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.