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Ernest Thurairajah

My name is Ernest Thurairajah. I was 10 years old in July 1983 and was studying at St. Benedict’s College Colombo. Although, I knew very little about the problems faced by Tamils, I was acutely aware of the experiences of intimidation and threats from Singhalese towards the Tamil community. As Tamil students, we faced such experiences on a daily basis from Singhalese students at school. My father was a successful businessman operating many businesses in Colombo and my mother was a housewife raising myself and my two younger brothers, aged 6 and 4. Our house was located in Kotahena and had three floors and it was one of the tallest buildings in the area at that time. There was a doctor’s office in the ground floor and three units in the top floor, which were all rented out by my father. Our family occupied the entire middle floor. The tenants upstairs and the Doctor in the ground floor were all Tamils.

I remember the day the riots first started very clearly; I was eagerly waiting for the evening as always to watch a popular TV serial Charlie’s Angels. I overheard a conversation between my parents and figured that something was wrong. I heard them speak about the burning of shops and looting going on. Then we could see, from our balcony, lots of smoke in certain parts of our neighborhood mainly where shops were located. I saw ordinary Singhalese people and mobs carrying things that were looted from those shops down our road. At the time, we did not think that our house was in any danger and assumed that only the shops and businesses were being targeted. As the hours passed, the situation only got worse. That’s when we heard that large houses owned by Tamils in our neighborhood were being targeted as well.

At about 6pm that night, our house became a target of the angry mob. Singhalese mob gathered in large numbers in front of our house and broke into our parking garage in the ground floor. The mob dragged our car out to the street turned it upside down and set it on fire. My father owned a couple of vehicles but only one car was parked in our house (the other two were parked at my uncle’s house). The next target the mob set their sights on was the Doctors office, which was closed at the time. Finally, they came into our house breaking all the windows and doors.

My father had decided not to leave the house believing that it was impossible for us to escape as we were surrounded by the mob. When the mob came into our house, my mother, brothers and I hid under our dining table to protect ourselves from the broken window glass and the stones being thrown by the mobs. My father pleaded with the mobs not to hurt us. I remember vividly a man hitting and breaking our TV with a long stick. They broke all our appliances and started looting our house in front of us.

Luckily for us, there were some Tamil neighbors who had friends within the Singhalese mobs and they pleaded with them not to harm our young family with small children. They managed to convince the mob and take us to their house for safety. We were all very scared and we stayed quiet all night cramped into a small room. We were scared to speak in Tamil in case someone heard us.

The next day my father’s elder brother came looking for my father. They were hoping to find safety at our house not knowing what had happened to us the previous night. My uncle and his family jumped over their back fence when the mobs attacked their house. His entire house was burnt down to ashes including all their vehicles, my father’s car and a bus parked there. They fled their home so quickly that my uncle did not even manage to put a shirt on. He had inquired from our neighbors and found the house where we were staying. I can still see the pain and disappointment on my uncle’s face when he saw my father.

Another day passed before my mother’s aunt, a Catholic nun, came looking for us. She was very fond of my family and begged one of her students to drive her to our house to check on us. My aunt was also a teacher at Holy Family Convent. My aunt was in tears when she saw our plight and she pleaded with her student to take us all back to her convent. She only had a small car and could not fit all of us in one trip. My mom and my brothers along with my aunt made it in the first trip to the convent which had become a refugee camp by then. When they went back to get my father, we were very worried until they all made it back safe. The roads were still not safe and on our way to the convent we saw a lot of Sri Lankan armed forces and police, who we knew played a role in perpetuating all of this violence. There were many vehicles burnt on the street, we later heard Tamils were burnt alive in their cars. We also heard that buses were stopped and after asking non-Tamils to leave, the vehicles were burnt with Tamils inside. The Convent had a school behind it and thousands of Tamils refugees were living in the few small class rooms. At the make-shift refugee camp, there were very few washrooms, almost no showers and not much food available for refugees. I saw anguish in my father’s face trying to manage with his young family and small children under these difficult conditions. Overnight we had gone from being well-off and secure to become refugees. We were punished for simply being Tamils.

Several weeks passed by and my father decided to go to Jaffna which was our ancestral home. Most Tamils in Colombo and other areas outside the North East made similar decisions to go back to North East of Sri Lanka. All my uncles and aunts living in Colombo had taken refuge in different camps. They all contacted each other and decided to go to Jaffna together. As the journey by ship was very long and dangerous and there were many young children in all our families, they decided to borrow some money and rent a small bus for the journey to Jaffna from Colombo. I remember this journey well; everyone was very scared and we were all quiet until the bus crossed over at Vavuniya into Tamil areas. Until then my mom and other aunts were not wearing their traditional Tamil pottu on their forehead in fear of being identified as Tamil.

The riots had a huge impact on me and my family. My father never got the courage and confidence to start his business all over again. He feared similar attacks could happen to Tamils. Many years later he sent me abroad worried over my safety as a Tamil youth. Today in Canada, I have my own young family and I can not even imagine the horror my parents and other Tamils had gone thorough. Looking back, I really appreciate what we have in Canada. However, I am constantly reminded that we are one of the lucky ones. We are here, alive and safe in Canada while many others were killed brutally for just being Tamil; sadly this trend continues even today.

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