What I remember most vividly were
the events that preceded what would become to be known as “Black
July”. At the time, my mother, sister and I were visiting
relatives in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. The school year had come to an
end and summer vacation was just about to start. I was four years
old, and my sister was about to turn 10. My dad was still in Canada
working, and he would have joined us later in July except events
occurred that prevented this from happening. We were all staying
at my grandfather’s house in the small village on the Jaffna
peninsula where both my parents grew up. This was my second-time
“going back home”. I had been to Jaffna once before
for my 3rd birthday, but this would prove to be a life changing
experience and my last childhood trip to my homeland.
Throughout most of the summer
I had a great time playing with my cousins, enjoying the warm
tropical like weather and being cycled around town on the back
of bikes driven by various male relatives. While on one of those
bike rides with an uncle, sometime in mid July, we came across
a procession of people on the street just ahead of us. We stopped,
and I watched in amazement as people holding signs and chanting
in Tamil slogans that I didn’t understand marched past us.
Then, I saw something that would never fade from my memory. Someone
lit an edifice on fire. I was horrified. At four years old, I
thought that someone was actually being set on fire in front of
my very eyes. I had many questions running through my head. How
could anyone set another human being on fire like that? How could
someone hate another person that much? My uncle quickly reassured
me that it was in fact not a real person, but a “scarecrow”.
This was only mildly comforting information. It was many years
later as an adult that I would come to realize that a few days
later, in the capital city of Colombo, thousands of Tamils were
indeed set on fire and burned alive in this very manner. Only
it wasn’t “scarecrows” but real actual people,
with families and loved ones. This horrific time period would
become known as “Black July”. It was also later on
as an adult that I would come to know what these people were protesting.
A few young Tamil schools girls had been raped by the army soldiers
and Tamils in the surrounding areas were in an uproar that this
incident had taken place and that the army officials responsible
had not been held accountable.
As we went home, my repeated questions
continued to bombard my uncle. My uncle explained to me how badly
the Tamil minorities were being treated by the Sri Lankan government.
He told me about the discrimination that he and his friends experienced
in school and at work. He also told me that one of the reasons
that my own father had left Sri Lanka to come to Canada was because
in order to get a decent job in Sri Lanka he would have been forced
to learn Sinhalese. I listened intently, as the images of that
afternoon were burned into my memory.
A few days later, another memory
would stand out fresh in my mind. I was playing outside my grandfather’s
house, when my grandmother and mother came running frantically
out of the house calling my name. As usual I was outside playing
and my grandmother grabbed me and took me to the bushes behind
the house. We were told to stay down there and not to say a word.
At first I thought this was a cool new way to play hide and seek.
But soon, I realized that this was no game.
Our village, was next to an army
camp, and apparently a group of soldiers from the nearby army
camp were marching down the street in our area. They were shooting
randomly around our village, and several people were injured as
a result. A few of my uncles tried to attend to those that were
injured and take them to a nearby hospital, but that proved to
be too dangerous.
My grandparents, my uncle, my
mother and I were hiding in the bushes behind our house for several
hours in the intense tropical heat. It was a difficult task keeping
me quite. We only had a few bottles of juice to keep us hydrated.
My grandmother also began to worry about my sister, who had gone
on a bike ride to the store with an uncle. We waited hours for
her to return. Everyone was frantic that my sister was out there
somewhere around town with all of this chaos occurring. My sister
eventually returned home safely with my uncle, but the long absence
caused fear and terror amongst the household, especially my grandmother.
A few days later, as news spread
about the anti-Tamil riots taking place in Colombo, everyone began
to panic. Our relatives were worried about getting us back to
Canada safely. My mom was worried about my dad who was supposed
to be joining us on our vacation. Meanwhile my dad was frantic
in Canada worried about the safety of his wife and children. It
was determined that it was no longer safe for us to be in Jaffna,
yet, the situation for Tamils in Colombo was even worse. My sister
and I were locked up inside the house. We were not allowed to
go outside as the elders felt it was too dangerous for us. It
felt as if we were prisoners in our own home.
Upon hearing of the anti-Tamil
riots in Sri Lanka, my father immediately contacted the Canadian
External Affairs Department and informed them that Canadian Citizens
were trapped in Sri Lanka, during this crisis. The Canadian officials
at External Affairs took immediate action to try to locate us.
Unfortunately it was very difficult to communicate to anyone in
Sri Lankaa during that time. However, this did not deter the Canadian
government from trying to locate us. Canadian officials used every
available means to trace us. Finally, they were able to get in
touch with someone who worked at a CIDA funded project at Jaffna
Hospital, who was able to send a message to my family to contact
them. My mother contacted them through a phone exchange, as we
had no landline in the house we were living in. We were told to
come immediately to Colombo and contact the Canadian High Commission
there. We were only allowed to bring one baggage with us, and
we took a local flight from Jaffna to Ratmalana airport in Colombo
where we were met by someone from the Canadian High Commission.
They immediately escorted us to the international airport to get
a commercial flight back to Canada. The very kind and compassionate
officials from the High Commission office stayed with us until
we got safely onto the plane headed back to Toronto. My father
was in constant communication with Canadian officials who were
updating him about our status. Our family will never forget the
hospitality and kindness of all the Canadian officials involved
in assisting us to flee the violence in Sri Lanka.
As the plane took off from Sri
Lanka, from the comfort and safety of the plane, I looked out
the window and down at the country of my parents’ birth.
Perhaps I just imagined it, but from way up in the sky, the tiny
island nation of Sri Lanka, looked just like a tear drop in the
ocean. At that moment, I tear escaped my own eye, as I wondered
when I would come back to this country and see my grandfather
again, or play with my cousins, or get another ride to the store
on the back of my uncle’s bike.
Little did I know that events
that occurred in July, 1983 would drastically change the lives
of millions of Tamils from the North and East. Over the years,
millions of tears have been shed for loved ones lost due to 25
years of ethnic armed conflict. My experiences as a bystander
of Black July pale in comparison to the stories of the thousands
who directly experienced the brutality of the pogroms; those who
were killed, had their homes set on fire, and lost their loved
ones. “Black July” is a horrific event that is still
fresh in the collective conscience of the Tamil people. We will
remember those dark days, each year, sometime in July.