Groundviews

Handling disasters: The man-made disaster of July 1983 (Part 2)

Photograph by Chandragupta Amarasinghe, courtesy Thuppahi’s Blog

[Editors note: Continued from Part 1, which you can read here. The author was at the time of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom Secretary to the Prime Minister and Commissioner-General of Essential Services  from July 1983 to April 1984.]

Prioritization of Needs

Taking stock

An early activity of the CGES management team was the prioritization of displaced persons ‘needs’. This was based on an assessment of personal requests, complaints and, sometimes, fervent pleas by the ‘displaced’, now virtual refugees, in the hastily set –up welfare centres.

The senior management Team[1], consisted mainly of the eight Deputy Commisioners  supplemented by other staff members as required. It met daily with the CGES during the first five days and then weekly on a regular basis to assess and compile lists of needs. Numerous   telephone calls with Officers – in – Charge of the Centres (which were set up in the outstations too as the disturbances spread outward from Colombo to other main towns with mixed populations) and discussion with NGO’s active in the field (prominent among them Sarvodaya, the Sri Lanka Red Cross and Saukyadana) highlighted and sharpened specific urgent needs. Information supplied by the News media which quickly swung into action and the frequent Press meetings set up by the Press Relations and NGOO Director (Wilfred Jayasuriya) helped in the inevitably rough and ready assessment of needs which was all the circumstances permitted. Later on, a structured detailed survey of family and individual members needs – education, employment, etc was carried out with the help of voluntary observers (mainly retirees and University students). But in the very early stages of displacement the stock-taking was based mostly on verbal information and on an adhoc basis.

Out of this welter of information it was clear that what the involuntarily displaced (100,000 in Colombo Municipality area alone, and growing in numbers outside) chiefly needed was the assurance of personal safety for the family, information about, and where appropriate, reunion with those family members who had presumably fled to other points of safety, clothing – since many had escaped from their homes with barely the clothes on their backs- and urgent medical attention, (very often burns), for those who had suffered injury during the attacks. Shelter of some kind, food and water and immediate additional sanitation at the temporary centres were also high in priority. Evacuation, back to Jaffna, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, the Vanni  and Mannar also figured high especially where the displaced had been living as weekly ‘boarders’ in the city.   Concern for material belongings – houses, business establishments, vehicles, jewellery, household equipment and books/documents which had been lost to arson and pillage took, not unexpectedly, a secondary place and was therefore left to be dealt with by the CGES subsequently. Security and ‘relief and rehabilitation’ of the person, being of primary interest. However the question of personal belongings and hard – earned livelihoods and businesses ranging from the ‘corner plantain – boutique’, the roadside cobbler, to hundreds of small and medium sized shops and large industrial units which had also been looted and set on fire, could not be long delayed.  The issue of material belongings lost and destroyed assumed great importance as the extent of damage inflicted became known. It was clear that the CGES could not, with its given powers, address this need as well. The Cabinet was advised to establish a separate institution to manage affected property, businesses and industry and Emergency Regulations were promulgated under the Public Security Ordinance to handle the many issues which had arisen in this area.  I have dealt with this under the sub-heading REPPIA – (Rehabilitation of Persons, Property and Industries Authority.)

Family Reunion

While many years later, tracing and family reunion became familiar concepts as displacement of parts of the Sri Lankan population grew widespread, in 1983, tracing family members, especially children,  who had gone missing in the suddenness of flight (over walls, through fences and to neighbouring homes) became a highly traumatic experience. I was personally involved in three ‘stories’- encounters which remain etched in memory.

The first, finding ‘Jolly’ Somasunderam, a civil service colleague (still relatively unperturbed) in a hastily conceived camp in a hangar at Ratmalana airport on the morning of Saturday the 24th of July; second, a distraught father in an adjoining hangar who begged that I take him to St Lawrence Church, Wellawatte where he had heard that his wife and child had taken refuge while he was returning from work that afternoon of Black Friday; and thirdly, the  soon – to – be – mother[2], then a permanent resident in Germany who had come to visit her parents by herself and now found herself trapped with no way to get to the Katunayake Airport for her flight back home. (see footnote) There were many more such troubling ‘stories’ that the CGES officers shared at this time some of which must have now grown into the tamil diaspora history and narrative.

Evacuation within Sri Lanka

The situation within Colombo city, bad after the rioting following the Sunday evening (July 18) funeral at Kanatte (Borella) which was showing some sign of quietening down after the declaration of Emergency on Wednesday night, changed dramatically for the worse on Friday (23rd July)[3] late morning. Fuelled by rumours that an LTTE squad was attacking the city[4], mobs from the numerous wattes (slums, also termed Koreas) brandishing iron rods, katties and wooden poles stormed onto the main roads, dressed in traditional combat mode, searching for those who could conceivably be ‘Tigers’ and prepared to rid Colombo of them permanently. Virtually the entire community including the victims seemed to be caught up in this frenzy of agitation. Flight, as quickly as possible from the comfort of their homes to safe transit points like kovils and churches and the government designated welfare centres was the only option.  Many who ran did so to taunts that they should ‘go back’ to where they belonged, in the North or the East. Consequently the demand for quick evacuation to Jaffna, Trincomalee and Batticaloa or anywhere in ‘the North’, intensified.

The powers vested in the CGES enabled the requisition of any vessel or plane in our ports or airports. However it was not necessary to use these powers as the ships of the national Shipping Corporation were placed at our disposal. These were speedily readied to ferry a large number who had requested evacuation to Jaffna. The Government Agent Jaffna (Devanesan Nesiah) reported on the relief arrangements in respect of the displaced who arrived in Jaffna in August and September 1983 as follows;

In the first two weeks the rate of arrivals averaged about 1500 per day and in the third week about 1000 per day. The first and most urgent problem was to receive the displaced, attend to their immediate needs and dispatch most of them to homes of friends and relatives, a smaller number to welfare centres (refugee camps) and a few to hospitals.

He added the comment that the guiding principle behind the relief arrangements made there was to obtain the services of local charitable NGOO (of which Jaffna had a great number) and the community, and keep the work of government in the background. The intention was always to make the displaced feel as much at home as possible.

Train transport, with adequate armed – service security, was deemed the next most effective  mode of movement of the displaced and the assistance of the Railways was obtained for two express  trains to leave Colombo Fort, bound for Jaffna and Batticaloa each evening for some weeks. Would –be passengers from the Colombo welfare centres were assembled in good time at the Royal college grounds and bussed, heavily guarded, into the Fort station[5] shortly before departure time. Conscious of earlier situations where trains with ‘refugees’ had been attacked by mobs en route, special care was taken by the armed guards placed on the trains  during the mandatory stops at places like Kurunegalle and Anuradhapura which had been scheduled to drop – off or take – on, ‘refugee’ passengers.

The more affluent and those who wanted to leave as early as possible opted for seats on the two Air Force – loaned Dakotas which the CGES operated. Wing Commander Raja Wickremesinghe (Rtd) was a mobile booking office, on 24/7 duty, during the early days. Discount fares were offered to the very old and very sick. As in most other projects handled during the year by CGES staff there were no Audit queries regarding accounts and the numerous transactions this involved.

Extension of CGES activity to the outstations

The work of the CGES increased exponentially when, like the ripples caused by a pebble thrown into a pond, violence flared in towns away from the metropolis, after a gap of time, in almost concentric circles. The violence in this case was more against property and business establishments owned by Tamil citizens. (Being ‘tamil’ here included Indian – origin persons as well.) It was surmised by us in CGES at the time that the delayed – action pattern of movement outwards from Colombo that the violence took, was that communication of ‘what could be done with impunity’ was mainly by word – of – mouth. The spread of knowledge from lawless elements outwards seemed to equal the speed of the then available transport network. Thirty years – on one has to recognize that in 1983 TV was yet something novel and not yet widely available, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) was the prime source of information, long distance calls took time and cost money. Mobile telephony and the internet and the now well-known ‘social media’ was a long way off. As far as CGES was concerned the spread of violence to the outstations meant that for effective and quick response, the district network of Government Agents would have to be mobilized. So it was that several District Agencies, especially where sizeable tamil communities lived were appointed Deputy Commissioners with full delegated power; Kegalle, Kandy, Matale, Badulla, Nuwara Eliya, Ratnapura and Galle became particularly active in setting up Welfare Centres, relief and rehabilitation of persons affected, evacuation and later in rudimentary efforts at reconciliation.

Livelihood needs of those affected

After the immediate needs of personal security, health care, family reunion, shelter, food and clothing were, as far as possible taken care of, the short and long term requirements of income sources, employment and rehabilitation of property lost or damaged had to be addressed.

A high proportion of the displaced happened to be government servants employed in the public institutions located in the Colombo Municipality and its environs. Many of these resided in the suburbs of Wellawatte and Kotahena which had borne the brunt of the attacks. The state action at providing relief was generally two – pronged. One, by ensuring that government servants (and also private sector employees) continued to receive their monthly emoluments although they were not able to report for duty. Initially all were placed on 3 months full – pay leave. Depending on individual circumstances this leave was extended.

At the other end of the scale were a large number of very poor families whose income was obtained by daily labour. This was the hardest category to assist as in many instances their sources of employment – factories, shops etc – had also been destroyed. Nattamis who pulled hand carts laden with sacks of rice, flour and sugar to the wholesale markets in the Pettah, or carried them on their backs to lorries were also among the displaced. These could not be easily found work and continued to remain in the welfare centres for a while. They constituted a semi – permanent layer at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ extremely difficult to clear. A rapid survey of skills available at this level in the Centres disclosed that several had been cooks or their assistants in kades (eating houses). These ‘skilled’ persons were quickly absorbed back into the informal work force but used the Centre as a safe place to sleep in the nights. Security guards had to be oriented to this routine and in the absence of national Identity Cards special passes were devised. In such ways many easy and practical solutions were devised by Centre supervisors. I recall that the small category of gardeners in the ‘big houses’ (generally of expatriates) who had fled at first sign of trouble or been sent to the nearest Centre since they were vulnerable in the houses where employed, had at times to be relocated because of the objections of other domestics in what had been mixed ethnic households. In time this was less a problem but in the early days it was very real. This fear of Sinhalas being attacked by Sinhala mobs for ‘harbouring’ the enemy was a chilling reminder of how deep ethnic hostility ran at the time.              

Reconciliation

Looking back at what happened to the Tamil citizens in the city and elsewhere in the urban areas of the country and the fact that they were in the main innocent victims of a ‘fire’ which they had played no part in creating it seems strange that no official apology for the pain and suffering they had been exposed to was offered at any stage by the Government leaders. On the other hand – and reminiscent of rubbing salt into raw wounds – some government spokesmen[6] were insensitive enough to suggest that the majority community should be commended for the restraint they had shown in responding to Tamil militancy with patience and forbearance. Such official statements however did nothing to alleviate Tamil fears that the government was not for them. What was palpable was the non-availability of the full protection of the state functionaries of Law and Order which should have normally been available to any citizen. I was convinced that this was not the official position.  But there is no doubt that in many Police stations there were officers who were not going to stretch themselves to offer those seeking help adequate protection. We had many complaints of this in the early days. In fact the Police, were in most places hopelessly out- numbered.

Of course the fearsome consequence of this for the future was that the threatened minority would get the message that in future they should provide their own protection. Some non-violent strategies were adopted. One approach was for the names of shops to be changed so that the ethnicity of the owner would not be obvious – as an example Lucky for Lakshmi Stores. The marked preference for living in high – rise apartments as seen in Wellawatte could also well be a response to the vulnerability of individually owned  houses which had suffered great damage in this suburb.

(Some analysts believed that the rapid increase of tamil militancy and the encouragement (and training) for Tamil militant groups from abroad, was to provide the community with an alternative defense mechanism. The fact that, 1983 – like ‘pogroms’, did not take place in Colombo thereafter is certainly noteworthy.

The Government’s ‘explanations’ as to ‘what had happened’ and ‘why’ in July 1983, appear in the hindsight of 30 years, to have been insensitive but the force of public sentiment that Tamil militancy be forcefully dealt by the State with was also unstoppable. In the circumstances the innocent tamil civilians living as small minorities in the towns were literally ‘caught in the crossfire’. It became the duty of the CGES to help them out with the available means in what way possible.

Government proclamations in the days immediately following the violence indicates that the word ‘Sorry’[7], an absolute essential ingredient in reconciliation (as the South African example[8] indicated) does not occur. It is now an axiom that without such an admission of the failure of the State in its duty ‘to protect’ its meanest citizen, and apology for it, no real reconciliation can begin. Social scientists have averred that the recourse to ‘denial’ and inability to apologize for mistakes is cultural in Sri Lanka and transcends politics. In fact one’s everyday experience would tend to support this view. It is said to stem from the value we give to thatvaya or personal status. This apparently inhibits apologizing for unacceptable behavior, as it would undercut this important marker of personal esteem. So the thing to do is not admit to failure or guilt. If this value, which is said to be prevalent in both Sinhala and Tamil culture, is of such importance, it is easy to understand why people find it so difficult to say ‘Sorry’ for their actions (or inactions) which may have caused pain, suffering, loss and so on to others.  In the minds and memory of many who suffered in 1983 this omission of saying Sorry perhaps yet hurts.

Protection and Rehabilitation of affected property and recovery of stolen goods

The Governments bona fides with regard to those affected by the violence became clear in its actions on the two issues above.

Immediately following the violence against persons and the damage to business establishments there came the looters, mainly from the close-by wattes.  The cleaning – out operation was swift, unorganized and virtually unhampered. Many of us around at the time were witness to the carrying – away of household items of value like radios, cookers and even small refrigerators from partially damaged homes and shops. Regulations under the Public Security Ordinance were in place and the Police turned active raiding the hidden go-downs and arresting large numbers for theft[9] and retention of stolen property, etc. Persons who had lost property had the unenviable task of identifying their belongings now more or less unusable. Some attempt at retributive justice did take place but from the point of view of the victim, as could be expected,  this was hardly satisfactory.

Dealing with Rehabilitation of Property, Business Establishments and Industrial Units damaged or destroyed in the rioting.

The mechanism instituted by the Government to protect affected property (houses, industries and trade outlets from further damage and unauthorized occupation in the temporary absence of the owner or tenant, (and finally assist in repair with his/her return) was to vest them in the State temporarily in an Organization to which we gave the appropriate acronym of REPPIA – the Rehabilitation of Persons, Properties, and Industries Authority. At the outset this was effected by an Emergency Regulation which later was promulgated as an Act of Parliament.

Initially the action was misunderstood as an act to penalize the owner of property further, (adding insult to injury as it were) until it became clear that temporary state ownership would be the best way of securing the property from further spoilage and degradation. There were provisions in the regulation for the de-vesting of the property once the situation was clearer as to who the legal owner or lawful tenant was and that arrangements were ready for repair and rehabilitation. The bona fides of the Government’s initiative (quite innovative at the time) became evident as de – vesting of property got under way within a few months as the following figures show; (as at end December 1983)

Type of Property

Number affected in July 83

Number de-vested

Industrial Establishments

122

103

Trade Outlets

2300

1340

Houses

7500

4437

(Report from the office of the Commissioner of Essential Services Aug 1983 – Feb 1984)

The major problem we were faced with, after looters had cleaned out the premises, was that of encroachment, or as is commonly known ‘squatting’, by unauthorized persons. Some of these, in the case of boutiques and eating houses, were no doubt erstwhile competitors who could have been eyeing the property for a while.  REPPIA was invaluable in keeping them at bay. State property was not to be trifled with, by outsiders.

Rehabilitation of damaged properties was slow as the owners, inevitably financially strapped, had to organize the resources. Here again the government stepped in to help using the following measures.

  1. Getting the Insurance Corporation to pay 50% of the insurance claim in advance. Other private insurance firms also made similar concessions.
  2. The World Bank scheme of development loans for the SME sector was partially diverted for riot – affected industrial rehabilitation.
  3. The Export Development Board advanced monies from their cash grant scheme to affected exporters, and
  4. Reppia made part of its funds as loans for home reconstruction.

All these helped materially in relieving to some small extent the distressed owner of a part of the burden he/she had to bear but necessarily the larger share had to be borne by him. There was no opportunity to track how the property fared over time. But surmising from the reported expatriate ownership of many of the high – rise buildings which presently occupy land in Wellawatte it is likely that the original owner went abroad at some stage or sold to other expatriate Sri Lankans. A worthwhile subject for socio-economic research.


[1] The SMT consisted of several Secretaries from a variety of civilian Ministries and specially chosen senior Departmental officials; The Secretaries included Ranjan Wijeratne then Secretary Agriculture and Charitha Ratwatte, Secretary, Youth Affairs who were Deputy Commissioners. The senior officials, members of the SLAS such as A Sivandan, VK Nanayakkara, MJ Silva, Dhammika Amerasinghe, Wilfred Jayasuriya and C Abeygunewardene and from the SLOS Ms Manel Abeyesekera. Wing Cmdr  Raja Wickremesinghe (Rtd) of the Sri Lankan Air Force helped with air transport needs, and SB Senaratne Supdt of Police as Security Coordinator. Team meetings were convened by YW Gunewardena SLAS who was also Special Assistant to the CGES.  Among the Government Agents who were deemed to be Deputies to the CGES in their respective Districts, Devanesan Nesiah (Jaffna), C Logeswaran (Vayuniya) and AK Gnanachandran (later to be killed on duty by the LTTE) were kept particularly busy.

[2] There was no other way than taking the young woman to the Airport myself in my car (with my son Esala acting as official driver) the next morning. Angry mobs were yet out on the road with knives and crowbars and only my official status would have permitted the passage of a vehicle to the Airport that day. Although her flight was to leave hours later the terrified passenger, who had virtually hidden in the back seat of the car, wanted to be dropped only at the Departure Gate itself. Subsequently we exchanged correspondence which confirmed that mother (and daughter) were doing well in Germany and later in Australia to where they had finally migrated.

[3] The news came over the rumour grapevine and spread like wildfire around 11.00 am that morning. I recall that the Indian Foreign Minister Shree Narasimha Rao was in town that morning and paying a courtesy call on the President JR Jayewardene with the PM Mr Premadasa also present. As the news spread within the PMO on Sir Ernest de Silva Mw the office emptied in a hurry. Shoes, sandals and even handbags were left behind in the scurry to catch a bus back home. I stayed on as the PM was due to return by noon.

[4] It later transpired that this was a case of mistaken identity. Apparently some armed private- security personnel of a firm in the Pettah had been seen on a upstair – balcony near Seneviratne Toy shop behaving in a ‘suspicious’ manner. Onlookers were quick to come to the conclusion that these were in fact LTTE cadres who had entered the city to cause mayhem.

[5] One of the most poignant memories I carry is the sight of a young Tamil girl on one of the departing night trains, mouthing the familiar poittu vahiren (then I’ll go and come) with a toss of her head and a shy wave of the hand, that I glimpsed through a closed window as her train pulled slowly out from Fort station.

[6] The declaration of curfew was delayed till Wednesday and was accompanied by the speeches of two senior Government Ministers. However since the curfew was not strictly enforced and marauding bands were still active in places the unfortunate effect was that some victims became in a real sense ‘sitting ducks’, isolated and unable to move out before the attacks began with nightfall.

[7] As far as I am aware the first and only instance of anyone publicly apologizing for what had been done at this time was when I (as CGES) had the opportunity of speaking before a hall full of public servants who had left Colombo for Jaffna, in the first week of August. It was an occasion fraught with great emotion. The hall was full of angry people who felt they had been badly let down by a government they had faithfully served, some for many years at senior position.  Some carried the wounds of their recent assaults.  Many had on the blood stained bandages laid on them in Colombo. I tried to make them understand that I was there to do what I could for them and was saying sorry for what had happened on behalf of all of us. I wondered though at how many were convinced.

[8] For an appreciation of how South Africa did it two outstanding films (available on DVD) MY COUNTRY OF THE SKULL and INVICTUS are strongly recommended for viewing.

[9] A wholly unexpected reaction from some looters questioned by the Police was a sense of having been ‘let down’ by their arrest. Many had obviously felt that their behavior – looting shops and damaging factories – was what had been expected of them.