Photo courtesy Ilankai Tamil Sangam

July ’83.

It was the month and year I would like to forget.  As we woke up that fateful July morning, all I knew and felt was the tension in the air, in the house, as my parents and we children were contemplating what kind of dangers we, as a minority family was going to face!  The situation was aggravated when the bodies of thirteen soldiers killed in the North were brought to the Borella cemetery and retaliation for their killing was vowed by the politicians present, hence the rampage on the minorities started almost immediately.

Still, my two younger sisters went to school that morning and my brother was on his way to the University of Colombo.  Although I was studying for my second year examination at the University of Kelaniya I had no desire to do anything other than to wash my face and have a little breakfast.  My parents, our maid Gunawathie and I were the only people left in the house.  A mob stopped in front of our house and all we could do was to get down on our knees and pray to God for His protection.  They were joined by several busloads of mobs, whose only intention was to destroy Tamil homes and they succeeded in finding and burning every single house and shop, but thankfully it was divine intervention that spared our home being burnt with us inside.

After my siblings returned early from school, a kind and courageous mother of my brother’s friend came in their car to take us to their home, saying we would be in grave danger if we stayed on.  So my Dad, my brother, two younger sisters and I left with them, while my mother decided to stay behind with the maid, thinking they both would be safe as they both belong to the majority community.  We had no time to take anything with us, but to go in our home dresses minus even slippers!  On our way we saw smoke and fire wherever homes and shops were being destroyed and later we came to know people in homes and cars being burnt alive by mobs!  These mobs were not the ordinary people, they had the backing of certain politicians and their violence knew no bounds.  My brother had personally witnessed some gruesome sights that morning; dead bodies on the road with stabbings as well as shops, homes and people in cars being burnt alive.  To this day he remembers the untold fear and shock that gripped him.

In the afternoon, during the curfew a drunken mob came with local weapons like crowbars and machetes, broke open the front door and windows and started threatening my mother, her crime being married to a Tamil.  Even though she tried to plead with them to spare their lives, she knew they were in danger, she and the maid ran to the rear garden to jump over the very high parapet wall which my mother said was nothing but a miracle as scaling it would have been unthinkable otherwise!  All they knew was the mob chasing after them.  My mother was almost attacked with a crowbar, but our dog prevented it by jumping at the assailant, getting the blow on itself, which gave my mother just enough time to jump the high wall with the maid’s help.

While my mother and maid escaped to the neighbour’s house, they heard the house being vandalized and looted.  All the things my parents have earned as teachers from scratch over 25 years were destroyed in a few minutes.  My Dad had just retired from teaching and my mother had only a few years to retire – just imagine starting life from scratch again at this late stage in their lives.  It was heart rending to see them reduced to nothing and the same for us children. My mother sustained a few cuts from climbing the wall, which our neighbour attended to and told her it would be unwise to stay at their home as the mobs were going from house to house searching for Tamils.  My mother then called one of her teacher friends who lived nearby to find out if she and the maid could stay with her and her friend was more than happy to have them even though she cautioned them to come late in the evening during the curfew, so that no one would see them!

My two older sisters at that time were working abroad and shipped many items home as they wanted to return home that year.  The only blessing was, although nothing of their goods was spared, they were able to help us refurbish our house many months later.  The State never paid for the losses even though compensation was promised.

Once the mob left the house, our maid climbed the rear wall and entered the house only to find a fire in my brother’s room, which she immediately doused with water.  Our home was a total mess the floor was covered with broken window glass and other debris.  It was too dangerous to walk or stay in the house as it was without doors or windows and the constant danger of being attacked.  My mother entrusted our few jewellery pieces to the maid who in turn hid them in the house and gave it back to my mother before she left our home to her village.  She was a great strength to my mother in the days to come.  My study notes from the University too were destroyed and I had to stay with a friend whose parents kindly offered me their home to concentrate on my second year examinations.  It was such a stressful time and I found it hard to concentrate on my studies or anything for that matter.  As for my brother, he decided to stay with one of his college friends, whose family looked after him like their own and two of his college friends risked their lives to get my brother’s books and notes by going to our home during the curfew.  My parents and two younger sisters stayed for a while with my mother’s sister and cousin until it was safe for them to return home.

We were fortunate because we had friends and relatives who took risks to help us, but many had to stay in refugee camps and endure further hardship.  It wasn’t easy being separated from the rest of the family for a few months before it was safe for us to be home again.  It was just like being homeless, completely dependent on others for our welfare.

If only the politicians can realise the worth of every citizen, especially the minorities who have been the scapegoat since independence to hide the weaknesses or sins of successive governments.  Unfortunately, attacking the minorities has been an easy option.  Their main crime was asking for the same basic rights the majority enjoys!  If only we could embrace unity in diversity rather than drumming up hatred and animosity and depriving the minority of its basic rights, this country would have been a paradise long time ago, not a teardrop but a pearl to hold and to cherish.  After 30 years this still remains a dream, wake up Sri Lanka so that future generations will not suffer, including made homeless, and wonder why.