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

A moonlit walk

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July 1983 was four years after I was born. Like many in my generation who were not directly affected by the events that took place, memories are hazy and disjointed. Black July is mostly remembered by faint memories such as the closing up of Lanka Medicals in Kandy, a shop that in those early days had a steady stock of Matchbox ‘dinky’ cars. My Uncle’s house in Bandarawela where we would spend holidays, had a neighbor whose car was set on fire. As a Sinhalese it is something that has at the back of my mind, made me ashamed to belong to the same people that were capable of such horrors, horrors that I only recently have fully come to know of and understand. Spending large parts of my childhood on tea estates surrounded by Tamils and going to a school where we had a mix of Tamils and Sinhalese in the same class made it so normal for us to believe that we were all just Sri Lankans and not divided by petty politics and race.

Black July in later years was when you learned to be extra careful going around Colombo as it was usually marked by some act of violence by the LTTE. The shame and knowledge that nothing could match what happened in 1983 however, was always prevalent.

My personal memories of 1983 also involve leaving our cosy estate Bungalow in Balangoda and going for a moonlit walk with my mother, brother and domestic help while my father stayed back home. Being told that we were going to Aunty Jean’s, on the neighbouring estate for a meal (event though it was late at night), hiding in a ditch and staying quiet and finally seeing our Peugeot 403 and getting in to it along with our family and those of the driver and the cook.

When I was asked to write a piece about 1983 as part of a photography project for Groundviews I thought I’ll ask my father about what exactly happened back then. So I emailed him, turns out ‘my’ 1983 was actually an year earlier. His email is below:

… back to Pettiagala, Balangoda – what happened here was a like a ‘dry run’ – one year before the ’83 riots – it was in August 1982.

Pettiagala was from the late 1940s owned by SJV Chelvanayagam – the father of Federalism. In fact my classmate Mohan Ellawela who lived in Balangoda used to refer to Pettiagala as ‘Punchi Yapanaya’ as from the Superintendent down to most of the staff, were hand-picked relatives or associates of SJV Chelvanayagam.

By 1982 the seeds of communalism had taken root around Balangoda – especially anti-Tamil feelings that were running high. We soon got wind that groups of young men had taken lodging in and around Balangoda to create mischief – it was more than mere mischief. Some trivial skirmish [they were waiting for something to ‘start the ball rolling] sparked off a mini-riot around Ratnapura and within next to no time spread to Pelmadulla – from Pelmadulla it was a mere hop step and a jump to Balangoda.

That night marauding Sinhala fanatics [said to be from ‘outside’] set fire to the Superintendent’s bungalow at Upper Balangoda whose estate adjoins Lower Division of Pettiagala also known as ‘Bombuwa’ Division. Upper Balangoda Estate was a proprietor owned plantation whose owner Superintendent was a Tamil. He was perhaps in his early 60s then, dignified and never spoke a harsh word to anyone. We were dumbfounded as why anyone should harm that gentleman. His entire bungalow was reduced to cinders; fortunately he was in Colombo at time of the incident as otherwise the mob would have surely harmed him too.  As soon as I heard about the torching of the Superintendent’s bungalow I rushed to Upper Balangoda estate – it was too late – it was a massive fire and no one could even get close to the raging inferno – the heat engulfed the area. The mob by then had retreated after their vile deed.

I went back to Pettiagala and got my SDs and staff to plan ahead for that night as I had a feeling that the rioters would target Pettiagala next as the general perception was that Jaffna Tamils still owned the estate. That evening my Transport Agents [also Tamils] got my permission to park two of their lorries in the sports ground around 150 meters from the factory. 

I also engaged ‘watchers’ along the perimeter of the estate as well as got my ‘town catchers’ to inform me if they got wind of an attack; yet my gut feeling was that they would stage an attack not by coming along the lone road, up the famed Pettiagala hill but from the south via Samanalawatte Estate.

My main concern was the protection of people – my staff, workers and my family along with the estate bungalow and the tea factory. Pettiagala was by then recording the highest tea prices in the country and its yield per hectare was nudging 2000 kg/ha. 

The protection of the factory and bungalow was foremost in my mind. By the time my watchers rushed and gave me the grim news of an impending attack we were ready. But an ‘advanced party’ of the mob – just 4 to 5 of them had stealthily got near the two parked 5 ton lorries and had thrown petrol bombs – as the flames rose up I ran to the bungalow and got you – the baby – packed into the 403 and quickly got the rest into the car – servants, driver and their families and ours. There were more than a dozen packed into the Peugeot 403 and driver Anton was instructed to take the Field No 23 road that cannot be seen to the factory – I also told him to switch off his lights and with the aid of the moonlight get to the higher located fields and get all of you to hide inside drains in the tea field.

I stayed put in bungalow alone [can’t remember where Snoopy was] and readied myself with my loaded shotgun; switched off all the bungalow lights too. In the meantime my faithful Sinhalese watchers had recognized some men from the mob that were walking towards the factory and had implored them not to do any harm to the factory as it was all owned by Sinhalese people now and by the State. Anyway the first petrol bomb was hurled at the factory – my staff were ready with fire extinguishers and promptly saw to it that it was extinguished. 

In the meantime the two empty lorries were ablaze – no one could get near the lorries.

I am told that at that time, someone shouted out that an armed Police party was coming along with me – I had a bit of a history of being a tough character as I used to thrash some errant workers when the occasion demanded it. Firm but fair was my credo. Anyway the mob suddenly ran away as if by magic – no further damage to the factory and the bungalow was untouched – I thank God for saving us! With the coast clear I sent word for Anton to bring back all of you to the bungalow. I then got to know how all of you had hidden inside a lateral drain under the tea bushes.

My frightened workers however – mostly female pluckers had run away to the surrounding jungles and did not return for at least a week thereafter – my quest of notching 2,000 kg/ha was severely affected as the morale was low with the workers thereafter.

The next morning I took some pictures of the burnt out remains of the two lorries. I later packed all you – Rajiv, You [as a baby] Ammi and the servant girl and headed to Colombo after making entry at the Police Station. 

That fateful night when the mob came to attack and set fire to the two lorries at Pettiagala, they also set fire to two line rooms near the location where the lorries were destroyed – that is what prompted the workers to flee in their numbers to the surrounding jungles.

You wanted to know about Snoopy – now I remember – I set her loose in the garden whilst I remained inside the bungalow with my loaded shotgun. Snoopy being an alert dog, I felt would warn me in advance by her barking when any intruder got near the compound.   

Brig. Dennis Hapugalle was given the task of restoring order in Ratnapura / Balangoda. He sent a young Army officer Lieutenant Angelo Peiris to look after Pettiagala – he was a fine young officer and spent many days and nights with me – whilst all of you were in Colombo. It was no surprise when Angelo quickly rose up in rank – until he was tragically killed by the LTTE at the battle of Elephant Pass later.

Brig. Dennis Hapugalle deftly sorted out matters and within literally weeks Ratnapura / Balangoda was back to normal. Perhaps that  may be the reason why, when the ‘Black July’ of 1983 burned much of the country, the Ratnapura District was relatively quiet – maybe because they had a dose of this senseless killing, looting and burning of property a year earlier in 1982. 

When we heard of the chaos in Colombo, we – at Balangoda, Ratnapura etc were vigilant – there were no serious incidents like at Bandarawela, Badulla etc. In fact my friend

Fr Augustine Phillips [now the late] who was a Tamil had to literally flee from attackers who had come to ‘finish him off’ at Badulla. As soon as he had got wind of an impending attack he had managed to run away using a side entrance with his family and some friends [all Tamils] who piled into his small van and drove away as fast as he could – well he drove on and on until he reached Balangoda when he had stopped at a shop and called me. Thankfully I was in the Bungalow and answered his call. I told him that my place was open and he and his party were most welcome. What a sight it was to see their terrified faces, although Fr Augi was seemingly calm. They stayed with me for around ten days until the situation was calm and later they proceeded to Colombo. But I was told that they had to stay in some Refugee Camp in Ratmalana as all their relatives’ houses had been torched at Wellawatte – it was almost a case of from the ‘frying pan to the fire’. Later many of them had emigrated to both Australia & Canada.

30 years is a long time and I hope we will never go back to a Black July as the country has gone through enough turmoil in our recent history. The events that took place however, should never ever be forgotten lest we make the same mistakes again.