Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Remember the Riots

The Commanding Officer


Photo courtesy BBC

I remember going over to the house of a friend and trying to save the house from attack and destruction. I remember our failure to achieve that hope. A friend who I never counted as the ‘Other’. At that time, in our youth, we related to each other regardless of our ethnicity. We never asked if one was a Tamil, Muslim, Sinhalese or Burgher. I still never do. I stayed over there that whole week and we miraculously escaped assault and death as groups of thugs repeatedly forced themselves into the house. I remember sending members of their family over the boundary wall to safe houses.

I remember, July 29th. ‘Black Friday’. We ran for our lives. After the rest of the family was sent to safety, my friend’s brothers and a couple of friends sat down to a lunch we had cooked up – hot white rice and pol-sambol. We heard an uproar outside. We ran. A mob too large to count came charging at us and finally managed to burn the house down. I remember my friend’s brother hiding under the bed of a neighbour; escaping the sword of a thug, swiped under the bed in the room, by the sheer grace of God. I remember hiding from the mob in half-built houses, scaling walls and hanging on a ledge over a canal.

I remember a gun in my face stuttering to explain that I was not a tiger come to bomb SLBC and being let off by a Commanding Officer who was my schoolmate and providentially who recognised me. (If memory serves me right, he said he had orders to shoot the ‘tigers’ on sight). I remember walking back barefoot with the many others. I remember walking past burning cars and bodies charred beyond recognition.

The stench was awful.

I remember the day that changed my life forever. A day that made my friend’s siblings and their families all leave this country. A day that made all my siblings and their families also leave Sri Lanka. They all left hopeless. But for me, this was a day that made me (and my friend) choose to remain in Sri Lanka and do what we do despite all that we valued crumbling around us. Sadly, echoes of July ’83 return hauntingly when I see similar hate mobs and instigation by authorities and powers that be, using ethnicity and even religion to maintain their own popularity. The apathy and inaction of law officers who stood by and watched the mobs on rampage is not too dissimilar.

But I still hope.

I hope that what I do, though it may only be a drop, still fills the bucket. I hope one day it will be full and we would have made a difference. I pray that it we never have to face a Black July again. Our children must have a better future in this nation.

Sri Lanka must have a better future.

  • N.Ethir

    Mr. Mendis. Thank you for sharing. I have read and heard many first hand narration. All need to be compiled and included in our shared history so such events will have low probability to happen again. As is now the probability is increasing. The root causes need to be identified at the individual and group levels and eliminated to decrease the chances of the 1958′ 1977′ 1983 happening to start new cycles of violence that fuels in ever increasing intensities.

    • WSM

      I hope so too – but sadly Ethir, it looks like we Sri Lankans – or at least those in power and can make these changes, are not creatures that like to or wish to learn from whatever collected historical narrative. What is happening now with the Muslims is only another such example of bids for power and greed for riding a populist wave that makes any cause justifiable to stay in power. Be it language, religion or so called nationalism.I think the root causes are plain to see. Change will come when we the people decide enough is enough and are willing to challenge our rulers and the regime with our collective voice of protest and dissent at impunity and corruption and abuse of power. I think we value our safety and comfort, our convenience and security far more than risk it to being charged by a riot squad or hauled up for questioning. I don’t think we have reached the point where a significant number of us as citizens have been affected to the point that we feel the pinch personally to move us to that step.

  • Ajith

    Hope is good thing but it is not sufficient enough to stop replace July with May. Most Sri Lankans understand the root causes to the problems and ways to resolve the problems. Unfortunately a small number who do not like to resolve the issues have the power to influence the most to not to think rationally and continue the cycles of July and May. If we can convert the hopes with actions, the most will have the power to stop July and May and shiny months from January to December.