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

Some Reflections arising from Ethnic Riots

by Somapala Gunadheera

Off and on, I write short stories, never anecdotes. But now I have to oblige Sanjana. He wants stories about our ethnic riots, the one that raged before he was born and the other when he was at school. Therapists say that anecdotes have a healing effect on ethnic wounds.

My experience about the 1983 riot was brief. Then I was the Chairman of the Ceylon Steel Corporation at Athurugiriya. Towards mid-day, I heard that Tigers had invaded Colombo and people were running away helter-skelter. The Aturugiriya Police had blocked the road opposite their station and were in battle array.

Later it transpired that the beginning of the turmoil was the sighting of a Tamil victim of the riot hiding on the roof of a building in the Pettah, reminiscent of the fable in which the entire animal kingdom took to its heels as the story spread that the world was crashing, as reported by a chick on whose back a large leaf had fallen.

Before the actual fact was known however, there was much excitement. The workers went home early and the staff bus was ready to take the officers away. But there was a snag. One of the officers was Tamil and it was considered risky to have him in the bus, as by now Sinhala chauvinism had taken control of the situation and there were mob checks at every junction.

I offered to take the Tamil officer in my vehicle hoping to exploit the status of my car in the area. For solidarity’s sake a few others got in with the man under risk. On the way, we were blocked by a mob armed with clubs and knives at the Hokandara junction. I opened my window. The leader of the mob came up. “Ah, Sir, Chairman!” he said with a bow, “you are all Sinhalese, no sir?”

That was a situation where truth was homicidal. I smiled my sweetest in reply. Besides how could I answer that question with scientific precision, without the help of the best bio-analyst in the world, in the background of our long and checkered history?

My experience in the 1958 riots was far more dangerous. I had just returned from Jaffna after serving my cadetship. I could afford only a part of a house rented by a Tamil. One day there was mayhem up the lane with a mob attacking the Tamils, towards dusk. My landlord who was a leading Communist had gone to his headquarters, leaving his young wife and their son and daughter who were about two to three years.

There was not much time to act before the mob reached our house. I took the son in my hands and the mother took the daughter. Together we got out of the backdoor, crept through a barb wire fence and ran across a coconut property as fast as we could until we came to a cadjan hut. There was an old couple there. They were very sympathetic to the helpless trio in distress and assured me that nothing could happen to them in that out of the way place.

Satisfied with their assurance, I left my charges there and returned home to look to my old parents and young sister. They were alright. The mob had entered the house and the results of their ‘linguistic test’ being negative, they had passed on. Past nine in the night, I brought back my landlord’s wife and children, the man still apparently engrossed in conference with the dynamics of ethnic conflict.

All was quiet now and we retired to bed. I slept in the front room and my parents and sister in the room behind. Around midnight, I was suddenly put up by a sound of crashing glass. It did not take long for me to realize that my front window was being attacked with stones. Some stones were falling inside the room. Before I could get up my mother was physically upon me covering her only son with her body. I struggled out of bed and took my mother to the inner room.

Soon there was the roar of an approaching motorcycle. The stoning ceased suddenly. The cycle stopped in front of our house. I came out to see it was a police officer, a cousin of my landlady. There was a large pistol in his holster. As the officer entered the house, I saw our front door neighbor closing his partly opened window and it dawned on me the attack was his punishment to me for helping the ‘bloody Tamils’. His cowardice was now taking the better of his chauvinism.

Twenty-five years later, the protagonists of this drama keep coming back to my mind now. My Communist landlord died long ago. His bones might be turning in his grave to find that his successors are even now grappling with ethnic rivalry, even around the epicenter of his dogma. The old couple that gave shelter to my charges that night are very likely to be among the departed. The loving kindness they showered on their wards that night was more than enough to open the gates of heaven to them.

My mother is dead now and the mother of the Tamil children is supposed to be living abroad. The two mothers showed that a basic instinct like maternal sacrifice had no ethnic barriers. The two children must be well away in their new salubrious abode. Their childhood memory may be validating what communalists keep preaching to them about the Sinhala desperados. Perhaps they were too young then to realize that their survival had something to do with a different kind of ‘desperado’. As part of the Tamil Diaspora, they may be assuaging with alms, their guilty conscience about leaving behind, their less fortunate, (more patriotic?) blood cousins.

My front door assailant is dead. As a believer in rebirth, I do not rule out the possibility of his being reborn a Tamil to pay penance for what he did to the Tamils in his previous birth. It is even possible that he is among the hundred suicide bombers that are supposed to be in Colombo now, according to our authorities whose statistics are as efficient as their management of the ethnic conflict is deficient.

[Editors note: The author’s first submission to Groundviews, Jaffna: Retrospect and Prospect, on his experiences as a civil servant in Jaffna, has been read over a 1,000 times to date and quoted widely on the web. This article was sent in response to an email of mine calling for submissions remembering the anti-Tamil riots of ’58 and ’83.]


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