Photo Credits: Munira Mutaher

It has been 37 years since the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983, a riot that set the country ablaze and sparked a 30-year long and bloody war. But even after nearly four decades, there has yet been no active effort to remember and reconcile the injustices of the past, both at the level of leadership and at the grassroots. The acknowledgement of the past – which is not just knowing there were injustices but saying they were wrong and being committed to rectifying them – has long been ignored and set the stage for repetitions of the same cycles of intolerance, injustice, and violence.

Black July was the most violent and targeted attacks on an ethnic minority but it was just one of many instances since Sri Lanka gained independence that highlighted just how ingrained ethnic and religious divisions were, how intolerant society had become, and how leaders continued to turn a blind eye and even exacerbated these divisions for their own political gain. Divide and rule was not just the colonial’s way of doing things.

As we continue to remember Black July, let’s hear Senthooran, I am going to share something of immense weight; memories that have weighed me down for years. As you now listen to my story, you take that weight with you. And so, you take the weight off me.”

Senthooran lived in Matale. He spoke Sinhalese well. He had Sinhalese friends. He loved to play cricket with them. Senthooran wanted to be a Grama Sevaka or work for the government.

But in 1983, a small armed group – one of many at the time – the LTTE, carried out an ambush in Palali killing 13 army soldiers. The UNP government at the time decided to parade the bodies around the island prior to the funeral. Emotions were high, and that led to the infamous anti-Tamil pogrom.

“I didn’t even know who the LTTE were at the time. We hadn’t committed any crimes, but because thirteen Sri Lankan Army (SLA) soldiers died in Palali, we were tortured elsewhere. The problem was in the North. What was the point of hitting everyone elsewhere? We had never even been to Vavuniya. We were friends with Sinhalese people. I couldn’t even speak Tamil! In ‘83, they came and burnt everything down – shops, kovils, even the famous theatre in our neighbourhood. I remember there was a bus in our town called ‘ABBA’ and ‘Boney M’ – they took the bus and took the electoral register as well. I can still hear them stop at the top of our lane.” 

Senthooran’s sister was attacked for wearing a pottu, his house was attacked by a group of young Sinhalese boys, pushing him and his family to flee their home, leaving everything they once knew behind, empty handed, except for documents that were proof of their existence and a mat to sleep on.

Today, some of us who are liberal and moderate in our thoughts believe that anyone who served for a terrorist organisation deserves no sympathy, we paint them as enemies, we see them as the other. But if you know Senthooran’s roots, if you know that he was pushed in to the hands of the LTTE, would you see him as evil?

Senthooran’s friend Thileepan says, “We had no choice. If I had money, I would have left to London. The rich were able to leave the North. The rich had a choice, but for the poor, joining the armed groups was the only way out. Ultimately, it was the poor who fought for the Tamils. I am one of those people. If Sinhalese leaders had granted the Tamils their rights earlier, we could have avoided the war and all the losses it brought….What would you have done?”

Having found himself displaced Senthooran and his family headed North.

“My father died within ten seconds of walking away from me. A shell hit him. He went to shower at the well. I heard a shell drop and then my sister’s daughter came running and told me he was hit. We rushed him to hospital. He had a piece of shrapnel in his vein, and he took it out himself just as we got to the hospital because the heat was unbearable. Getting hit by shrapnel feels like getting burnt. When he pulled it out, blood sprayed everywhere and he fell to the floor. I saw his eyes closing. He was a man who could speak well in all three languages.”

Senthooran’s plight had only just begun. He was pushed in to the LTTE where he sometimes shot at others and sometimes got shot himself. His plight, as he says, was mostly in the pain he felt for his family. The need he felt to protect them but never truly succeeding to do so.

“Once, we heard a noise at 5.30 am and something struck my daughter. She thought I’d knocked her head and said, ‘Aiyo dad, don’t give me tokkas [a light knock on the head] for lies!’ But in fact, it had been a bullet that scraped her head.”

“On 13 May 2009, artillery fire hit my wife. My wife was severely wounded – you would need 500 grams of meat to close her wound. The situation had become so intense. Words can’t tell you the troubles we faced.”

Senthooran’s wife and child have been hit by shells. Senthooran has spent time in prison and in rehabilitation camps. And today he works hard to build his life again – teaching Sinhala and working for the Civil Security Department (CSD).

Do we work as equally hard to help those like Senthooran rebuild their lives? Our inability to accept what happened to many young boys and girls who were persecuted, our active efforts to ignore what happened, to not burden our conscience, has left many like him yet feeling isolated and unable to integrate.

“We could have lived with respect now. But we are still treated like ‘outsiders’… Lots of Sinhalese people now come to visit the North. They don’t know that I understand Sinhala. I hear them say bad things about us… like calling us sakkiliya [derogatory term]. The Tamils aren’t seen as equals. Even after the war, Tamils and Muslims are seen as outsiders who don’t have rights here. We are Sri Lankan citizens too. We need respect as Sri Lankan citizens.”

Senthooran is one of many young Tamil boys and girls who were persecuted in ’83 and “the only safety” they say they found “was in the hands of the LTTE”.

“If not for the July ‘83 problem, none of this would have happened. My family personally got hurt. I lost everything. The LTTE consisted of only about 30 people at the time. They should have just gone and fought those 30 people. Instead, all Tamil lives were destroyed. If not for what happened to me in my hometown, I would have been a Grama Sevaka, a government servant, or SLA major, or something! But I wound up in the LTTE.”

It is so important that we remember these stories. That we listen to these stories. That we understand. That we learn the root causes of violence and war. Those moments of intolerance and injustice by our very own governments and our own communities.

To date there is yet no acknowledgement or acceptance of the mistakes of our past, to date all who served the LTTE are painted as traitors and enemies, and worse an entire community (Tamils) get painted as the same.

Let’s listen and learn from voices like Senthooran’s. Let’s learn about our past, accept and acknowledge it, so we don’t risk repeating the same cycles of violence again.

“It is important to ensure that nothing like the war we experienced will happen again. People should be brought to a place where they are all proud to say, ‘I am Sri Lankan.’ Official forms still ask for race and religion; soon they’ll start asking for caste too. This should stop. The forms should just ask if we are Sri Lankan. I have one important message I want to share, and it applies to Sinhalese, Muslims, and Tamils: we should never say, ‘Sri Lanka belongs only to me,’ we must live together,” said Senthooran.

[Stories from: Voices of Peace]

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Photo Credits: Munira Mutaher