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

Memories of a Black Moon – the 1983 riots in Sri Lanka

More than two and a half decades later, one of my friends has asked to interview me about the ’83 riots. I was ten years old. My family was from the Sinhala majority, with relatives who were strong figures in politics and the military. How could I reply?

July 1983

My mind goes back to how thrilled we were when our teachers suddenly told us that school was going to be closed immediately. There was no explanation; we had no understanding of why this might be and no reason to wonder. We were happy that we would not have to wait till August for our holidays.

I was even more excited because my father had just given me a fantastic present: a Kodak 110 camera and three rolls of film. I didn’t want to photograph my school or the hostel where I was staying. I wanted to do something interesting. So I had been hassling my father to know where we would be going on holiday in August.

My school was in the southern part of Sri Lanka. Established in 1870 when we were under British rule; it wasn’t just a school, more like a little village. We had a farm, a bakery and about 60 acres of land on the side of a hill. When we got the news, we all ran down to our hostel to get ready to leave. I saw my father’s car parking at the bottom of the hill. This was strange. I wondered how he had the news so quickly that we were being given a holiday.

As soon as I got to the car, before I had a chance to ask anything, Dad said, “We are going up country now”. Mum and my sister were in the back and I was in the front seat with him, so we must be on our holiday already. On the way, I was so thrilled to be using my new camera for the first time. Although it was a long journey, my Dad was very patient and stopped anywhere I asked so that I could take pictures – waterfalls, landscapes, flowers, mountains, tree shadows.

We stayed that night at the famous Ella Rest House near the Ravana waterfall. It was dark and misty. The rest house was almost empty, only two families besides ourselves. We kids were playing but I could feel that our parents were tense. They were going inside from time to time to look at the television, but we kids were not allowed to see what they were watching.

Suddenly a police jeep arrived out of the fog. The inspector got out and spoke to my father, “Here is your permit. You don’t have to observe the curfew; travel as you wish. If you need a backup vehicle let us know.”

As we set off the next morning there was a fantastic sunrise although the mountain was still blanketed in mist. I started my photo journey again. There were fewer people on the roads than the day before. The small towns we drove through had a lot of police around and groups of people were clustered here and there.

I saw a car burning ahead of us. Dad stopped and told us to stay where we were. I watched him run up to the burning car and look inside. Some local people came over and spoke to him. He came back and said, “Let’s go”.

As we passed the burning car, he slowed down and stopped for a couple seconds to look again. In that moment I took a photograph. From then onwards, every few kilometres police or army patrols stopped us and examined our papers before letting us drive on.

I kept asking my Dad, “What’s happening?”

“There’s a small conflict between Sinhala and Tamils,” he said. “They started to fight each other. But we spoke to your uncle last night and he said it will be sorted out in a few hours; not to worry.”

I knew that uncle was very big army person, so that was OK.

When we got to Nuwaraeliya – the area known as Little England because of its beautiful flowers and lovely climate – we saw buildings burning. My father’s face was getting anxious. I had seen a burning building two years before, but these fires were bigger and there were a lot of them.

We were trying to get to my auntie’s house but before we got there, a crowd stopped us. They were carrying sticks and axes. They asked my Dad in angry voices, “Are you Sinhala or Tamil?”

Dad said, “We’re Sinhala,” and told them where we were going.

“Are there any Tamils in this car?”

“Of course not, just my two kids and my wife.”

“Can you open the boot?”

They asked me and my sister: “Baba, are you Sinhala?”

My Dad went around to open the boot and said something to the gang I did not hear. The crowd got quiet and some of them came round to apologise to my mother for troubling us. They explained, “We have to chase these Tamils out of the country.”

When we got to auntie’s place all the adults were very nervous. The house was a big one that had been built during the British time. It had an attic and in the attic three Tamil families were hiding. They were absolutely silent, including their kids, and shaking. Mum and auntie took food up to them. We knew the kids and always played with them when we came here but, we weren’t allowed to go up and they weren’t allowed to come down. Everyone was very quiet and upset.

Usually when up country at night, you hear the soft wind in the trees. Sometimes you can hear a car climbing up or going down the hairpin roads. But that night we heard terrible sounds: flames whooshing, heavy things crashing and falling, glass exploding, cracking and snapping sounds; noisy and scary. Nobody slept much.

Some groups of people came several times in the night looking for the Tamil families upstairs. They were suspicious that my uncle and auntie were hiding them because they knew they were friends.

“Bring them out. Bring them out.”

“Do you have any cans of petrol?”

“Give us some Arak.”

My Dad made a call to someone and after a while police came to protect the house. He was also on the phone to Colombo. Two of his tea lorries were still in the city after making a delivery. He told his driver where to pick up two Tamil families that were our friends, how to hide them in the back of the lorry amongst the tea chests and to take them immediately to our estate in Deniyaya.

After a few days the violence died down but the Tamil families that had been hiding upstairs were still terrified. They had the clothes they had fled in but everything else was lost; they had run for their lives and had no lives to go back to. The adults talked amongst themselves about how shocked they were, they knew all the people involved but what had caused this, why had this happened?

I too was asking why over and over again and I begged my Dad to take me out to see. We drove through Nuwaraeliya. The big wooden pillars of the old mansions were still smouldering; the air was full of smoke and unfamiliar smells. Where the estate workers had lived even the chickens and goats were lying around dead. When we got to the little town of Kandapola, there was nothing but charred rubble; it was completely destroyed. I didn’t take any more pictures of flowers and landscapes.

When we were back at auntie’s house, the television showed that Wellawatte, the mainly Tamil area of Colombo, had been burned to the ground, all of it. My Dad was very upset. He had studied at St Peter’s school there and knew the district and lots of people who lived there.

After a few more days we went back to our home down south. The two tea chest families were still at our house. My Dad took me with him as he went around visiting our family’s close Tamil friends. They were all staying with different Sinhala families and they had all lost everything. They were spending hours on the phone getting in touch with relatives in Canada, India and elsewhere, arranging to leave the country. My father told me, “Be sure you learn both Tamil and English or you will never understand this country”.

I was pressuring Dad to let us leave with them. We didn’t leave but all our Tamil friends did. The mothers gave their jewellery and other little treasures to my Mum to keep for them. For the first time in my life I lost a lot of my friends all at once; they had to go with their parents. We promised that we would always write letters and not forget each other.

I was impatient to see my photographs but had to wait until the shops opened again. One evening my Dad brought them back. I didn’t look much at my landscapes and flowers. I was keen to see my burning buildings. But suddenly there was the photograph of the burning car. I had not seen at the time: the person inside, the person burning. From the moment I saw that image my life changed, I changed, everything changed. It dragged me across the boundary and I was no longer a child; from that moment I became an adult. That photograph stayed with me until 26th December 2005 when it was taken by the tsunami.

I’ve been trying to remember how all this occurred for my ten-year-old mind. It is difficult but a good exercise to try to go back into that sensibility. Of course, I already knew that for a boy with my family background there were only three possible careers. I would be a tea planter, a politician or a military officer.

But that photograph of the man burning in his car changed everything. From then on, I was focused on current events. Though still a kid, I went to the library to read adult newspapers and books. My friends were no longer my own age but all older than me. I had to know what was happening and had to talk with people who were also concerned about what was going on around us. My teachers sometimes criticised me for not playing with other boys my age, not being interested in cricket, reading obsessively.

So my next effort is to reconstruct the events of July 1987, our Black July five years later; but not in a remembered teenage state of mind. From now on, I shall have to speak from here, from my mind of 2008.


For more articles on July 1983, please click here.