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Sangarasigamany Bhahirathan

Twenty five years ago, I was a grade five student at the Colombo Hindu College. I was eleven years old. My father was a government servant and hence we – my parents and my younger brother - lived in Dehiwala, a suburb of Colombo.

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 they arrived.

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 lived there.

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 already there.

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 his wife!

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.

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