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FR. Joe Francis Xavier

On May 31, 1983 at noon I was arrested in Vavunyia along with nine students from Pilimatalawa Theological College. I was their trainer in Pastoral Counselling. They gave me a hard time and released us by 2.00 am that same day. We escaped a trap laid by them to kill us and we safely waited in the Gandhiyam Centre in Vavuniya. That same night I watched through the keyhole as army men threw fire bombs and the Ghandhiyam Centre was set ablaze. My students and I fled into the jungles, taking along with us about twenty orphans who were living in the Ghandiyam Centre. The next morning, June 1st, we were arrested as we returned from our hiding and all of us we were taken to the Vavuniya Police station and then to the Army Camp where we were detained. Thanks to the intervention of people contacted by my wife in Colombo, we were released and returned to our families.

Soon it was July 25th and we heard rumours of riots. My wife, Chandranee left early morning to Thurston College where she taught. By 10.00 am we heard screams and cries. The Sinhala thugs, with the aid of the army and police, were burning cars that belonged to Tamils, looting homes and setting Tamil houses on fire. My children and I were terrified as we hid in our bathroom shower stall waiting for our turn. My wife walked home a few hours later as schools had been shut down. She witnessed many horrifying events on Galle Road as she made her way home. Our house was not burned that day because it did not belong to us and the front portion of our home housed the National Christian Council’s Family Counseling Centre of which I was the director. My wife and her aunt who lived with us, dissuaded the thugs from looting our house. Soon thereafter, my wife’s brother came to take our three children away for safety. My wife, her aunt and I remained in the house.

After midnight the same day heavily armed police men came after midnight and arrested me. They searched the house and took with them my camera, photos and slides as well as the slide-projector. They would not allow me to speak to my wife, but I quickly whispered to her to take care of herself and the children. There were two jeeps, one an army jeep with heavily armed soldiers and I was taken in the police jeep with six armed men. The jeep zigzagged through streets littered with burned vehicles and I thought it was the end. I prayed, commending my soul to God, certain that I would not live to see my family again. I was taken to the infamous 4th Floor. There they questioned me for nearly thirteen hours. In between questionings, they took me to a dark room and punched me on my chest and stomach. I shouted out in pain. Some of the police men cursed at me and accused me of treachery to the government. After several hours of questioning that seemed like an eternity, I broke down and told them to do whatever they wanted with me as I had nothing to confess. I had always been an open opponent of the government however none of my activities had been illicit. I was told I would be taken to a judge and that I would have to sign the Prevention of Terrorism Act –PTA since I was allegedly hiding terrorists in my Family Counselling Centre. They also told me that I would be taken to the high security prison in Welikada.

A little later, however, a senior police officer entered the room and escorted me to his office and he had received orders to release me and keep me under house arrest while my camera and other confiscated items would be further examined. Five police officers took me home in a jeep. When I returned home, I found my wife in deep distress as she had received many harassing and obscene phone calls, threatening to punish her for marrying a Tamil man.

During this time the Anglican Bishop of Colombo and the Rev. Soma Perera, Chairman of the Board of Directors of my Family Counselling Centre were planning to send me to U.S.A. where I was to attend an International Counsellors Conference in San Francisco. I had cancelled the airline ticket only days before as my counseling services were now needed in refugee camps given the present situation of the country. The ticket was repurchased for me and the US Embassy gave me a visa most readily.

Then, I received a phone call from the Assistant Superintendent of Police of the Wellwatte Police station. He was a Eurasian man (Burger) who had followed my Alcoholism counselling sessions for three months. He came to my home and asked me to get into his car where he proceeded to reveal secret police information. He said that some policemen and thugs were planning to kidnap and kill me along with a few other Tamils in the area. He subsequently drove me to a friend’s home where I was to remain in hiding.

Meanwhile, friends from the Attorney General’s Department in Colombo informed me that there was an order sent out to airports, and seaports in the country to impound my passport. By the grace of God, Rev. Soma Perera and the Airport Commandant of the Katunayke Airport, who happened to be the husband of a close friend of my wife, found a way to sneak me onto my flight. I hid in the car as my two friends, who were armed for my protection, drove me to safety and put me onto the Korean Airlines plane. The next day, I landed safely in San Francisco albeit with a distressed heart and dread for my family and my people.

While I was at the Conference the Archbishop Ted Scot, the Anglican Primate of Canada, who was then the Moderator of the World Council of Churches flew from the WCC Conference in Vancouver to meet with me and arrange passage to Canada for my wife and our three children, my son aged 11, daughter 8 and youngest son 7. The Archbishop kept a night vigil to arrange with the Canadian Embassy in New Delhi to have visas issued for my family so that they could come to Toronto.

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