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.
By “TJ” – London
In these past weeks I have found myself thinking of my mother when she was my age. Thirty years ago she fled from the riots that gripped Colombo. I find it impossible to imagine her in that life with only her brother for support. She’s told me of waiting in refugee camps, surrounded by hundreds of other desperate Tamils, for news of peace on the streets.
Soon after she arrived the message was spread that a group of Sinhala men were coming to attack them. Everyone got to their feet and quickly fled but my mother delayed, determined to find the small suitcase she had packed with her favourite saris. It is in this detail of the story that I can see my mother as she is now, with her love of dresses, but also the defiant courage that I see in her occasionally. The rioters did not find them and a few days later she took a small boat along the coast to the North where she was safe.
Her experiences were trivial compared to those of the people who lost their homes and lives. The stories of violence and brutality are difficult to comprehend considering that many of the rioters were civilians who usually lived and worked around Tamils.
My mother remembers a young talented engineering student who had grown up in her village and had also moved to Colombo. He was the brightest in his group and frequently came top of the year. During the riots he was murdered by his own classmates who were jealous of his achievements.
My uncle said goodbye to two of his friends, who were brothers, after work on the first day of the riots. The next day they did not turn up to work; they had both been burnt to death, caught by gangs on their walk home.
Like these there are thousands of stories of inhuman cruelty. But amongst all the chaos of that time I have heard stories that give a glimmer of hope. My mother’s landlady offered protection to all of her Tamil tenants and bravely lied to the men who came to her door looking for them.
Every Tamil I have met in the generation above me has a story of someone they know who was affected in the riots. It is what makes Black July so important to the diaspora, many of whom have no direct experience of the civil war subsequently. My parents can each name several people that they know who died in 1983. I believe it cemented in the minds of that generation that they were hated by the Sinhalese and that there would be no protection or justice from the government from persecution. It justified the extreme methods of the Tamil Tigers to many in the diaspora.
There can be no peace without justice and thirty years on from 1983 there has been neither. The government and police did little to help the Tamils then and many believe they even colluded with the rioters. This is mirrored in the attitude of the current Sri Lankan government towards Tamils at the end of the war in 2009. 1983 and 2009: these two blood stained pillars, signifying the beginning and end of the war, frame Sri Lanka’s recent history with injustice and terror and obstruct any possible chance of redemption.
As for my mother, she was able to return to the city months later to reclaim her job. But the seed was sown in her mind to find a life where she did not have to live in fear. The events that year sparked a mass exodus of Tamils from Sri Lanka that greatly changed the demographic of the country and the future of the Tamil people. My father often tells me that the reason I can live such a life, safe in the West, is because of the sacrifice of Tamils who were hurt in 1983 and whose plight meant that places such as Britain welcomed Tamils who were fleeing.
I have often found it too easy to immerse myself in my own life and forget about the terrible island of Sri Lanka and all the horror that has occurred there. But this month I have found myself thinking of my mother as she was at my own age, running from persecution, and I find it as if looking at a mirror of what my own life may have been. I remember who I am and the history of the people I descend from. It is a reminder that I, and others around me in the same position, have a duty to use the freedom we have to fight for justice for all those who suffer and have suffered in Sri Lanka’s lawless and bloodthirsty climate.