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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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