It was July ’83.
I was seventeen, which you’ll be surprised about if you’ve seen my youthful appearance and I was in Sri Lanka on one of those “extended” studenty type of holidays that we all wish we could have now. It was the summer between the first and second year of my ‘A’ levels and my parents had paid for me to go there and stay with my Uncle and his Australian wife for a couple of months.
My mother is Tamil, as were her parents, an incredible coincidence I know. I went to stay with her brother who was working for a couple of years in Lanka. He had left the country as a child with my Mother’s family, had subsequently settled in Australia, then gone to Sri Lanka with his wife as an expat worker. He was an Australian citizen, but still a Sri Lankan and still a Tamil. I went with my maternal grandmother, a proud old Tamil who hadn’t been back for a few years, and we were meeting my first cousin, one of my grandmother’s other grandchildren, in Sri Lanka. That particular cousin lived in Denmark. His mother was my mother’s sister and his father was Danish. It was his first time in Sri Lanka. They were confusing times indeed!
I’d had a few weeks in Sri Lanka before that day. I’d done some hanging around, some sightseeing and travelling, but it was all with people. Looking back I can see that I was a dependant seventeen year old much more than the independent backpacking type that many seventeen year olds are now. One of these excursions was a few days up country to see something to do with my family. I don’t know the exact dates involved but we’d been up country, out of contact with most people, for a week or so. Then, on what must have been July 25th or so, we headed back to Colombo by car.
These were the days before mobile phones, satellite TV and many of the things we take for granted today. Computers were things that scientists used, mostly because they were the size of a room, the internet was unheard of and even Kottu was only in its infancy, version 2.0 or something.
We broke our journey in Kandy, where we stopped off at someone’s house for tea and things. The first leg had been uneventful. There were five of us in the car; my Uncle who was driving, his wife, my Danish cousin (I’ll call him DC), my grandmother and me. We had been chatting happily and watching the scenery go by with that sense of awe that up country Sri Lanka inspires in people.
Once we left Kandy things became different. The roads were quiet and there was a strange lack of activity. After passing Kadugannawa my Uncle and his wife became very concerned, it was all too quiet and too eerie for comfort. Shutter on stalls were closed, people were absent and the usual hustle and bustle of the Colombo Kandy Road was missing.
We turned on the radio and only then did we find out what had been happening in Colombo in the preceding days. It’s important to remember that this was twenty five years ago. We had been up country and communication wasn’t in any way like it is now. It was the first we’d heard of the rioting and looting, of the murdering and violence. It was also the first time we realised we were driving while there was a curfew on. A bit of a bummer.
I was in the back seat with DC and my grandmother. DC, being of mixed parentage, looked very western and not at all like a Sri Lankan. I, being seventeen and thinking I was some sort of fashion god, looked unlike the average Sri Lankan. My hair was long and I had tried to dye it blonde so it had that reddish colour that blonde hair dye turns jet black hair into. I had an earring and wore clothes that made me look as if I was about to go on stage with a band. These days, when I do go on stage with a band, I look like I’m in a car on a trip.
My grandmother wore a white saree, as she had done since my grandfather had died many years before, not the same one every day though. I’ve never thought about it but I suppose clothes shopping for her must have been quite easy.
My Uncle looked brown, mostly because he was, but he was very western in his clothing and demeanour. His wife was white and looked like an Australian tourist.
I was very much a child in terms of my input to the conversations and plans that followed. I mean that I had no part to play other than to do what I was told. I didn’t understand the conflict at the time and all I knew was that there was a big risk involved in being Tamil, seen to be Tamil or with a Tamil. My Uncle and his wife decided that the best course for us was to continue on our journey and get to Colombo as quickly as possible.
The plan, if stopped, was to say that we were unaware of the curfew and that we were tourists, except my Uncle who would be called the driver. It seemed like a good plan and we continued on the road. The eerie stillness followed us on our journey for some miles. It was like something from an episode of Star Trek when the crew have beamed down to an old abandoned planet.
Then we rounded a corner and almost drove headlong into a mob of people in the road. As mobs go this one didn’t look like the friendly type. They were carrying guns, sticks, things on fire and others bits and pieces that were only going to do damage. My Uncle slowed the car, he had no choice as they were blocking our way. There must have been about a hundred or more people, or a hundred and five if you include us in the car.
We stopped the car and I thought we were going to die. I had never had the feeling before and I’ve never had it since. We were surrounded by the mob and one man was standing in front of the car with a gun pointed at my Uncle’s head. To this day I can remember the look on the gun toting man’s face. He was wide and red eyed, he looked wild, angry and like he’d shoot just for the fun of it.
It’s funny what goes through your head during something like this. I guess many people face danger of this sort regularly and are able to think all sorts of rational stuff. I thought my Uncle would be shot and that we’d be killed and that bit, the bit about dying, didn’t scare me. What did scare me was the thought that no one really knew where we were. We’d die and never get found, never be traced. I felt afraid of that.
The gun toter was evidently one of the leaders of the mob. He walked around the car to the driver’s side. My Uncle wound down the window and a discussion in Sinhala ensued. The car was surrounded by people and I thought that anything could happen at any point. It was all well and good that my Uncle was talking to the one chap but anyone else around the car might have decided to smash a window and do something at any time.
The minutes of discussion felt like hours and during this period, while the conversation went on, the chap continued to point the gun straight at my Uncle’s head. Everyone else in the car was quiet, not that I could have joined in even if I wanted to. After a while the mob let us pass. I don’t mind telling you that, even as I type this, I feel nervous and jittery to think about what might have been. The mob had believed and “spared” us. They were happy that none of us were Tamil.
We carried on our way. I recall looking briefly out of the rear windscreen as we drove away. I looked at the mob and felt a sense of relief mixed with dreaminess. It was as if the last minutes had been a film or a fantasy and I’d just woken up again.
There were no more mobs on our route, there was no more direct danger but, as we entered Colombo, we saw the sights that so many others have talked about. The debris and residue of what had been happening, what was still happening, was everywhere. Buildings were burned, looted and smashed. Roads were deserted and filled with nothingness and the smell of fear.
We got back to my Uncle’s house. It was a wealthy street and three or four of the houses, the Tamil ones, had been looted or destroyed. Ours was untouched and undamaged, perhaps because it was rented, maybe because it had been empty. Either way it’s not the sort of scenario that fills you with feelings of security and safety. By this time we knew what had been happening, that the mobs were going round looking for the “enemy”.
The next days were timeless ones. I can remember detail but not exactly when it happened. For about a week most of the household went to bed at night not knowing if we’d wake up in the morning. I remember lying in bed (I shared a room with DC) and we’d hear the shouting and raging of the mobs as they roamed the city. Me and DC spoke a lot and he was more scared than I was. He was right, I was wrong. I was filled with a mix of teenage naivety and youthful ignorance. He was older and understood more about the immediate danger we were in. I had one of those “It won’t happen to us” mentalities. It was only some years later that I realised it so nearly did.
Staying in the country for my grandmother, DC and I wasn’t a favourable option and my parents back in the UK were desperately trying to organise flights for us. Flights were limited and packed and it was only after a few days that they were able to get DC out. I look back and feel admiration and gratitude to my Uncle and his wife. They were in a state of mutiple loco parentis and had to look after themselves, my grandmother and their two nephews. It was like going through the different stages of a computer game. Complete level one to get to level two and so on. But each person only had one life and starting the game again if you die wasn’t an option.
I was dispatched to some good family friends to stay with, my grandmother went off to some cousins of hers and we reconvened some days later when we had been put on a flight. We stayed in one of the airport hotels the night before the flight, for fear of travelling during the hours of darkness, and were under strict instructions not to tell anyone our ethnicity.
My grandmother suffered from this. She hadn’t been back to Sri Lanka for many years prior to this trip and she never went again. Two years later she died. I know that she felt immensely betrayed, as if her motherland didn’t want her. Having to deny her identity was something she hated doing as she was so proud of her heritage.
My Uncle and his wife left to go back to Australia afterwards. They have returned many times since ’83 and have mixed feelings about Lanka.
DC has never been back. I talked to him about it a while ago and he hasn’t ruled it out at some time in the future, just not now.
I didn’t go back for five years. I know I was one of the privileged and lucky ones. I had a home to escape to and I didn’t have to leave my home to live. Tens of thousands of people, Sinhala and Tamil have suffered so much more in the last twenty five years than I did or any of my family did.
Living through those weeks and those events added something to me, to my passion for Sri Lanka. It was only a few years ago that I stopped thinking, every time I left Lanka, that I might not see it again. It’s made me so determined to try to instil some of that passion for Sri Lanka in my daughters, so that they can love the country like so many of us do. I think I’m doing okay there.
My little story is only a drop in the ocean of stories that have been told already. Those that have been told are only a drop in the even bigger ocean of ones that exist.
[Editors note: A version of this essay is published on the author's personal blog, London, Lanka and Drums.]
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