Colombo, Human Rights, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Remember the Riots

July: Life after 25 years

Anoma Rajakaruna shares her photos of people in black and white. Anoma has captured many expressions and many environments. Every photograph speaks differently. As a film-maker, photographer and poet ,Anoma has well captured the many moods of men, women and children around the Island. The exhibition is divided as My story, her story, his story and their stories comprising 34 photographs.

Anoma Rajakaruna’s exhibition of photographs was inaugurated on July 16th 2008 at Alliance Francaise in Colombo by the Ambassador for France in Sri Lanka and Maldives Michel Lummaux. The exhibition will remain open to the public from July 18th-24th  2008 , and the exhibition will be held at Alliance Francaise in Kandy from August 8th-14th 2008.


My Story

As a child I walked down the main street of my home town Panadura,

In Southern Sri Lanka, with my mother.

We walked the familiar route doing so many things together,

Going to the railway station to catch a train, going to the fisheries harbour to buy fish,

Going to the weekly fair to get seasonal fruits,

Going to the beach on Sundays to make sand castles,

Going to the library to return a book,

Going shopping to buy a new pair of shoes or

Going to the temple at the end of the street to meet a Buddhist monk, who is a scholar.

On these walks we would drop in at the corner shop or the adjoining pharmacy to say hello to some of our friends.

I remember, Uncle Joe from the pharmacy and a few others from the nearby shops with whom we communicated in a mixture of languages: Sinhalese, a little bit of Tamil and English.

We belonged to different ethnic groups and spoke different languages.

Yet we were friends.

Then a day dawned in July 1983, which changed this familiar routine and landscape completely.

I was in school.

The Hindu temple across the road went up in flames.

Thereafter every building owned by a Tamil in town was caught up in black smoke and red flames.

My teenage self was surrounded by smoke, flames, charred door frames and lifeless half burnt houses.

Days, weeks, months and years passed thereafter.

There was no trace of Uncle Joe and his friends.

The landscape of main street in Panadura had changed.

I grew up.

I met new friends. They were Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers and Malays.

I started traveling. I went to places away from home all across Sri Lanka.

One day, I met a woman in Polonnaruwa who lost all her seven sons.

Two years after that, I met a sculptor in Nikaweratiya. He sculptured statues of Buddha.

I met a woman in Madhu who lost the place she called home 16 times and now lives out of suitcase.

I met people who didn’t have a place called home.

I met people who didn’t like to talk about their original homes because it brought back sad memories.

I met children who were born in temporary shelters.

Some of them have lived in such “temporary” places for a very long time.

Most of them were Tamils.

I have listened to their stories and to many other similar stories.

I have documented their lives during the last 17 years.

It’s 25 years after July 1983.

It’s time for me to share their stores with you.

I never met Uncle Joe again.

“July: Life after 25 years” is my search for him and others who were swept away from their homes and families into strange and often threatening and terrifying new environments and social contexts.

It is also my way of honouring the courage of all these women, men and children who have dared to rebuild their lives in Sri Lanka.

25 oil lamps were lit to commemorate the Black July.

These pots have an ethnicity too.
The clay pots are used by Sinhala people.
The brass pots are used by Tamil people.
They are known as “Sinhala” pots and “Tamil” pots.
Women who fetch water for their families from both communities come together with their pots at the common wells in many villages on the borders of the conflict zone.
They not only share water, they share life too.

For more articles on July 1983, please click here. 

  • Great pictures. Great write up.

    Hope all Sri Lankan will be able to live togethe in peace and harmony.

    Thank you. Anoma.

  • Great pictures. Great write up.

    Hope all Sri Lankan will be able to live togethe in peace and harmony.

    Thank you. Anoma.

    Dr Harsha P. Jayatilake,
    Michigan, USA

  • punitham

    A very big THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart. I wish to say a lot but I don’t know how to put it across.

  • Dr.Sherman Fernando(Australia)

    It is a shame what happened on july 1983
    It is easy to say to forget,but difficult to do
    Hope this will not be repeated
    I am sorry for what happened to Tamils in 1983 Anoma

  • Ange

    Thank you. True reconciliation begins with acknowledgment of another’s suffering.

  • punitham

    I can’t visit this contribution enough …… ….. …..
    25 years after people were shocked to realise that what couldn’t happen in Sri Lanka did actually happen in1958, people were much more shocked that it was much worse in 1983…….. ……….. …………
    Successive Sri Lankan governments have been doing damage control exercises at the UN and other stages of international arena so much for five decades up to this very day that it looks like UDHR60 will have no meaning for a lot of people in Sri Lanka.

  • punitham

    Sorry for throwing a wet towel into your NOBLE work in my previous posting.
    It’s simply that the accumulated damage is greater than the sum of the shortcomings of separate events.
    Surely contributions like Anoma’s should help reverse the last sixty years.

  • punitham

    Had someone done something like this soon after 1958, we may not have had Black July. On the contrary there was great opposition from the Ministry of Education to appeals by some university academics in late 50s and early 60s to remove the distorted history(=mythology) from school textbooks.

    Mhhh… Anoma’s work should/could be the starting point for the rest of our history.

    The civil space for youngsters growing up ina world of growing consciousness of international human rights norm and humanitarian law must be honoured and cultured.

  • punitham

    It wrenched my heart to read in Ethnic Cooperation in Sri Lanka(N.T.Uphoff), a chapter in Carrots, Sticks and Ethnic Conflict(Ed M Esman and R J Herring, 2003):
    ”Gal Oya… 1982… Ratnayake, an elderly farmer-representative who spoke often for the group said:”There are no Sinhalese farmers and Tamil farmers, only farmers.”

    Were SWRD Bandaranaike and Sirimavo Bandaranaike worth the dust beneath farmer Ratnayake’s feet?

  • punitham

    We need to have a critical mass of Anomas – then UDHR60 may be magical to us.

  • Rajitha Amarasinghe

    Dear Anoma,

    Excellent work. It took me more than 2 hours to come to a pause in my journey with your photographic stories. But it didn’t come to an end. I felt it was only a beginning of another. I had the opportunity to have a discussion with the victims of 83, on the bridge you made on your portrays. It was so interesting and I had to admit my ignorance about them. You are a great engineer of bridging gaps. Lady, keep up the good work, because you are one of kind!!!

    Rajitha Amarasinghe


    Majorities, minorities, hammers and nails!

    When people of different origins, speaking different languages and professing different religions inhabit the same country and live under the same political sovereignty, ethnic and racial conflict is the usual outcome. More often than not, this happens when the majority tries to impose its language, religion and cultural values on the minorities!
    There is an old saying: If your only tool is a hammer, then all your problems look like nails. In the ‘Aluth Sri Lanka’ that we live in today, our tools for problem solving consist of multi-barrel rocket launchers, migs, kafirs, white vans, goon squads and rigged elections. And the Tamils in the north and east and other parts of the country including journalists and the general public at large are the nails that are bombed into submission, abducted, beaten, killed and terrorized!
    The ‘Maanushika Meheuma’ or ‘Humanitarian Operation,’ an euphemism for the ongoing war is fought today as a scared and justifiable war! A war of good against evil, black versus white! But let us not forget the many shades of grey in between!
    ‘Fighting for peace is like copulating for virginity,’ is a pithy saying attributed to an American GI during the Vietnam war. This saying describes Sri Lanka’s predicament in a nutshell! Using military might to settle a dispute might seem logical in the short term, taking the peoples minds off the rising cost of living, but in the long term we are all losers!
    Maximum devolution of power is the only way forward. In Sri Lanka’s 60 year history, agreements were made but not implemented! Pacts were signed and abrogated! This time around, if the majority community does not agree to devolution, the country’s future will be quite bleak, and it will not be the beginning of the end, but the end of the end, and Sri Lanka will meander along as ‘A can’t be developed country,’ the ‘Sick man of Asia.’

  • Sanjeewa Liyanage

    It is not human to forget things, especially tragedies like Black July. My first memories black smokes rising from various places of Colombo. It is through remembering we try to avoid such tragedies from repeating. However, remembering tragedies is painful. But if more and more can join in the process of remembering, then that pain can be shared. Black July is black legacy of Sri Lanka. Darkness has descended upon lives of ordinary people in the following years.

    In Many 1980 a number of innocent civilians and students were massacred by the military in the southern city of Kwangju in South Korea. Family members of those who died kept the memory alive by way of commemorations, which eventually lead to reinstatement of democracy in Korea. In 2002 I was at the cemetery where those victims were put to rest. On the day the massacre took place, 18 of May, I saw teachers brining pre-school children to this cometary. Children were being taught at such a young age about a tragedy their society has witnessed. The message was clear — this should never happen again and children should make sure that.

    My thanks to my good friend Anoma for this initiative. Let this initiative of Anoma inspire many younger people to repeat what she has done, to relive painful tragic memory, so that we could avoid such tragedies.

  • ordinary lankan

    The truth will only be told by individuals who are free …. let us never forget this

  • Premalatha Sam Pratheepan

    Dear Anoma!
    I am working in a Tamil television in London. Its really wonderful writing and and lead me to go back to the past. I could imagine the people’s life before the Black July. Your Photographs tell heart touching stories… Artist are always great and your are unique………Good Luck.