Black July in the News
Local Tamils Give From the Heart
July 2, 2008
Toronto-area Tamils spent Canada Day rolling up their sleeves and donating blood to help those in the country that gave them a new home.
The goal of a partnership between Canadian Blood Services and the Canadian Tamil Congress is to collect more than 5,000 units of blood over the next year.
More than 60 would-be donors showed up for screening yesterday.
"It makes them our biggest ethnic partner in Central Ontario and accounts for one-third of all our Partner for Life contributions," said Bill Coleman, regional director of Canadian Blood Services.
Participants in the Partner for Life program include large corporations, like Royal Bank, along with religious and community groups.
"It's a beautiful act of leadership that I hope inspires other communities to give this extraordinary gift of life," Energy and Infrastructure Minister George Smitherman said at the event.
Many of the donors at the Palais Royale, on Lake Shore Blvd. W., were first-timers, a key target group for the CBS.
"South Asians are under-represented as blood donors and it's important for us to reach out to all ethnic groups," Coleman said. "I hope today establishes a habit of donating, since each group has different blood needs."
Having a close match to a patient's blood type is important for treatments requiring multiple transfusions, such as cancer or sickle cell anemia.
The timing of the blood drive was also symbolic for members of the Canadian Tamil community. Violence in Sri Lanka led many of them to flee their homeland for Canada 25 years ago this month.
One such refugee, Suntharamoorthy Umasuthan, said: "Canada has given me so much and giving blood is a chance for me to give back."
Survivors Tell Stories at City Hall Exhibit
July 9, 2008
The horror, violence and sheer terror of the 1983 riots in Sri Lanka known as Black July have been given a human face at an exhibition continuing until today at City Hall.
The exhibition, Remembering Silenced Voices - Through the Eyes of a Survivor, is on at the Great Hall and features stories of six Sri Lankan Tamil families forced to flee their country after the riots. On July 23, 1983 violence broke out after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam attacked and killed 13 Sri Lankan soldiers in what is generally seen as the beginning of overt armed conflict between the separatists and the Sinhalese-led government.
According to reports, about 1,000 Tamil Sri Lankans were killed and thousands more fled the country.
"Some were beat up with hatchets, some were stabbed with knives and some were killed," wrote Arumaithurai Iyadurai, who was 23 years old when the violence started. "I remember most vividly army officials simply standing by and watching the violence."
Iyadurai eventually fled to a refugee camp before coming to Canada in 1990.
Elderly couple Sivapakkiam and Murugesu Sinnadurai were living in Wellawatta when the riots started. Sivapakkiam's husband was at work and she was at home with her two daughters when about 20 armed men burst through her door.
"They beat us and told us to leave," she wrote. "They told us to walk straight into the sea and kill ourselves."
Her home was looted and burned and her husband survived several harrowing experiences that day to reunite with his family. The family came to Canada in 1995.
"We lost everything in Black July," wrote Sivapakkiam. "We thought we were safe in our hometown."
The complete exhibition will be shown at Arta Gallery in Toronto on July 26.
For more information, visit www.blackjuly83.com.
Escape to Freedom - Survivors of Sri Lanka's infamous Black July riots 25 years ago recall the terror -- and their relief to find a haven in Canada
July 22, 2008
It's been a long journey for Suntharamoorthy Umasuthan.
He never thought when he was living in an overcrowded refugee camp 25 years ago that he would one day be living with his family in Canada in what he viewed as the promised land, let alone be working as a chartered accountant for Revenue Canada.
For Umasuthan, hiding in banana bushes during the Black July savagery of 1983 saved his life. His escape was due to his quick-thinking and his determination to survive.
Twenty five years ago this month a reign of terror unleashed by the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka upon the Tamil minority left up to an estimated 3,000 dead and hundreds of homes, factories and businesses destroyed.
The repercussions would be global, with Canada at the forefront in accepting a mass exodus of Sri Lankan refugees and immigrants.
The horrors of Black July led to a thriving Sri Lankan community in Canada as more than 113,000 visas were issued from 1983 to 2008, according to Immigration Canada.
Nationally, there are an estimated 250,000 Canadians of Sri Lankan descent. About 200,000 live in the GTA.
On July 24, 1983, Umasuthan was told to leave his office at an accounting firm in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. He walked 5 km home because he was scared to take the bus.
"They can identify you as a Tamil from the way you talk. The accent is distinct from Sinhalese. As I walked home I saw shops being looted and burned," said Umasuthan, 52.
When he arrived at his rental home, the owners had fled. He and three friends stayed in the house. By 2:30 p.m. flames and smoke were obscuring the blue sky.
Umasuthan was terrified: "We had no problems with Sinhalese people. The mobs which came to Colombo were brought in from rural areas and hired on purpose to attack Tamils. The government army didn't participate, but they could have easily stopped them.
"Mobs came from outside the city with electoral lists to identify Tamil homes. We planned an escape route in case we got attacked," he said.
"Around 2 a.m. a mob of 25 jumped the gate and broke down the front door. We went out the back and jumped the fence into the banana trees. We hid there. We could hear them smashing things inside the house, but we didn't dare move. If they had searched in the backyard bushes, we would have been dead."
Thieves broke down the doors and stole TV sets, speakers, radios, cameras, even Umasuthan's wristwatch.
FRIEND HELPED OUT
With only the clothes on his back, Umasuthan ended up at an overcrowded refugee camp of 3,000 people set up at a school. There was little food and no washrooms.
Luckily for him, a Sinhalese friend, who was a partner at the accounting firm where he worked, later found Umasuthan at the refugee camp and offered to send him on a month-long contract to a Dubai accounting firm.
"He took me in his car, bought all the things I needed for the trip and put me on a plane a week later," Umasuthan recalled.
"The mood of the our people was so terrible. We wanted to have our own country. I probably would have joined the Tiger movement if I hadn't escaped to Dubai," he said.
"I'm not angry with the Sinhalese people. It's the government that wanted power and the government misused its power to get more power. The government figured if there is civil war, then people won't worry about the economy of the country and it was easy for them to create race problems."
After his month in Dubai, he worked in Zambia for two years. In 1986 he returned to Sri Lanka to start his own accounting firm but became fed up with Sri Lanka and immigrated to Canada in 1988.
He found a job within two weeks.
Umasuthan has built a comfortable life for his family in Toronto. He is married and has a 22-year-old daughter who just graduated from university with a science degree.
"Canada has given me and my family a lot. Canada is a country where you have freedom of choice, freedom of movement and freedom of speech. We enjoy it because we were suppressed by all these things back in Sri Lanka. A lot of Canadians take that for granted and because I was affected by not having that, I enjoy it and appreciate Canada for it," Umasuthan said.
"I didn't have a clue about Canada before I came here. I was expecting a peaceful and beautiful life and truly that is what I got."
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The memories of Black July still haunt many Tamil Canadians.
"We're thankful that Canada opened its doors to give us fresh hope and a new life and a new beginning," David Poopalapillai of the Canadian Tamil Congress said.
The events leading up to Black July started after the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) guerrilla rebels -- who have fought to create an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils in Sri Lanka -- ambushed and killed 13 state government soldiers on July 22, 1983 -- the day before Black July riots began.
In retaliation, on July 23 Tamil families were attacked at home and work. With voter lists in hand, rioters systematically looted and burned down hundreds of Tamil homes.
"Black July was one of the worst periods for Tamils. Living as a Tamil with dignity was impossible," says sociology professor Rudhramoorthy Cheran of the University of Windsor.
Decades later, the wounds run deep for many Tamils. And ethnic strife that started in Sri Lanka has spilled onto Canadian shores, creating controversy and conflict.
Thousands of Canadian Tamils gathered at a ral -ly in Ottawa earlier this month to protest a decision by the federal government to outlaw a Toronto-based Tamil non-profit group under the anti-terrorism act.
The government alleges money raised in Canada is sent to fund the Tamil Tigers. Some Tamil Canadians vow to fight the ban in court.
Still, if Black July could be seen to have a silver lining, then it is Tamil immigration here, creating a diverse, richly textured society, says Cheran. "It has been very good to have Tamils in Canada."
"Canada was good enough to open its borders immediately and 32,000 Sri Lankans arrived in Montreal from July to September in 1983," said University of Toronto professor Dr. Joseph Chandrakanthan. "They immigrated well into mainstream Canadian life and in every part of socio-economic life they've excelled."
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Balasubramaniam Mahendran escaped Black July, thanks to a lot of luck and the kindness of Sinhalese friends.
On July 24, 1986, Mahendran, now 52, rode his motorbike to work, just like every other day.
"As I got closer to work, I saw smoke outside the building and in the sky," he recalled in an interview with the Sun.
"That's when I heard the news of riots going on. We were asked to go home. I lived 20 km away, so I asked a Sinhalese friend to come with me on my motor bike," said the soft-spoken Mahendran.
"When we reached the city, we saw big mobs of 100 people with sticks and knives and then I jumped onto the side of the lane and dropped the bike and ran," Mahendran said.
"My friend picked up the bike and followed me to the lane and we took another road to my father's workplace."
"By the time we got home, they had already looted our house. They destroyed all of our stuff. Everything we owned was burned, including my father's car," he said.
Mahendran and his family made it safely to a refugee camp, where they stayed in limbo. Eventually they moved to a small house near his father's work. His dad died of a liver disease later that year and the family struggled to survive.
Emigrating to a new country and a new culture wasn't easy at first either. Mahendran worked as a gas attendant and security guard and took odd jobs to eke out a living until he earned his certified general accounting designation.
'IT WAS REALLY TOUGH'
"It was really tough making ends meet, so I worked long hours at odd jobs when I first got to Canada. Now I own my own home and we have a great life," Mahendran said.
"Canada is a good country. I couldn't stay back home. Every night was a nightmare. The things I saw with my eyes was such a bad experience. I don't think I can ever visit there again. I can't face it. We were running for our lives. I was lucky to have escaped, but I'm very sad that I was born in that country and I couldn't have peace and harmony while living there," he said.
Mahendran now works as an accountant in Toronto and lives with his wife Nilani, 50, their son Pradap, 20, and daughter Nimisha, 16.
"Canada is a great country that has given us an opportunity to come here and be away from those problems.
"Tamils were deprived of a lot of rights in Sri Lanka. What we have here in Canada is freedom of rights and safety which Tamils don't have in Sri Lanka. For this, I am so happy to be Canadian."
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Former textile technologist Peri Casinathen still has nightmares and carries emotional scars from Black July.
The 63-year-old was living and working in the free-trade zone outside Colombo when a friend called to tell him about the killing of 13 government soldiers by the Tamil Tigers.
"I knew things were heating up and something bad was going to happen. A friend called me and said LTTE Tamil Tigers had blown up 13 soldiers and that I'd better get back to Colombo because I lived in a isolated area," Casinathan recalled.
He found his parents' home looted. Cousins' and friends' homes were burned to the ground.
"My family was safe, but the killings were horrible. I'll never forget what I saw," Casinathen said shaking his head.
"When I arrived at work, I saw my managing director (an Italian) and his face was as white as a sheet and he was not able to speak. His driver told me that they saw bodies on the road and shops burning on the drive in," he said.
"When my wife and I came home, members of the Sri Lankan air force came to our house and instructed us to leave, otherwise we were told we would be dealt with."
Casinathen and his family escaped to a friend's home.
His twin girls, Tharani and Dharshini, who were 3 years old at the time, were sent outside the house to play since the twins had learned to speak Sinhalese from their nannies.
The neighbours were told Ca sinathen and his family were Colombo Chetties (half Sinhalese, half Tamil).
'THE LUCKY ONES'
"I went back to my parents' home and it looked as if a cyclone had blown through it. The entire house was destroyed. I found my college graduation certificate on the ground covered with footprints," Casinathen said, adding he showed that diploma to Immigration Canada when he was interviewed as a refugee claimant in 1984.
"We are the lucky ones. We left the shores of Sri Lanka, but the trauma has not left us," he said. "The trauma my wife and I went through cannot be forgotten. It caused permanent scars in our minds that will not be erased. ...
"Compared to the people who lost their lives, what we lost is nothing. Looking back at the events, it is a miracle we are alive," Casinathen said.
"If I had stayed in Sri Lanka, I would have died. I don't like to keep my mouth shut. In Sri Lanka, I used to write to the newspapers and openly call for separatism," he said.
Casinathen said Canada has been a good country to build a life with his wife, Rushila, and his daughters. Their son Dharshan, 20, was born in Canada.
"Canada has been our safe haven and we are thankful for everything we have," he said, adding daughter Tharani is getting married this summer.
The Day a Tamil Learned About Hate
July 23, 2008
Canadian Tamils mark 25 years since Colombo riots forced their flight
MISSISSAUGA, Ont. -Kiruthiha Kulendiren was hiding in her neighbour's storeroom when the mobs came to the front door, demanding to know if there were any Tamils inside.
It was July, 1983, and Colombo was in flames. Black smoke clouded Sri Lanka's steamy tropical capital as rioters armed with metal rods, swords and gas cans went door to door looking for minority Tamils.
A 12-year-old schoolgirl at the time, Ms. Kulendiren could see them outside the window, members of Sri Lanka's ethnic Sinhalese majority. And she could hear the screams as the mobs killed more than 1,000 Tamils, and burned and looted their homes and shops.
"Sitting in that room, I realized how much I was hated," said Ms. Kulendiren, who now lives in Mississauga, Ont. "I remember thinking, 'They hate me because I'm Tamil.'"
This week marks the 25th anniversary of the outbreak of the Colombo riots, when members of the South Asian island's ethnic Sinhalese majority turned violently against the minority Tamils.
The riots ignited a brutal civil war that continues to this day, and galvanized support for the Tamil Tigers rebels. They also changed the face of Canada: A quarter of a million Sri Lankan Tamils now live in Canada, mostly around Toronto.
"There was a mass exodus out of Colombo," said Manjula Selvarajah, a survivor of the riots who now works with the Canadian Tamil Congress, which will mark the anniversary with a vigil on Friday, and an art exhibit and drama performances on Saturday.
Although they happened a quarter century ago, the riots remain a vivid symbol of the hardship Tamils faced as a minority in Sri Lanka. "That's what it means to Tamils, they look back and they say: 'Wow, that was like the purest expression of the fact that you are not really wanted here,' " Ms. Selvarajah said.
The memory of the riots also drives separatist sentiment among Tamils, as well as support for the Tamil Tigers guerrillas fighting for independence in northeastern Sri Lanka.
That support now reaches into Canada. On July 5, thousands of Canadian Tamils rallied in Toronto, many of them carrying the militaristic flag of the Tamil Tigers. A similar, though smaller, event was held in Montreal last weekend.
The RCMP says the Tamil Tigers have been operating a lucrative fundraising network out of Toronto and Montreal that has raised millions in donations -- some voluntary, some coerced--from Canadian Tamils.
Following complaints from some Tamils and human rights groups, the Canadian government has been putting a stranglehold on the Tamil Tigers, notorious for such terrorist tactics as suicide bombings and political assassinations. The most recent action by Ottawa came on June 16, when Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day announced the government had outlawed the Toronto-based World Tamil Movement, which police accuse of fundraising for the rebels.
Formed in 1976 by young revolutionaries influenced by India's freedom fighters, the Tamil Tigers initially carried out sporadic guerrilla attacks against the police and army, but the conflict escalated on July 23, 1983, when the rebels ambushed a Sri Lankan Army convoy, killing 13 soldiers. It was the biggest loss to date for the government forces.
The morning after the ambush, Ms. Kulendiren's grandfather left for work on his motorbike, but he soon returned.
"We need to go," he told the family.
Mobs of angry nationalists were killing Tamils and ransacking their homes. Some were Buddhist monks in saffron robes. Some carried official voters' lists that allowed them to find Tamil homes, suggesting a degree of government complicity. Many Sinhalese also sheltered Tamils from the violence.
As the mobs neared her house, Ms. Kulendiren could smell burning rubber. Tamils were being pulled from their homes, fitted with tires and set alight. A Sinhalese widow opened her door to a
dozen Tamil neighbours, including Ms. Kulendiren and her mother, hiding them in a storeroom with a single window.
Ms. Kulendiren sat with her arm around a terrified friend, peering out an opening in the curtains at the unfolding chaos, watching as smiling looters carted off jewellery and clothing.
At home, Ms. Kulendiren's family had never differentiated between Tamils like themselves and the Sinhalese who made up Sri Lanka's overwhelming majority. Her parents spoke both Sinhala and Tamil, and celebrated Sinhalese holidays, as well as Tamil ones.
"It never occurred to me that somebody could hate me because, and only because, I was a Tamil," she said.
"It's a horrible feeling."
The rioters reached the widow's house and pounded at the door. They wanted to know if she was hiding any Tamils, but she told them there was nothing in her storeroom but pots and vegetables. "They believed her, thank God, because had they opened that door, they would have massacred us," Ms. Kulendiren said.
Ms. Kulendiren and her mother sprinted to a nearby mission, where the swamis took them in and they joined a growing crowd of refugees. "There were people bleeding, just people in states of trauma and anxiety and distress, crying, people silent." The mobs eventually broke into the mission, and the refugees were evacuated in trucks that brought them to an auditorium guarded by Sri Lankan soldiers. Posing as Muslims, Ms. Kulendiren and her mother made their way to the airport and got tickets to Dubai, where her father was working as an engineer. The life they had built in Sri Lanka was finished. Their home had been ransacked, along with their sense of belonging. "Overnight, it was all gone," she said.
The Sri Lankan government has apologized for the riots, and although the war continues in the north, the east has been cleared and Tamils who were once part of the Tigers now hold elected office there, including the post of Chief Minister.
"We have come a long way," said Bandula Jayasekara, the Sri Lankan Consul General in Toronto, who accused the Tamil Tigers of exploiting the riots to raise money and justify their armed fight for a separate state.
Ms. Kulendiren said she cannot forget. "I am who I am because of that," said the trauma counsellor who works with Canadian Tamils. "I can't forget it. I have forgiven the layperson, but I still hold the government responsible."
Sri Lankan Conflict Subject of Professor's Play
Public Affairs & Communications
University of Windsor Daily News
July 21, 2008
A Toronto theatre company will stage a play by a University of Windsor professor this month as part of a week-long commemoration of 1983's “Black July,” which has been called a state-sponsored pogrom against Tamils in Sri Lanka.~
Sociology and anthropology professor R.Cheran's play, What if the Rain Falls, is his first written in English.
It weaves personal testimonies, poetry and dance in a heart-wrenching narrative of loss and survival, set against the backdrop of a refugee hearing in Canada.
Canada's population of 200,000 Sri Lankan Tamils is one of the world's largest. Dr. Cheran says the country's refugee hearing process makes for dramatic theatre.
"On the one hand, you have these refugees who have lived through all kinds of traumatic experiences, and on the other hand, these bureaucrats are trying to sort out what is the truth," he says.
Cheran himself was born in Sri Lanka and lived through Black July there. He is a major poet in the Tamil language, with seven published anthologies—and four albums of song lyrics. His creative works have been translated into English, German, Dutch, Swedish, Sinhala, Kannnada and Malayalam.
He says he hopes his play can help bring attention to the conflict.
"There is a vicious civil war going on there, but we have no media coverage," he says. "It is my hope that at some point, my new home of Canada will take a lead in negotiating peace."