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

My name is Cedric. Do you remember me?

July usually passes me by without too much notice, beyond the vague worry that there might be a Tiger attack on Colombo, and a few flashbacks to that weekend in 1983. But this time it’s been a bit different. I’ve found myself reliving that day a lot more this year. It isn’t the fact that this is the 25th anniversary of the carnage which most people see as the starting point of our war, though that has been the focus of a lot of attention. What did it was a phone call a couple of weeks ago.

My mobile rang with an unfamiliar number, and an equally unidentifiable male voice asked for me. When I confirmed that it was indeed yours truly, the voice asked whether I was an old boy of Wesley College. I groaned inwardly, and confirmed this too, expecting to be hit by my school’s OBU for a donation or offer of membership of some committee or whatever. However, it wasn’t any of these things, and the next question blew me away.

“My name is Cedric,” he said, “do you remember me?”

And after twenty-five years, I did. Passing comic books around class, hidden in textbooks. Playing Starsky & Hutch after school with plastic pistols. Talking about the merits of British fighter planes versus German ones, as we exchanged egg sandwiches for woodapple jam ones. I’d last seen Cedric in the sixth grade, when we were both twelve, just before the July riots. He was one of the very few boys in my class shorter than me, and was half Tamil, half Burgher, like me. But whereas my Tamil half came from my mother, Cedric’s came from his father, so in peculiar Sri Lankan fashion, he was classed a Tamil and I a Burgher, according to the paternal line. Our class was a Sinhalese medium one, though at least a third of the boys weren’t Sinhalese. The Tamil medium classes in our grade stayed away from us, and we looked at them with a bit of suspicion since they mostly spoke Tamil. Guys like Cedric, though, were one of “us”.

The thing is, Cedric disappeared in July ‘83. Vanished as if he had never existed, along with most of the Tamil medium, which shrank to just one class in our grade after the riots. When we came back to school after things had calmed down, Cedric’s seat sat empty, and we never saw him again. Other boys in class told me that his home had been burned down by a mob, and that his family had fled to Jaffna. And I wondered if he had managed to save any of his comics or dinky toys.

In the months and years to come, as the war hotted up, a few of us sometimes idly wondered what Cedric was doing at the time. Some jokingly speculated that he might be now a Tiger. Maybe not so jokingly. Leaving school and joining the Army, I wondered whether he’d be on the other side. But there was no news, no letter, nothing. Until two weeks ago.

The events of Black July, and the days immediately after, are blurred in my mind, and not really in chronological order, flashes that vary in intensity.

School closes early with news of trouble in Colombo, and there is no way to contact my parents, so my nine-year-old brother and I decide to do what we do every Friday, and walk from Wesley College in Borella to the home of my grand uncle and aunt in Maradana. A Sinhalese classmate of mine joins us, as he does each Friday, since his home is on our route home.

Normally quiet Mount Mary, one of the quaint railway neighbourhoods of Borella is alive with tension, and people scurrying along. The three of us feel no tension or fear, however, having no idea of the magnitude of the event taking place around us.

Close to my classmate’s home, a gang of fairly normal looking men stand around handing out ice cream to passersby. Normal but for the knives, machetes and axes they all carry. The ice cream is in huge gallon-sized lumps, frozen and wrapped in plastic bags. A block of vanilla ice cream is thrust under our tennis-ball-sized eyes, but obviously preferring chocolate we ask for it, and to our astonishment, another huge block of the favourite flavour is forked over. Unable to believe our luck, my friend and I sprint the remaining distance to his home with our loot, almost forgetting my younger brother who trots after us, complaining at our sudden turn of speed.

Choking black smoke rises over the trees further down the road from the looted ice cream factory now being burned to the ground.

After lunch at my grand aunt’s, my father arrives on his Honda CG125 to take us home. He’s much earlier than he is on other Fridays. I sit on the pillion, and my brother takes his customary spot on the petrol tank in front of my father for the ride across Colombo to Mutwal where my Tamil mother is alone at home. The city’s in chaos. Gangs are breaking into shops all along Maradana Road and Armour Street, dragging out and smashing and burning everything that they cannot carry away. Armed police stand uncertainly at intersections, but don’t do anything. The streets are carpeted in broken glass and my father worries that he’ll have a puncture. Every so often a gang stops us and asks my father his name. Once they establish that we’re not Tamils, they demand petrol to burn nearby buildings. Each time my father claims to only have enough in the Honda’s tank to get home. They let us go.

My father normally buys us an Indrajal comic book — usually The Phantom or Mandrake the Magician — on the last Friday of each month, but today, the pharmacy on the corner of Armour Street is closed and shuttered.

As we approach the Kelani River, close to Grand Pass, the road ahead glitters with what looks like coloured marbles. As we get closer, we realize that the tar is littered with thousands of boiled sweets in bright colours, each one embossed with a star. Next to the road the famous Star Toffee factory is gutted and burning. My brother tries to convince my father to stop so that we can pick up some of the sweets, but my father ignores him, weaving the bike across the dangerous surface of half-melted sweets and tar.

We cross the river and turn left at Grand Pass. Near the Muslim burial ground, the route ahead is a mass of orange flame tinged a strange blue. Oily black smoke billows up from a small intersection, completely obliterating the road. The fire smells sharp with chemicals and our eyes water. My father approaches to within fifty metres and stops, steadying the bike with one foot. A nearby factory manufacturing moth balls has been attacked; huge chunks of snow-white camphor have been dumped in the middle of the road and set alight. There’s no way around.

My father revs the throttle, holding the bike on the clutch. He’s wearing a full-face Stadium helmet with visor, so his face is protected, but my brother and I have open-faced Centurion helmets. Twenty-five years and I still remember those helmets. Telling us to hold tight, close our eyes, and hold our breath, my father pops the clutch and guns the bike down the road, straight for the inferno. Between the piles of burning camphor and the roadside ditch is a small gap, maybe two or three feet wide and my father is aiming for this spot. In spite of his instructions I keep my eyes open, determined to experience this movie-like adventure. I jam my face down against the back of my father’s bike jacket, leaving a two-inch gap between his shoulder and my visor through which I squint. The bike hits the gap at full throttle, the world is all flame and smoke and there’s an instant of heat on my bare arms and legs as we blast through, hearts pounding, sucking in clean air on the open road beyond.

Sunset. My father and I climb onto the roof of our home and watch the columns of smoke that blot the horizon of Colombo in all directions. A few hundred metres away a tire factory is being systematically gutted and looted. Everything that isn’t nailed down is carried off. Every window is shattered. From our rooftop perch we watch Molotov cocktails thrown in and the flare of flames in the dim interior. The factory belches smoke, but doesn’t really burn. The sounds of destruction go on through the evening and into the night.

At some point in that weekend the brand new house across St John’s Way from ours is attacked and looted of every single piece of furniture and every fitting. Even the doors and roof tiles are stolen. The Indian Tamil family has already escaped. The house is built mostly of concrete and resists all attempts to burn it.

We hear that a former neighbour’s home has been burned in Mattakkuliya. It had been the first house with a TV in the whole area, and all the neighbourhood kids — including my brother and I — used to go there to watch German football. It was the parents of some of those neighbourhood kids that attacked the house.

We hear that my mother’s sister’s house in Mt Lavinia’s been attacked and burned with all of their possessions, but that she had escaped with her family and was safe. We later learn that the house was burned down by the landlord himself for the insurance. My cousin had one of the largest collections of dinky toys I’d ever seen, and that night I harbour thoughts of sneaking through the darkness to rescue all those cars and trucks.

The next evening our own landlord arrives at our backdoor, obviously agitated. He is a Sinhalese, and lives behind the house we had rented from him, and he tells us that a gang has sent him advance warning that they were coming to attack our home, since they knew his tenants were Tamil. They have assured him that they would only loot the place and leave the house undamaged. He begs my father to speak to the mob and establish the fact that he was a Burgher. The gang stands at our back fence, sarongs tucked up, shirtless, drunk. Knives and axes are jammed in their belts. They all carry heavy sticks and alavanguwas. My father faces them, equally shirtless, in old shorts, his arms thick with muscles, the image of the tough Burgher he’s trying to portray slightly spoiled by the heavy spectacles he peers through. My mother is confined to the house, but my brother and I stand behind my father. The gang is confused by my father’s obvious lack of Tamilness, but the electoral list they are armed with shows our house to be occupied by Tamils. The list is outdated, and my father tells them that we’re the new tenants. The gang leader shrugs good-humouredly and they leave, looking for fresh victims.

Colombo burns.

Cedric and I are planning to meet for a drink soon. I’ve no idea what he looks like, for I haven’t seen him since we were both little boys, twenty-five years ago, but I think it’s about time.

Sent by the author, with original post available on his blog here.


For more articles on July 1983, please click here.

  • shaan fernando

    When there is a war we have to accept some restrictions. Not only you in Jaffna feels you are slaves even in Colombo we feel the same. but then one has to understand that its how a war of this nature is fought.
    If any person who say it is wrong doing by the military then they will also have to tell how else we could control the situation. It is easy for activities of different types to criticize the way it is done but they also then should give a way to do it. I am not trying to Justify the killings but In Iraq there are over 2,50000 civilian were killed in a span of 5 years in Sri Lanka over 30 years total killed including the combatant of both parties is about 70000 so its not indiscriminate killings but to stop the resistance. During 87 JVP time there were about 30000 killed in two years time. No body told any thing about it Why it was the Sinhala killing the Sinhalese. Now this has become an issue because its a matter of two races.
    Once has to understand whether it is Sinhala or Tamils if its against the masses it is a terrorism. No Sinhalese are against Tamils but against the LTTE who make killing the order of the day. So for us to have peace we have to defeat the LTTE militarily like we did for the JVP. so they would also come to politics like the other Tamil parties who one time were fighter have done. Until this happen the war will go on and sooner they are defeated the better. So lets hope we defeated the LTTE at the earliest militarily.

  • Jey

    It is very sad state of our country that that majority community fails to see the real problem. There is an ethnic problem, where one community deprived of higher education, employment, and job and investment opportunities. Even those who lived among Singhalese were systematically targeted (in 56, 77 and 83) and reduced to nothing by the government and put the blame collectively on Singhalese. LTTE and all other armed groups is the by-product of this discrimination and systematic targeting. Unless the root problem (i.e. the right of Tamils to rule them within united Sri Lanka or as a separate entity) is solved, there will be resistance by Tamils. The leader of this resistance may change from time to time like SJV Selvanayam, Ponambalm, Amirthalingam, Pirabaharan or someone else in future.

    In 83, Tamils shops, houses and industries were burnt, now the country as a whole hit with high inflation, high cost of living, low rate to employment and heading fast to poverty and some analyst say becoming a failed state. This is simply because the successive government did not try to solve the root cause of the ethnic problem, instead they wanted to solve LTTE issue militarily or mark their year time by talk in round table/all party conferences. Those who have solved similar problems (South Africa, Ireland etc) are marching forward, while we march backwards.

  • Uthunga

    Twenty five years have passed since the holocaust of July 1983.Every body in Sri Lanka knew and still knows and remembers those who were responsible for it.
    But nobody can lay a finger on any one of them.Some of those who planned and executed it are no longer alive and those who live today only reminisce.
    The people are either too apathetic to change or have a suicidal tendency to tolerate a self-serving leadership supported by a docile media, subservient police an obedient loyal armed service, an obliging complacent judiciary to let things drift and find comfort in the typical Sri Lankan trait, that every thing would sort itself out in time “What can we do?” and live in Hell.

  • I am trying very hard to decipher who the author of “Remember 1958-1983” is. Is it David Blacker?
    The synopsis that he has written definitely brings back horrible memories of that awful day 23 July 1983. The atrocities that were committed against humans beings was deplorable. I was in my second year at university and I remember seeing smoke rising from the trees in maybe Pettah, Maradana and Kotahena. The view from the Science Faculty of the University of Kelaniya is amazing. But on the 23rd it was not a very nice view. None of us knew what was going on until all our lectures were cancelled and we were sent home. My friend and I could have walked home but decided to hop a bus and this was a long distance bus going to Kegalle. We were stoned at the Kiribathgoda Junction. What I saw at this junction will stick in my mind for the rest of my days. It was practically like a slaughter house with funeral pryers at every possible point. Two men saw us and decided to act like “caring big brothers” refering to us as “nangies” my foot! Just like the author I am a Burgher and the man who accompanied me home said that since my Sinhalese was not good he will protect me. Obviously, I am a Burgher and my mother language is English. What was he thinking? That was the question in my mind. When we reached my home he wanted a glass of water. He had an ulterior motive. “I do not have the house key,” I said looking at him with innocent eyes. “We do have a garden tap you, could drink out of that.” He was not too happy and said he never drank directly from a tap. Give me a break!Ceylonese, Srilankans whatever, humans know very well how to do this. He tried the next trick “well where are you going to stay?” I looked over to the Dalugama Church – my salvation, and said “I am going there.” My husband who is also a Burgher had to survive alone in his neighbours garage for three days only with water for sustenance. He could not make it home in time before curfew was clamped on the city.
    The author’s descriptions are so vivid that the reader who experienced the 23rd horror can still smell kerosene. diesel. petrol, tires, dust, blood; and can hear screams and can feel the confusion in the air that destroyed the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. The island that may never regain its splendour again. It was a bunch of hooligans who just couldn’t make it in the world, that decided to destroy all our lives. We were the best tourist destination but today we are not.

  • No Sinhala and Muslim students in Jaffna Uni = root problem
    GG Ponna race hatered speech (1925) = root problem
    Chelva’s 50:50 during 50’s = root problem
    Tamil ideology over Lanka ideology = root problem
    Madras seapoys killing Lankans and Indians = root problem
    Divide and rule and minority benefits = root problem

    Tmils in Lanka, Tamil Nadu and Tamil-only eelam(Sinhal not in latter two)=prob
    Tamil expansions begining in small lLanka, then India, Malaysia=Problem
    Sinhala (also Muslim and non tiger Tamis) far worse than harresed= cant live in Jaffna, Wanni, Nadu……..!!

  • Political Observer

    Now this is fine in fiction and real life. Yet, it does not capture the angst of those who helped to protect those who did not die in July 1983.

    While Thamil people suffered greatly, can you forget those who saved their neighbours? Do these heros not consistute the body politic of Sri Lanka?

    Without acknowledging the good deeds, there cannot be a route to peace.

  • Edwina, “Remember” is a collection of writings, and one of which is mine.

    Political, this post wasn’t written to capture anything. It’s just the eye-witness account of a 12-year-old. I have written about what I personally saw. I didn’t myself see any Sinhalese protecting the Tamils, so I haven’t written about that. The deeds of those minority Sinhalese who did protect their Tamil friends and neighbours has been written about elsewhere and acknowledged.

    Whenever their were ethnic riots in SL, individual Sinhalese have protected individual Tamils, but the majority of Sinhalese at best did nothing.

  • “Without acknowledging the good deeds, there cannot be a route to peace.”

    Before you can praise the good, one must first correct the wrongs. And the only way to correct the past is to see justice done in the present.

  • x

    so, david after what happened and could have happened to those outside knew your mother was tamil… why did you choose to join the SLA unlike the majority of tamils who joined the LTTE and other groups? you turned your back on your people and helped the majority carry out the war on tamils…

  • First of all, X, the majority of Tamils did NOT join the LTTE. A small percentage of them joined the separatists, and of that small percentage, an even smaller percentage joined the LTTE. The majority of Tamils mostly did nothing beyond flee to areas where they felt safe.

    My choosing to fight wasn’t because I particularly believed in any cause, be it national unity, Tamil rights, or any of the other reasons that old men send young men off to die. I joined the Army because I wanted to fight, and this was the easiest way to do it. If I had grown up in Jaffna (as I almost did), I’d probably have joined one of the separatist groups.

    How can fighting the Tigers be turning my back on my people? The Tigers maybe Tamil, but the Tamils aren’t Tigers. Besides, while the conflict maybe ethnic, the war itself isn’t. If this war was against the Tamils, why are there Tamil political parties in parliament? Why do we have a Tamil chief minister of the Eastern Province? Why did we have a Tamil foreign minister? And if the Tigers are fighting against anti-Tamil forces, why did they kill Kadirgama, Thiruchchelvam, and thousands of other Tamils?

    The SL Army is not driven by race, but by its loyalty to the nation and its government. It has fought against Tamil and Sinhalese terrorist groups impartially, and will continue to do so, no matter the ethnic makeup of those groups. I have personally watched Sinhalese Buddhist troops clear protesting Buddhist priests off the Galle Road with rifle butts, boots, and belt buckles, and I know that if those priests had been Hindu, Muslim, or Christian, I wouldn’t have had any problem carrying out my orders.