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Kiruthiha Kulendiren

My name is Kiruthiha Kulendiren and this is my journey. I lived in Colombo until I was 6 years old and then moved to the Middle East with my parents. My mother required emergency surgery so she and I flew back to Colombo for her surgery which took place in June. Our three month planned reunion with our family in Wellawatte, Colombo was cut short by the 1983 riots. My family were survivors of the 1958 and 1977 riots. However, this time it felt like a whole different experience. This time the riots were exactingly executed from a government perspective and was not just some spontaneous emotional response on the part of a community, as how the media portrayed it.

On that Sunday prior to the riots, we had heard that the bodies of the 13 soldiers killed in Jaffna were supposed to come to Colombo for burial. This itself was highly unusual as the bodies are usually sent to the family homes. Though we were concerned there could be an issue starting in Jaffna, it never occurred to us that problems could start in Colombo, since we always thought Colombo as metropolitan and diverse city – a tourist hub.

On Monday, one of our neighbours came back from work early in that morning, and told us that problems were starting in the northen part of the city. He told us to put our jewelry and other valuables in the bank. Very soon, my grandfather arrived from his work and informed us that we could not leave because the local Tamil grocery shop at the top of the main road is burning. I retained in minute detail what happened from that point onwards, but I detached from it emotionally because that is when the horrors started.

My grandmother, who had survived the 1958 and 1977 riots started packing up the jewelry and putting it in the pockets of her saree underskirt. She had always sewn pockets into her saree underskirt for this purpose, and I was just amazed at her survivor skills. My mother packed our passports, tickets, and money. It never occurred to me as to what I could do, since I was just 12 years old. I thought the whole scenario would blow away in half hour.

Then the screams started. It came from our neighbours in front and to the right. There was also the smell of the fire and smoke. The screams were like a movie, and my mother used to tell me movies were fake; I knew now she lied.

My mother is very laid back and quiet. This was the first time I saw her take leadership. My grandfather refused to leave the house, since it was the house he and my grandmother built together. My grandfather at that time had retired from the Police service, a past inspector for the Wellawatte station and was working for a security firm. It never occurred to me that it might be the last time that I could see him.

My mother was leading me, my grandmother and neighbours who were in our house, through a gate in our back yard. Her intention was to go to our neighbours house who were Sinhalese, but they shut the door as they saw us coming. Therefore we went across the lane into a house where the front door was open and there was a Sinhalese widow living there. It was just a twist of fate that the front door was open. My mother never knocked or asked for permission. The widow was ready to throw us out but after hearing my mom’s pleas – she finally gave in.

The lady took us to a tiny store room at back of the house. It felt like an eternity in there as you heard the screams, the explosions, gun fire and smoke. I remember sitting and peeking through the window, and seeing guy in a sarong and vest, his arms were filled with golden thalis(necklace worn by married Tamil women). He looked so pleased with himself. I remember wondering whether he killed those women for the thalis since I could not imagine any Tamil woman giving them up willingly. It never occurred to me that I too could die. My mother’s biggest fear was that I was going to be raped. She never spoke of it to me whilst we sat huddled in that room but I knew and felt her fear. All I felt was this sense of despair that all these people out there hated me not for anything I did or my family did but for the only fatc that I was Tamil. I felt that we were outcasts, and that we were not worthy of fundamental humanity.

Then we heard the thumping, and we knew the thugs had come into this house, and you could hear the voices. They asked the widow if she was hiding anyone, and she stated, “Do I look like I’m hiding anyone? I’m an old women, I don’t like Tamils either.” With that, they left. However, the widow did not want us to stay there anymore either.

My mom took us out again and we went back to our house. My grandfather was there and he was bleeding. He had sat on the front steps of our home and he is uniform with his double barrel shot gun. Some of the thugs who had come were men arrested by my grandfather when he was the Inspector of Police for Wellawatte. They recognized him. They actually saluted him, called him Sir and left the house alone ststing that they could not be responsible for those who came afterwards. He mentioned that these people had lists of houses and names and they knew which houses were Tamil, since not a single Sinhalese house was being touched. This was systematic process – they had strategies and weapons, and this is what shook him the most.

As the first group of thugs left, the looters arrived. One of the looters tried to stab him but he was able to fight him off. Luckily, one of the men from the first group was walking back and told the looter to lay off him since he was an Inspector of Police. He survived it but he still refused to leave the house. I admire him for his courage but now I know he was fighting to preserve what was his – he had no other choice other than passive death.

We decided it was time to go to the Ramakrishna Mission, which is barely 100 meters from our house. We got as many people together and my mother was leading the way. When I attempted to run back to get my dog, I saw Sinhala Buddhist monks among the rioters with large weapons. To me, even at that young age this image was not right. I am yet to identify any other country in this world where a Buddhist monk would look at me with such murderous rage in their eyes. I immediately ran back to my mother. The Swami at the mission welcomed us and led us to the hostel in the back for safety. Many other families fleeing the terror had already found shelter there. As I looked out the back window, I saw trains stopping at unscheduled stops along the railway. It was quite strange. I watched in mute disbelief as men with weapons and petrol cans were getting off these trains. I remember struggling to understand why the train driver would help the thugs, now I know better. It was all already planned well in advance.

Late into the evening, a Swami rushed in informing us that the main shrine was no longer safe. The angry mob was inside and had already hurt the chief Swami and damaged the pictures in the shrine. We were told later that trucks were being driven in to take us to refugee camps. We were loaded onto the trucks as if we were cattle to be driven to slaughter. I hated the feeling of not knowing who was driving and where to. I made me feel helpless, and angry. I was made to stand towards the back of the truck facing outwards so that I could breathe as I was one of the few children on this truck.

As the truck turned onto Galle road, I saw thugs walking with knives and the armed forces in their uniforms. There were not many civilians on the road; just broken shops aflame. And that’s when I saw a human form being burnt alive. I couldn’t make out if it was male or female but I could see the head, torso and legs. It was still moving. A person, who had family somewhere, with dreams and hopes was being burnt like trash in the middle of the road. In their eyes, we Tamils were trash. I felt shock and my gasp was silenced by a hand from behind me that remained on my mouth for the duration of this painfully haunting journey. These thugs and armed forces had the power to get rid of us just because they felt like it and no one would stop them or even ask why.

It was close to night when we arrived at Saraswathi Hall. We were the one of the first to arrive at this refugee camp. Eventually nearly 800 hundred Tamils would gathered in this small space that usually housed a few hundred. There was only one washroom and a tap on the outside wall with murky water. All through that night I watched Tamils coming in droves, many women in nightdresses and men in bed clothes. These were people who would have been ashamed to come out of their rooms dressed in this attire. Many were bleeding or had haunting vacant looks on their faces. My mother tried to make arrangements to get out of the refugee camp and however our Sinhalese friends, who we had thought of as friends till that moment, did not want to help us and said so clearly. Food was very scarce and the supposedly philanthropic effort of a government minister, Lalith Athulathmudali was to send us rice and curry parcels that upon opening, stank unbearably. It was obviously spoilt and fetid. On Thursday, one of our family friend’s son, a Tamil had very bravely being looking for us and eventually found us in the refugee camp. He took us to their house where there were already many people and they managed to convince neighbours to take in people in as well. It was now the 4th day and we had not changed clothes, bathed, or eaten properly.

One of the neighbours was a Tamil Muslim man and he managed to book two seats for us on an outbound flight to Dubai. My grandfather had found us in the mean time and told us how he had to watch everything be destroyed in our house. The Sinhala looters had even destroyed the food because to consume it would be to eat Tamil “contaminants”. When the weekend came, we left during middle of night and the Tamil Muslim man took us to Katanayake airport telling us to pretend to be members of his family as the Muslim were being spared in the riots for some unimaginable and divisive reason. People appeared in all forms. I was going to board the plane in a dirty dress and Bata slippers but I was still one of the lucky ones who had such options. People were going all over the world. The airport itself felt like a refugee camp and tension was rife in the air. I never felt safe. My parents eventually moved to UK as a result of my father’s job and I thought that this was where my story would end.

I went on to complete an engineering degree and a masters in astrophysics in UK. I felt as if the whole world was in my hand. I travelled the world by myself, experienced a myriad of cultures and challenges. I had faced death, and I had nothing else to fear. Yet nothing felt like home nor truly safe. Then I came to Canada for a short holiday in the midst of a February winter storm and fell in love. I fell in love with the freedom that is woven into the fabric of the Canadian soil so I chose to immigrate here to dismay of my parents who had more or less settled in UK. My family followed me to Canada. This is where I met my husband and am not the proud parent of two young ones. This land is my home but my motherland is a beautiful place far away in the midst of the Indian Ocean. This is where my life is, I truly love the land and am fiercely loyal my land of the silver birch, yet I am who I am because of my motherland and as a result I enrich my new home all the more in its tapestry of being. I have now left my engineering profession to become a full time trauma counsellor and I primarily work with the Tamil community who are survivors of violence, both from the war and other issues that are playing out here.

For the longest time after the riots, I knew how to make my self vanish. I knew how to disappear into a crowd. It took me almost a decade to forgive the individuals who came to kill me but I still hold the organisers, the Sri Lankan government and all subsequent governments accountable for the actions perpetrated in July 1983 and thereafter. I forgive but will not forget and now after 25 years, I am speaking on behalf of the many who were silenced. My story is their story and now it shall be your story too – the silence has been broken forever.

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