Here is the second of our reminiscences, reflections, and articles about Black July. We would like to thank Voices for Reconciliation who shared this story with us, which they came across as part of their project on memory.
If you have personal stories about July of 1983, or the role it played in your families’ history, or if you have experience of something similar from another country from which you think lessons can be learned, or if you simply feel you have something to say about memory, history, and understanding, then please email us here.
Growing up I would occasionally hear stories about the events of 1983 from various members of my family. Years later I would find out more about those horrific events and I still to this day cannot fully comprehend how life changing the riots were, not just for my family, but for thousands of Tamils.
My grandparents, who were in their 50’s at the time, came from Jaffna to Colombo on a short holiday to visit my grandfather’s brother.
While they were staying at my granduncle’s house, word had spread Sinhalese-led gangs were targeting homes occupied by Tamils. As violence and panic spread across the city, they climbed into the attic to hide. One gang smashed through the front door and set the house alight. The fire spread quickly destroying my granduncle’s home.
The only way of escape was to jump from the roof to the next level below. My grandfather jumped and broke his leg. My grandmother suffered severe burns to her face and body and the saree she was wearing burnt off her skin leaving her exposed and traumatised.
A colleague of my grandad’s at work, a Sinhalese man, heard what was happening and rushed over to the house. He found my grandparents and took them to the nearest hospital along with my granduncle and two uncles who were only about 8 and 10 years old. When they arrived at the hospital they were told they would have to leave because gangs were attacking Tamils inside the hospital itself. My grandad’s colleague took them into the shelter of his own home and hid them until the violence died down.
My family, consisting of my grandmother, grandfather, granduncle and two uncles left the country on the first flight out of Colombo, leaving behind loved ones, treasured possessions, their home – everything.
30 years on, you still hear the words “never again”. Except, it has happened again, in different forms and at different times over the past 30 years. Lessons have not been learnt, and it looks unlikely that they will ever be truly learnt. I guess all we have to look forward to is more violence.