Presentation by Dilrukshi Handunnetti delivered at panel discussion on 25th August 2013, as part of the ‘30 Years Ago‘ exhibition. Photograph courtesy The Ravaya Collection.

My first memories of July 1983 remain vivid. There was red – lot’s of it. The red sarees, the red garlands and finally, red blood and flames of reddish yellow that consumed the beauty of red.

I was picked up early from school because there was ‘unrest’.

Near Dickmon’s Road, in Bambalapitiya, a car was turned upside down, two men were busy pouring cans of liquid. It seemed so nonsensical to me – people setting cars ablaze in the midday sun.

I asked my father, what was inside the cans. “Petrol”, he said. Why, I asked. “Insanity,” he snapped.

As a child, I used to love the sub culture unique to Wellawatta. The jasmine garlands, the temples, ladies with tikas and the colourful textile shops. I knew Wellawatta was different – a mini Chennai of sorts.

But that day, my heart sank, seeing all the textile shops with their multi-hued silks and cottons, set ablaze.

“Why do they burn cars and sarees,” I asked. My father said, “Ask me when we reach home.”

Angry-looking people stopped moving vehicles, forcing people to accept unusual gifts – ripped off those pretty textile shops. Those who refused were scolded for not finding joy in their activity. That day, I learnt the word “looting” and also of– Lootex!

Those beautiful textile shops disappeared, never to resurface. For months, the charred buildings remained. The new constructions replaced the textile shops, taking away, a part of Wellawatta’s identity.

I have archived those memories – in my own mind – together with my fear and the terror of the unknown. With each passing year, I add more pain to those memories – and images to words – such as terror, dread, exclusion, uncertainty and continuity.

Years later, as a journalist, I tried to fix little pieces of information together, to understand the multiple impacts of July ‘83 violence – and found information gaps, missing data, a lacuna in documentation including visuals.

There were some records, not too many and not too comprehensive. Distortions and exaggerations were there, some records were destroyed by the violence that continued. There was even disagreement among official sources, on the number of Sri Lankan Tamils who fled the island, in what was considered the ‘second wave’ of desperate departures to Tamil Nadu.

Somehow, I feel our collective journalistic memories have not been well-preserved.

How did we cover the 1983 violence initially?

Ananth Palakidnar, a senior Tamil journalist was a reporter with the Eelanadu, a Tamil newspaper published from Jaffna when a bomb exploded in Tirunelveli in Jaffna, killing 13 soldiers.

In his own words:

“Nobody dared to move, leave alone report that day. Somehow, there was that sense of unease since 1981 due to sporadic violence and emerging militancy. Journalists stayed home and coverage commenced only the next day. Censorship was heavy and of a different kind. We were reporting how Colombo’s July violence spilled into Jaffna. The military chased the journalists away by saying: “It is an emergency. No need for photos and stories. We are here to handle it.”

“When the 13 bodies of the soldiers were brought to Colombo, Tamils from Colombo began arriving in Jaffna in their hundreds, people who left Jaffna seeking prosperity and upward mobility in Colombo. Soon, assistance from India Gandhi’s Government reached Jaffna, in the form of vessels to transport the devastated Sri Lankans to temporary homes in Tamil Nadu. There were heavy restrictions on reporting but it didn’t dawn on us that we were recording history and that this single story will dominate the headlines and our lives in the decades to come.”

Lasantha Wickrematunge recalled:

“A Colombo school was converted into a temporary shelter for the newly displaced. The buildings were congested and we were looking for people we knew. It was alarming to know that so many people, near and dear to us, were suddenly housed in these camps. Besides the senseless violence that engulfed the city, there were concerns we could not understand.

“The displaced were huddled in various corners, with some compartmentalization of the rooms achieved by tying torn sarees together – effectively creating a curtain of separation. It was not done for privacy as some of us thought then, but casteism was being practiced, even in their moment of despair. Our sadness intensified.”

Most of the first drafts of history and even the subsequent drafts, by now had gone missing, making it difficult for this generation of journalists to access authentic information and preserved memories.

We belong to a somewhat ignorant generation, and the next is more ignorant than ours, though living with the impacts but with limited understanding of the July ‘83 events.

Non-availability of information

There were only a handful of narratives by women, discovered in a few books – fiction and research – some websites, but too few to mention. The story, similar to the reporting of 30 years of war, had minimum female voices. A few women have recorded the events but what went truly missing were the voices of women, in those records.

In between, we stumbled upon unique information, about the Sri Lankan cinema – onetime a unifier of communities – how the absence of archiving had caused us to lose some of the finest films we ever made  – how the flames consumed studios owned by Tamils who also fled Sri Lanka – the destruction of our fledgling Tamil cinema – how Tamil business owners felt compelled to relocate their business  including several well-known groups – small- time businesspeople who have made Tamil Nadu their home and about Chennai hotels serving Sri Lankan food as a tribute to the land of their origin.

Then, the issue of Sri Lankan refugees living in Tamil Nadu – their original records – about refugees who are now settled in South India and  those waiting to return – repatriated persons and the agonies and ecstasies of those who migrated due to a life-altering July ‘83. So many stories – so much tragedy within.

But these memories are also very scattered. There is no reliable database, no single archive, a space and a place – physical or virtual – to help us reflect upon the events of ‘83 and its continuing impact.

For me, July ‘83 violence continues. I see the same embers of that black smoke of yesteryear in the recent attacks on the Muslim community and their religious institutions, the cultural suppression, crushing of the ethno-religious minorities, our daily intolerance, opposition to dissent and the increasing militarization of our once liberal and inclusive society.

It seems that collectively – we have preserved violence – instead of our reflections, memories and our collective learning from the past events – for posterity.