Although I have written extensively about Black July in the past, I have never written about those happenings from a personal perspective. As a Sri Lankan Tamil journalist, Black July did have an effect on me in both personal and professional capacities. Furthermore my family – like thousands of other Tamil families – was also affected and displaced during those turbulent times.
Yet, I have refrained from writing about the impact of Black July on our family for two reasons. Firstly I was spared the full blast of that violence because I was not in Colombo then. I was on assignment to cover the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) party convention in Mannar. Secondly, my family members though affected were fortunate in not having to undergo suffering or suffer losses on the scale of what some other Tamil families underwent then.
My family was forced to abandon their home in Ratmalana and hide among bushes in a marsh infested by Kabaragoyas and snakes to avoid a mob. Both my father and brother were caught up in a mob on the infamous “Tiger Friday” on 29 July 1983 and escaped miraculously. My mother and two sisters were compelled to relocate to Jaffna. Nevertheless, our family felt blessed in the sense that none of us were killed or physically hurt. As such I never wrote about July 1983 from a personal angle because I thought my family’s experience did not warrant it. Also, I did not want to revive those painful memories.
What changed my mind was the exceptionally large volume of responses I have been receiving – from persons known and unknown to me – since the publication of the first and second parts of this article. Most of these responses were about their own experiences during Black July. Many asked me specifically about my personal experience.
When I responded briefly, I was asked by many, to place this on record as other Black July victims had done and were doing. A particularly dear friend to whom I related some details insisted “Write all this David. Every single thing”.It is against this backdrop therefore that I write this week on “My Family’s Experience of Black July Forty Years ago”. Much of what I write is what I heard from my family members about their ordeal.
My family comprised six persons in 1983. My parents, two sisters, brother and myself. I was the eldest followed by a sister, brother and sister. None of the children were married then. My father was a lawyer based in Kurunegala. My mother was also a teacher in Kurunegala. So too was the elder of my two sisters. My brother and I were working in Colombo, staying separately. My youngest sister was studying for her GCE (A) exam.
My mother retired as a teacher in May 1982. After retirement, she wanted to move to Colombo and be with her children. She had earlier taught in Colombo for 17 years and always felt that Colombo was home. So we rented a part of a house along Cascia Avenue in Ratmalana. My mother, brother and youngest sister resided there. My father and my other sister remained in Kurunegala and would come over to Colombo for the weekends. I continued to retain my room in Kotahena as I used to work late nights then at “The Island”. I would shuttle between Kotahena and Ratmalana relying on the 155 bus. My sister was trying to get a transfer to Colombo and live in Ratmalana.
On Friday 22 July 1983 morning I left for Mannar to cover the TULF convention. I was in Mannar during the week-end when the anti-Tamil violence erupted. My father and sister had come down to Ratmalana for the July 23-24 week-end. My sister a teacher at the Tamil school in Kurunegala departed early morning on Monday, July 25th to take the bus at Pettah and return to Kurunegala. My father stayed on intending to return to Kurunegala on Tuesday.
My brother went to his workplace in Maradana in the morning. It was after he reached the office that he heard of the overnight violence and how it was spreading. He went in a friend’s vehicle to Pettah in a futile bid to stop my sister from returning to Kurunegala. But she had already left. He then went back to Ratmalana in the same vehicle witnessing scenes of mob violence along the way.
Our Sinhala landlord was living in the adjacent section of the same house we were in. He came over and said he had news of anti – tamil violence in Borella and Thimbirigasaya. He advised my family to hide in the marsh behind our house if a mob attacked. Meanwhile the morning newspapers had published news of 13 soldiers being killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Jaffna. This news was also relayed over TV and Radio on the same day.
The violence began escalating and spreading.
Mobs went into action in Ratmalana too. The mob that came down Cascia Avenue was led by the son of a United National Party(UNP) municipal councillor. My parents, brother and sister went behind the marsh and concealed themselves in the bushes. There were water monitors and snakes moving about. My father and brother were armed with a large kitchen knife and hoe. My mother had had a minor accident some weeks ago and found it exceedingly difficult to crouch.
The mob leaders came to our landlord and inquired him about my family. They had details of Tamils living in the vicinity. Our landlord said that his tenants had left early morning upon hearing of the troubles. The mob then went to our entrance and attempted to break open the door. Some petrol was poured on the porch floor in a bid to set fire. When our landlord protested, he was told that they wanted to burn our furniture. Our landlord pleaded with the mob not to do so, saying the furniture belonged to him and not to the tenants. The mob then went off warning our landlord to inform them if my family returned home.
After nightfall, my family left the marsh and went back to the house through the rear. They spent the night .without putting on the lights. All seemed quiet at the crack of dawn on Tuesday, July 26th. Our landlord wanted us to leave his house. My parents and two siblings walked to the Mt.Lavinia Police Station seeking protection. It was very early in the morning.There was no trouble along the way. Several Tamil families were at the station. Trade and shipping minister Lalith Athulathmudali who was also Ratmalana MP was present. After a while, the Police escorted the families including mine to the newly set up refugee camp at the Ratmalana airport.
As was to be expected the conditions at the overcrowded Airport camp were terrible. Lack of space, poor sanitary facilities and inadequate food were but some of the problems. People related or known avoided each other because they were ashamed. People who had lived comfortably were now in a dirty, unwashed, dishevelled state wearing the same stinking clothes.
Mt family’s worry then was about my sister in Kurunegala. They knew I would be safe in Mannar. There were reports of a Kurunegala-bound bus from Colombo being stopped at Alawwa and all Tamil passengers being killed and hung on the bridge. So my family kept worrying about whether she was safe or not. As for me, I was worried sick about what may have befallen my family while I was safe in Mannar.
My sister however had reached Kurunegala safely. She stayed indoors at home quietly without venturing out. Her worry was about the rest of the family. One of our neighbours was a senior Sinhala police officer. So Tamils in the neighbourhood were well protected. But it must be said that the K’gala district experienced little anti – tamil violence in 1983. This was mainly due to the then North Western range DIG Cyril Herath. He became IGP later.
In my case I too was frantic with anxiety about the fate of my family. I assumed that my sister would not have returned to Kurunegala and that my family would have been in Ratmalana. In those days there were no mobile phones.Our landlord did not have a telephone.
There was also the problem of gaining access to a telephone in Mannar and calling long distance to Colombo. Fortunately for me I made contact with a Tamil public official named Terrence Philippupillai who was the secretary of the then Mannar district minister MEH Maharoof. President JR Jayewardene had appointed district ministers for each administrative district then. Mutur MP Maharoof was appointed District minister for Mannar. Incidentally current SJB Trincomalee district MP Imran Maharoof is MEH Maharoof’s son
In those days I used to write a weekly column “Behind the Cadjan Curtain” for “Sunday Island”. I found to my delight that the Mannar DM’s secretary Terence was a regular reader and a fan. He was most accommodating and helpful. Furthermore, he introduced me to a number of other top Govt officials in Mannar who were also my readers and fans. Thus telephone access was not a problem thereafter.
I was in regular touch with “The Island” editorial from Mannar. The editor Vijitha Yapa was out of the country when Black July began. The then deputy editor Gamini Weerakoon was in charge. I kept myself informed of what was happening by calling the editorial regularly. My colleagues and friends Ajith Samaranayake and Prasad Gunewardene took the office vehicle to Ratmalana and found out through our landlord that my family was safe at the Airport camp. Ajith and Prasad went there but could not make contact with my family because they were looking for “Jeyaraj’s family whereas my family was registered at the camp as the Sabapathyfamily.
In the meantime, the authorities at the Ratmalana Airport camp began allowing people to make local calls. My parents got in touch with one of my cousins, Noble Vethanayagam. He was a UNP member of the Colombo District Development Council (DDC)and closely associated with Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa at that time. Noble Anna had moved to a new house in Bambalapitiya and turned his earlier residence in Hulftsdorp into his political office.
My cousin Noble Anna’s Hulfsdorp house had transformed into a mini-refugee camp with relatives seeking “asylum “there. It had Police protection. Arrangements were made for my family to move to Noble Anna’s place in Colombo 12. Three Methodist clergymen were to help us move to Hulftsdorp. My family and most of our relatives are Methodists.
On Friday, July 29th, three Methodist priests arrived in a van to take my family to Hulftsdorp. The van had some others who were also to be dropped off elsewhere. Since the vehicle was already crammed, it was decided that my mother and sister would go in the van while my father and brother would follow by bus. The violence in Colombo and its outskirts had subsided by Thursday 28th and things seemed to be slowly returning to normal. But the situation changed suddenly.
There had been a recurrence of violence in Sea Street and a rumour began spreading that the tigers were attacking Colombo. This was only a rumour but it provided a pretext for Tamils to be attacked again. Sadly several Tamils who had left the relative safety of refugee camps were brutally murdered on that notorious “Koti dawasa” or tiger day. Both my father and brother had narrow escapes on that Friday.
They had started out from the Airport camp and walked to Galle Road from where they intended to take a bus, taxi or three-wheeler to Hulftsdorp. My mother and sister were going there with the Methodist pastors. But when they reached Galle Road, both got caught up in a furious mob going in search of Tamils again. Both got separated in the melee.
My brother mingled with the mob and became part of it for a while. A section of the mob began marching down to the Airport camp threatening to destroy the Tamil refugees there. My brother marched along with them uttering slogans. Once the mob reached the airport, my brother slipped out and went into the camp showing his camp ID card. The mob ranted and raved abusing in raw filth, the naval personnel guarding it. But the sailors stood firm and gradually the mob dispersed.
My father had a nasty encounter with another section of the mob. Some suspected he was a Tamil and threatened him. Since my father spoke Sinhala perfectly with the correct diction, they could not detect his ethnicity. Then he was asked to recite a Buddhist Gatha. My father replied truthfully that he was a Christian and not a Buddhist. Someone squeezed his neck. My father gasped in Sinhala “is it worth your while to kill an old man like me”. He was let off. My father also went back to the Airport camp.
The van with Methodist clergymen was also accosted by a mob. The Sinhala pastors talked their way out. It was however decided that travelling to Colombo city was dangerous. So the vehicle changed course and reached Moratuwa. My mother and sister were given shelter at a Sinhala Methodist residence in Rawatawatte over the week-end. On July 31 Sunday evening, the Methodist clergymen took my mother and sister to Hulftsdorp.
They were in for a happy and pleasant surprise. My other sister in Kurunegala had come to the safe house in Hulftsdop barely half an hour earlier. She was brought there in a Police jeep thanks to the help of the Sinhala Police officer’s neighbour. My father and brother also came to Hulftsdop on Monday. The whole family -except myself – was united again.
The Hulftsdop house was full of people as more relatives had flocked there. So it was decided that only the women and children would stay there. My father and brother moved out and subsequently found accommodation at the refugee camp set up at S. Thomas ‘ College Mt.Lavinia.
My family informed “The Island” that all were safe and that my mother and sisters were at our cousin Noble’s house in Hulftsdorp. I spoke to them by telephone from the Mannar district minister’s office.
I returned to Colombo on 4th August 1983. The Sixth Constitutional Amendment disavowing separatism was passed on that day. Muhammed a Muslim journalist friend in Mannar who was the local correspondent for a Tamil newspaper had made arrangements with a Muslim businessman to give me a ride to his hometown Kandy. I was to pose as a Muslim relative of his in case there was trouble.
The violence had diminished by then and the journey by car from Mannar to Kandy was uneventful. I got into a Colombo-bound bus from Kandy and went straight to the Island office at Bloemendhal Road. My friends and colleagues were happy to see me. I plunged into work and started writing immediately under my byline. This was my way of coping with what had happened. Upon seeing my byline in the newspaper, many friends, contacts and news sources began phoning and talking to me.
I stayed in the Island premises, eating at the Sinhala and Muslim restaurants close to the office. I bathed in the shower at the driver’s quarters and slept at night on the editorial dept t desks using the newspaper files as pillow. My friends Ajith, Prasad and Kule (KC Kulasinghe) would keep me company at night
The editor Vijitha Yapa who had returned to Sri Lanka was worried about my sleeping over in the office and using the driver’s quarters to bathe. There were rumours that a particular driver was at the forefront of a mob that attacked Tamils in Homagama. Ironically the driver in question was extremely fond of me and very concerned about my safety.
Vijitha Yapa who had for long been a member of the MRA (Moral Re-armament) organization was worried about my safety. He was a sensitive soul who broke down and cried in front of me apologizing for the hurt done to Tamils by some Sinhalese. Vijitha put me up in a secluded room at his mother–in–law’s house. Vijitha would pick me up in his car in the mornings and drop me off later. At night
It was a well-meaning gesture by the editor and my hostess was most kind and considerate. Much as I appreciated their kindness, I was somewhat uncomfortable about imposing myself upon them.
So I returned to my room at Kotahena. It was part of a large hostel with over 30 Tamil boarders. It was now deserted. I slept alone in my room and continued to work at the Island editorial. Gradually others too began returning and in a few months time, the place was buzzing as usual.
Meanwhile, my family tried to return to Ratmalana but our landlord would not allow it saying that he was frequently asked about our whereabouts and warned not to let us return. So my mother and two sisters went by train to my mother’s ancestral village Kaddaively in Jaffna. After some weeks, we shifted our furniture from Ratmalana to Jaffna as our former landlord wanted it removed.
My father returned to Kurunegala while my brother and I continued to live and work in Colombo. After some months my sister had to return to work in Kurunegala or lose her job as a teacher. Under those circumstances, my mother and two sisters left Jaffna and returned to Kurumegala.
Thereafter my parents and sisters lived in Kurunegala. My brother and I were in Colombo. The important thing was that all members of the family were safe and had “survived” Black July. We were blessed in that way. What was most upsetting in those days was not knowing what had happened or whether all were safe.
This then is the story of my family’s Black July experience 40 years ago. It is but one of the many stories of that time. Each tale was different in the details but all were the same in essence. I have tried to narrate my tale in a detached manner but going down memory lane and recounting the Black July experience has been quite emotional and painful. Yet I am glad that I wrote about it after four decades. I hope and pray that the Black July Anti-Tamil pogrom will never happen again.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org