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Manjula Selvarajah

I was 12. My parents, my two younger brothers and I were in Sri Lanka on a vacation from Nigeria where my parents worked. Towards the end of our visit, we were returning from a visit to Jaffna, when our bus from Nuweraliya to Colombo was stoned – at that point we knew trouble was stirring. Then the next day in Colombo, our uncle came home to tell us to lock the doors and stay in. As we talked, we could see a lot of smoke coming up in various quarters of the city and the main streets.


Talk began to spread that Tamil houses and business establishments were being burnt. Soon news spread of the slaughtering of Tamils on the main streets and the looting and burning of Tamil houses and businesses by Singhalese rioters.

When it started on our street, it came all of sudden. Vanloads of loud men started driving down the road. While my parents were scurrying around the backyard trying to figure out a way to escape, I got out of the bedroom where they had asked us to wait and went to watch the mob from near the living room. A group of men had gathered outside our home, throwing stones and breaking windows, while others started pouring kerosene on the house. I also saw a few outside with axes and other weapons. I was dragged by my dad back to hide in the bedroom. In the meantime, my aunt ran in through the back to say that they had already broken into her home and started looting.

Seeing that they were setting fire to the place, we knew we had to leave. There were about 13 of us in that bedroom, the five from my family, five from my aunts’ family, two other cousins and some girl I vaguely remember that had been left with us for safekeeping.

Taking up the offer of shelter from a Catholic Singhalese neighbor behind us, we scaled the back wall and hid in their house overnight, as our house was first looted and then put on fire. That night a big argument broke out in front of their house because some of the other Singhalese neighbours wanted the kind lady to throw us out on the street to fend for ourselves. Meanwhile she defended her decision to hide us. Strangely enough, the one thing I remember vividly during this argument is an older Singhlaese man hitting me and my younger cousin for no reason at all, and yelling something in Singhalese at us. I remember being stunned that an older person would do that and just shocked at the pure hate he had for us. Once the fires calmed down, I also saw mobs of people from the neighbourhood behind the wall to our house, run in with water to put out the little fires and leave with the things that were not burned. A few hours later into the night, all the houses on the street were set on fire again by another mob.

Finally fearing for her safety and ours, we were taken to another house where we hid until the next day. At which point, one of our uncles came, found us and rescued us. We felt we were so much more luckier than so many other people: a neighbor a few houses down was cut to death by the mob; there were dead bodies on the main street; one of my Tamil girlfriends was chased by a mob and managed to escape; another friend saw a woman being burnt alive on the streets; a friends of ours stayed in one of the terrible refugee camps with no shelter or food (he once said to my dad that he would pray during those awful days that "if they were going to kill any of his family, to kill all of them", since he couldn't imagine the others going on. What a thing to think, but his situation was so bad that it is understandable). The stories are just endless.

To this day, I still try to imagine how my parents, uncle and aunt must have felt having to run around with us and worry about our safekeeping. My parents had made the move to Nigeria for this very reason, the previous riots and the discrimination they had experienced in their careers. They did not want to live in fear and have their kids bought up in a place where they would be second class citizens. My dad tells me all of the kids cried through those July 83 nights out of sheer fear. There was no telling what would happen in the next hour and if we would make it out of there alive. I am thankful to that lady for saving our lives.

In a few days, the stories on the mobs came out. Apparently there had been a marking on our house left by someone with an electoral list earlier designating it as a Tamil house so it would be easier for the mob to hit it. I heard that a Tamil boy on a bike was taken off his bike and set alight in front of President Jeyawardena's house. I think that says enough about the complacency of the government. I was also shocked that it took so many days before the government declared a state of emergency in town.

Now my entire family lives here in Canada, happily and are grateful for our life and security here.

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