One of my earliest memories is
us waiting at the Rathmalana airport during the pogrom of 1977,
trying to catch a flight to Jaffna. We did not fly to Jaffna at
that time. And my memory is not strong to remember anything else
about ’77 riot. But, I remember the violence of ‘83
very vividly. And I will not forget. And when my children are
old enough, I will tell them about all I have been through.
We rented a house off Galle Road,
opposite the market. There were four Tamil families from Jaffna,
and two or three up country Tamil families and several Sinhala
families living in this neighbourhood.
On Sunday, the 24th. our neighbours
told us about the bomb blast in Jaffna, and that there had been
problems there. Even though my parents had the experience of 1977,
they did not expect the events that unfolded in the following
days. This is clear from the fact that I was allowed to go to
school the next day.
Attendance at school was very
low. I did not understand the situation. We played marbles for
a while. Then all students were called to a classroom and after
a while we were allowed to go home. I did not encounter problems
on my way home, but it was clear that all was not well –
students were going home in the morning.
When I went home, I found out
that my father had gone looking for me. Now we were worried. I
began to understand that we were facing a terrible situation.
Fortunately, my father came back soon, without encountering problems.
He had gone to my school, and upon finding that all students had
been sent home, rushed back.
It was around noon when our neighbours
called and told us that the thugs were attacking people and businesses
in the Dehiwala area too. We had no place to run – no place
to hide either. We prepared to leave our house – but we
had no idea where to go, or how to get there. In 1977, an uncle
came and picked us up in a jeep from our house – not this
time. Mother put some clothes in a bag and we came out of the
house. It will sounds crazy but we waited in the front of our
neighbour’s house ready to run away from the thugs when
Fortunately, one of our neighbours,
a Sinhala Mudalali came out before the thugs arrived. He asked
all of us to come to his house. All of the Tamil families living
in the neighbourhood went to his house. There were 26 of us in
one of the rooms and a kitchen. One of our Tamil neighbours had
visitors from Nigeria or some place in Africa. They had a preschool
child who kept reciting nursery rhymes. He did not understand
the situation. People were worried that his nursery rhymes might
bring attackers to us. At times we could see shadows on the opaque
windows. The thugs came looking for us and kept moving around
the Mudalali’s house.
One of our neighbours had gone
looking for his wife. He could not get far, so he came back. He
wore a handkerchief on his head and tried to show that he was
a Muslim. He was successful, until he was almost home. A person
who sells vegetables in the market recognized him and tried to
catch him. Fortunately our neighbour was wearing a nylon shirt,
and the attacker was unable to hold onto his shirt. Our neighbour
came running – calling out loud for the Mudalali to help
him. And he got into the Mudalali’s house. Now everyone
was angry. People thought that this was going to be the end of
it. But the Mudalali wielded quite a lot of influence and he was
able to send away those pursuing our neighbor. Later he told us
about what he had seen. It was scary.
By now the thugs had broken into
our neighbours house. They took away most of the things. The rest
they put kerosene in the living room and were preparing to burn
the house down. Our neighbours gave money to the thugs through
the Mudalali and they left without burning the house. Our house
was not damaged because we had moved only months earlier and were
not on the voters list – the thugs did not know that Tamils
The next day the Mudalali took
us to the Dehiwala Police Station in his car – only several
hundred metres away from where we lived. We could see burned out
shops on our way. There were many people in the Police Station.
Later the police put us on buses sent us to the Ratmalana Airport.
This time, unlike 77, we were sent to the Hangers. People were
We lived in one of the hangers
there for a week, before we were sent to Jaffna by ship. There
were several thousand people staying in two hangers.
On the day we arrived at the airport,
there was no food. Then they announced that bread would be provided
to children under 12 years of age. I waited in line with my brother.
The people distributing the bread thought I was older. I don’t
know how, but I convinced them that I was not 12 and managed to
get a piece of bread, which I ate before I got back to my parents.
Today, I am ashamed that I did not share it with my parents.
I remember very clearly the day
Lalith Athulathmudali came to visit the camp. We came to know
about the prison massacres through him. He told us that the government
had them killed to calm the Sinhala people. He was an Oxford educated
lawyer. He might have become president of Sri Lanka, if he had
not been assassinated in 1993.
I remember the day when thugs
were gathering to attack the hangers full of people. Youth sent
the women and children to the back of the Hangers and were preparing
to defend the camp with whatever they could find. Fortunately
the Air force men chased away the thugs.
I remember that one of my father’s
friends lived in the camp and his Sinhala wife would bring him
food from her house. It was not safe for him to even live with
I remember that one day, Indian
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s special envoy came to Sri
Lanka. For some reason, he landed at the Ratmalana airport and
waved at us. It gave us some hope.
I remember eating lunch in the
middle of the night, and going without food during the mornings.
I remember waiting in line to
get water from the two taps outside the hanger.
I remember waking up in the middle
of the night when it rained one day – there was a hole in
the Hanger above where we slept.
I remember the journey by ship.
I remember Navy sailors questioning my father about my dark blue
shirt – a dark blue full sleeve shirt of an eleven year
old boy suddenly threatened them.
I remember the feeling of relief
when we set foot in Kankesanthurai Harbour on August 2nd. I remember
the food they provided to us in a school.
When we went to Valvettiturai,
our village, we heard that soldiers arrived in a jeep and made
Baila music and celebrated the murder of Kuttimani in Welikade
Prison, in front of his family house.
When we went back to Jaffna, our
father did not go back to work. As a father of three children,
today I understand why we never went back to Colombo.
After 1983 up until 2003, I experienced
a lot more than this and some of them even more harrowing –
massacres, beatings, bombings, shellings, numerous displacements
to name a few. Personally in 1983, my family did not suffer as
much as many other Tamils did. There have been no apologies, no
truth and reconciliation commissions, no compensation - nothing.
Neither do I expect anything.
I will not let my children suffer
the same fate. And I will make sure that they know what happened
in 83, and later.