which burst into flames. By this time, my sister and her fellow commuters were panic stricken. There were still no signs of their bus. All of a sudden, an army vehicle filled with soldiers appeared around the corner and my sister heaved a sigh of relief. The soldiers would disperse the gang and they would be safe, she believed. She was disabused of this belief within a few minutes.

The soldiers to whom she looked for relief fired tear gas canisters at the huddled group of commuters at the bus halt, which scattered any and which way. Not knowing which way to run, my sister slipped in through the back entrance of Apothecaries, which was fortunately not locked. She walked into a meeting of employees, where arrangements were being made to drop them off at home. One of the employees recognized her as someone he had worked with earlier, and she was allowed to join them.  She piled into a van with some others and was taken up to Bambalapitiya junction from which point the van could proceed no further. She along with the others in the van then got out and started the long trek home. In her white sari and in her high heels, she jumped over burning debris on the pavements, trying not to look at the mayhem on the road and along the way. At one point, she walked past a shoe shop which was being looted. She walked in, discarded her high heels, helped herself to a pair of rubber slippers and walked on. Somewhere near Dehiwela junction, she was spotted by the driver of the van ferrying employees of Tobacco Company to their respective homes, and since she was an employee there, she was picked up and brought to the place where the rest of us were hiding.

We stayed at our neighbour’s house for two days. They treated us with sympathy and immense generosity. However word got around that these neighbours were harbouring Tamils, and since we did not want to put them at risk we moved into the home of some other friends. However on the 26th of July, when a second wave of violence swept Colombo in the wake of a rumour about an imminent Tiger attack, our hosts became fearful and once again we left our shelter and took refuge with some others. There was bewilderment and confusion all around. We did not know whether we could ever go back home; whether we even had a home to go back to. We did not know the fate of our other friends and relations. We did not know whether anything was being done by the government to restore sanity and normalcy to the nation. In this context, we listened anxiously to the local news being broadcast on TV, expecting the government to act promptly to restore law and order.

For several days there was no word from the President. When he did speak to the nation, we watched dumbfounded, as he expressed no regret for the carnage, no outrage at this lawless and indiscriminate attack on the life and property of people who are after all, by and large, law -abiding citizens of this land, but stated instead that the events of the past few days were but the manifestation of the righteous indignation of the Sinhala people against the Tamil people for their massacre of the soldiers in the North.  In other words, the President was expressing in more sophisticated language, sentiments and thoughts similar to those expressed by the leader of the gang that confronted my sister Suhendrini. In answer, I quote her simple but profound words, “Did I do it?”

Weeks later, when the stories of what happened at that time began to emerge in dribs and drabs, we realized that we had got off lightly. Even though one sister had lost her home and property, even though the trauma of being hunted by a rabid mob bent on wreaking a terrible vengeance, could not be forgotten quickly or easily, we were thankful that we had escaped with our lives.

Almost thirty years later, we as a nation are not any nearer sanity or normalcy. July '83 and its aftermath has divided the nation ideologically and emotionally, if not geographically. “The blood-dimmed tide” has swept away large numbers of young people (mainly) but also the old, the infirm, the middle-aged, rich and poor, on both sides of the ideological, emotional divide. Bullets and bombs do not discriminate. Everyone claims to be right. In the end, everyone is wrong. As has been said repeatedly, in this war everyone is a loser. Economically and politically, the country is in shambles: there is rampant corruption, galloping inflation, and anarchy. The underworld operates with impunity while the emasculated forces of law and order look the other way. Intimidation and terror have been used to muzzle the media, while the general public remains apathetic and indifferent to any one else’s plight but his or her own, and human rights seem an unnecessary and wasteful luxury.

In this context, the polarization of the communities is complete. I look at my husband who is a Sinhalese and I look at myself, a Tamil, and I wonder where the difference lies, for it is not apparent to my eyes.  I quote from Shylock’s speech in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’:

“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

Substitute Tamil, Sinhalese or any other ethnic or religious group in place of the word ‘Jew’ or ‘Christian’ and a simple truth emerges – that we are fundamentally the same despite our differences.  We might speak different languages, we might dress differently, belong to different faiths, but we are the same and we are human. And furthermore, between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, there is more commonality than differences, even in our cultural and religious practices. In the next line of the same passage from ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Shylock asks “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” In this, our very humanness, lies our folly. Revenge begets revenge, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. This is the fallacy that is being worked out now. When will the carnage cease?

This article was first published by Colombo Telegraph on 26th July 2012.

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