Photo courtesy of Chathuranga Pradeep

Bandarawela town is the definition of a picture perfect landscape, surrounded by green hills, lush trees and bright flowers. But Bandarawela is also evolving into an urban hub in its own way. The brightly colored buildings, newly renovated shops and bustling streets with pristine pavements are signs of quick growth and development. It seemed unbothered by Sri Lanka’s past. However, the new Bandarawela began to reveal itself as I started speaking to locals who had lived in the town all their lives. These conversations revealed a different tale.

When I spoke to a few residents who had grown up in the town during 1983, I realized that something sinister had taken place. Bandarawela was destroyed by the mobs in July 1983. Mothers ran as fast as they could carrying their infants into St. Joseph’s College for sanctuary and then to kovils and churches when space ran out. While those in the school were safe, the ones who stayed hidden in religious sites were not. “My mother was thrown to the ground and beaten in the kovil; we escaped but she was never the same,” one man said as he recounted how they had fled for their lives while their houses were being burnt. Another man, who was a school child at the time on his way home with friends, was asked to run as far away as he could. The children hid for days in forests and drains without food or water, praying that the mobs would stay away. “They almost looked into a drain but they heard screams from somewhere else and turned away. We were saved. Some children were not that lucky. I will not tell you everything. I do not want to make you cry,” he said. The conversations that followed echoed the same narration of lost loved ones, destroyed property and an “almost did not make it line”.

Most Tamils in the area who could gather up necessary funds fled to India and others went to the Northern and Eastern regions of Sri Lanka to save themselves from the violent attacks.

I began searching for some documentation to gather information about what had happened in the region but was out of luck. It seemed as though none of these stories had ever been brought to light nor was there any official documentation that one could find.

Forgotten and hidden, Sri Lanka’s upcountry Tamils were victims of Black July and experienced similar traumatic events to those in Colombo. The lack of memorialization has made many locals feel as though their experiences were delegitimized, creating a desire for their suffering to be remembered and recognized. Memorialization, one of the key pillars of reconciliation, has been a sensitive subject for the government, which often silences any efforts made in the North and East by activists to remember the past. However, there have been movements through artists and civil society activists that have kept memories of Black July alive in Colombo. Up country Tamils have not been so lucky and before they could memorialize the events, much of the dark past had been erased and removed from plain sight. Sites that were burnt to the ground had been renovated and taken over by new landowners who had no connection with those who had fled from the properties.

Opponents of memorialization argue that too much time has passed and for society to move forward, past trauma and conflict need to be buried and forgotten. Proponents argue that to prevent recurrence and enable healing, memorialization is fundamental. No matter how the details are concealed, the memories live in the hearts of the people who were affected. The state should recognize the violence that took place and allow communities to grieve and memorialize their loss. Most people expressed their wish for these stories to be shared with the present generation. There was little talk of reparations for the losses they had experienced. The requests were humble. “We just want somebody to listen” was a statement echoed by all those I spoke to. It is disappointing to recognize that Sri Lanka, a post-war country for more than a decade, has still failed to take any tangible steps towards reconciliation and peacebuilding, alienating many Tamil experiences.

Despite the dark and untold history of Bandarawela, the strength and resilience of its people prevail. As the locals shared their stories, awareness and empathy have begun to take root within the community. Moved by their experiences, the present generation has become actively involved in preserving and sharing these untold narratives.

As Bandarawela evolves into a vibrant urban hub, it does so with a renewed sense of inclusivity and remembrance. The town’s growth and development serve as a reminder that progress can be achieved while respecting and acknowledging the past. The people of Bandarawela, united in their shared history, are working together to build a future based on understanding, reconciliation and the collective memory of the town’s rich and diverse heritage.

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