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A personal memoir


The registration card at the Ratmalana Airport welfare centre, now a treasured possession, a quarter century later

Eating wedding cake at
the refugee camp

Newly married Selvadurai Sornalingam travels from Jaffna to Colombo on the eve of the riots with his new bride and mother. They are caught in the middle of an ethic whirlpool. They escape through the sheer courage of a gusty Sinhala landlord who shields them from a mob. Five days after arriving in Colombo, they find themselves in a refugee camp, instead of at their newly rented home. A week after their arrival, they are in the cargo hull of a ship sailing to Jaffna. This is their story, told in their own words, 25 years later.

It was on July 15, 1983 that we got married in Chavakachcheri, Jaffna. It was a civil wedding. While we, the couple got in to the car from the bride's house after the ceremony to go to my residence as per our custom there was an army convoy heading towards Chavakachcheri town along the A9 road, and we came to know later that one Seelan (Charles Anthony), an LTTE leader was killed by the army in that town that same evening.

Incidentally my residence was just a kilometre away from the place on Palaly Road, Thirunelveli where the LTTE landmine killed 13 soldiers in revenge on July 23 that triggered the July '83 riots.

As both of us were employed (wife at Suzuki Garments, Colombo as an accounts clerk and myself in Nuwara Eliya) we travelled back with my mother to Colombo on July 22 night in one of the luxury buses which were plying to and from Jaffna in those good old days. The journey was peaceful.

We had our expensive clothes including my suits and her bridal saree "koorai" in order to have a reception in the capital to invite our relations and friends in Colombo as our wedding took place at short notice in Jaffna.

Back to work

We also brought wedding cakes for this purpose but had to consume them very carefully just to douse our hunger at the refugee camp later.

My plan was to get the Badulla night mail train on Sunday, July 25 to go back to work, and I was getting ready at our rented out annex in Huludagoda Lane, Mount Lavinia.

On arrival in Colombo our landlord cautioned me that there was tension at the Bambalapitiya Hindu Temple where the annual 'Adi vel' was being celebrated. He said that the temporary shops put up for the festival were suddenly closed by the owners in fear following a blast in Jaffna. So I cancelled my plan.

The following morning my wife went to her office in Hill Street. I accompanied her in the bus to her office and later went to Bambalapitiya Flats alone to meet a friend. He said there were some problems in Borella and advised me to get back soon.

So I rushed to my wife's office and broke the news to the staff, the majority of whom were Tamil girls. The MD (a Sinhalese) also got to know about the situation and asked me what help we wanted. He offered his car and his old driver (a Sinhalese) to drop four female staff at their respective residences.

Unusual traffic

After dropping them we returned to the Hill Street office and started again towards Galle Road to go to Mount Lavinia. At the junction we saw unusual traffic and students in uniform shouting and pelting stones at the Tamil shops.

While the driver was struggling to negotiate to get to Galle Road, we saw dark smoke, somewhere near Concord Theatre and that was when I got really nervous.

We saw only two policemen at the junction with shotguns. The traffic jam was such that the vehicles moved inch by inch. It took an hour to reach Mount Lavinia junction and there too there were two policemen just standing with shot guns.

My mother was at the gate waiting anxiously and was relieved when she saw us. Our landlord Mr. Upasena assured us to relax and said he was prepared to do anything. As my elder brother was staying in the government flats behind William Grinding Mills, Dehiwela, I thought of going there.

So I told him to take us there. While making arrangements to leave for Dehiwela, my landlord's younger brother who arrived there on his motor bike told us not to leave home as the mob was rampaging in Mount Lavinia junction.

Mr. Upasena said without any hesitation that he would safeguard us at any cost. He took us to one of his brothers' houses and put us in a large room. There were four houses in the compound, all belonged to their family members and all their family members were very nice and hospitable.

More people to accommodate

We were comfortable in that room although we were not allowed to go out or even to peep through the window as we could be seen by outsiders. In the evening my landlord said there were some more people who have to be accommodated in the same room as a landlady in the same lane had asked the young boarders to vacate through fear of possible damage to her house by the mobs.

My landlord was so good that he welcomed those young boys who were total strangers to him and us as well. About six young dark well built boys joined us. Meals were cooked and brought to us by the landlord or his relatives. We were not allowed to go out even to wash our fingers. So much was their concern. Mr. Upasena kept saying about the curfew and that was all.

Night came and I slowly went to our annex and took my pocket radio in order to listen to the news as we did not know anything about the situation. The government too kept saying the same story. We were worried about the plight of our relations and friends and two days passed monotonously.

On the third day afternoon we heard a loud noise of people shouting in Sinhala outside, probably 50/60 metres away. Some hooligans were damaging a house. We heard windows and doors being broken and people screaming in fear. There were several Tamils living down the lane and we thought we would be traced soon.

I wanted to cry

I wanted to cry when I saw my mother trying to hide herself behind the almyrah. We heard the mobs shouting and coming towards our main gate which was about 20 metres away from the house where we were. The eight inmates maintained pin drop silence inside the room although the hearts were pounding loudly in fear. And we heard an argument developing between the mobs and the Upasenas.

Later the heated argument subsided and faded away after about 10 minutes. About half an hour later Mr. Upasena came and spoke to us. He said that those who came wanted to enter our annex, and this demand he and his brothers turned down.

The mobs said they had seen us getting down in front of this house on Friday, July 23. Mr. Upasena had admitted this but had said we left the annex the following day to our relation's house. But they did not believe and were adamant to get to the annex. Mr. Upasena had to open the empty annex and show them the "proof" that we had already left.

The disappointed mob wanted kerosene (Mr. Upasena was running a grocery shop then) to burn the annex. Mr. Upasena told them that his house would get damaged if they did so and pacified them. And finally with much reluctance they left. We were relieved from fear and appreciated his presence of mind and also his thoughtfulness to house us in a different place.

Refugee camps

It was on Thursday the government announced over the radio that the Tamils have to move to the refugee camps and those who reside in Mount Lavinia had to go to the Ratmalana Airport. To get to the camp we had to go to the Mount Lavinia Police Station on the Galle Road. To facilitate the process curfew was to be lifted the following day at 6 a.m.

Mr. Upasena spoke to us in a very nice and reluctant tone, and asked us to abide by the request of the government. He said that it did not mean that he did not like to keep us safe in his place, but he feared the mobs would freely come again as there would not be a curfew.

He also said not to worry about our belongings including jewellery which he would return when the situation returned to normal. We agreed to leave the following morning. He suggested to leave around 5 am because after 6 am we would be exposing ourselves and might get into problems. We gave our consent to do so. We took few clothes and also a bag full of wedding cake.

My wife was not happy to leave the Thali because it is a tradition to remove from one's neck only when her husband passes away. So we took it. Then we three left the house having expressed our gratitude to the Upasenas including our landlord's old parents for giving shelter, all three meals, and more over for protecting us from imminent attack by the mob.

When we left his home by pre-arrangement one of my landlord's younger brothers started following us in his push bike up to the Templers Road. In fact I shed tears for the care the Sinhala speaking man whom we knew only for a couple of months, took on us.

Curfew still on

There was no one as the curfew was still on and we quickly walked and reached the police station. There were few Tamils seen in front of the police station. We were told that transport would be arranged by 7 a.m. I was allowed to take a call to my brother who was in Dehiwela. Unfortunately there was no response from the other end. Still I was not in a mind to go to the camp but to join my brother and stay with him.

As I was not aware of the extent of damage and the seriousness of the situation I decided to go to Dehiwela and see them, leaving the other two in the police station.

They reluctantly agreed. I waited for a bus. One crowded bus came and I managed to get in. That is when I saw the calamity that had prevailed. Lots of shops had been burnt. There was evidence of vehicles burnt on the road. It looked a ghostly and devastated city.

Several shops in Dehiwela junction had been gutted. I was afraid that someone would suspect my identity as a Tamil. Fortunately nothing happened. No one was in my brother's house. I was worried as my sister in law was expecting a baby. The Muslim neighbours said my sister-in-law and her mother had gone to the Ratmalana Airport camp.

People from all walks of life

Relieved by that information that they were safe I went back to the police station and reached the camp with my mother and wife in a CTB bus arranged by the police.

There were around 9000 inmates in the camp. People from all walks of life. Professional government servants, women, children, rich and poor, young and old, and the sick all were there. We were asked to register our names. The irony is that I had to write the name as Mr. & Mrs. Sornalingam for the first time in my life at the refugee camp.

We met lots of our relatives and friends. Many were not aware of the whereabouts of their kith and kin who had left home on that fateful previous Monday. Some were bandaged tending their wounds during mob attacks. One person who had an injury in his eye was moaning due to severe pain.

There were Sinhalese too and their sin was the spouse happened to be a Tamil. Everyone had undergone terrific experiences and some of them had narrow escapes. We were really lucky as we three were together and also had not undergone any tragedy as such. We found my sister in law and her mother. However we were told that there was no news about my brother who went to Kotahena Post office for work.

The number of refugees were increasing daily. Soon it became around 15,000.

Temporary toilets

There were temporary toilets put up but we hardly visited the site. We tried our best to avoid the vicinity. Food and sanitation matters were looked after by Sarvodaya and Mr. A.T.Ariyaratne regularly visited the camp. Water was supplied from bowsers.

The then Minister for Shipping Lalith Athulathmudali, Trade Union Leader late Aziz, and several prominent personalities visited the camp. Meal packets were supplied. We waited in the long queues to get them. We shared one packet among us as we did not have an appetite and also to avoid going to the toilet.

Although the ministers came to see us no one made arrangements to send the refugees back to their native Jaffna. There was a worry in government circles that once the refugees, most of whom were state employees, were sent home the public service would get crippled for some time at least.

The police did not allow the inmates to go out because of possible attacks on them. One police officer compared this riot with an epidemic which would die down after its peak. He said it had now spread to the upcountry and they expected it to subside soon and advised us not to leave the camp. Once there were also rumours doing the rounds that mobs were going to attack our camp.

Deteriorating hygiene

Mr.A.T.Ariyaratna was worried about the deteriorating hygienic conditions day by day. He expected the Minister for Shipping to arrange ships to transport the IDPs to the north but no action was taken by the government. After five days he told us that if the Minister was unable to organise a ship he (Mr.A.T.Ariyaratna) would arrange on his own.

He was in an angry mood that day. The message was passed by the refugees to the Minister when he visited that evening. Mr.A.T. Ariyaratna's message prompted the Minister to organise a ship immediately. The first ship carried the sick and the old. I managed to register in the second one called 'Lanka Kalyani' having undergone hardships and uncertainties in the camp for a week.

Buses were arranged to take us to Colombo Harbour one afternoon. Lanka Kalyani was a cargo ship and I remember getting into that in a ladder and assisted by a long rope to hold. Old people found it very difficult to get in.

By about 7 pm the ship started sailing southwards and we were given dinner. When it got to the east coast we saw the clear sky. We were in a happy mood and felt some sort of freedom. We came to the upper deck and watched the sun rise and the open sea. The cool sea breeze made us to feel fresh as we did not have a bath for a week. We remained in the upper deck throughout the day.

Happy to see us

The ship reached Kankesanthurai Harbour the following morning. We were 'welcomed' by people waiting outside the harbour and later received by the late Mr. Sivasithamparam MP at Nadeswara College, KKS and given lunch there. We were dropped at Chavakachcheri by bus. All our relations were very happy to see us as there was no information about us until we reached home.

A letter written by our landlord in broken English reached me after two weeks. He wrote that thugs came again in search of us on the day the curfew was lifted. However he wrote that the situation had returned to normal and some Tamils had come back.

My wife refused to come to Colombo through fear. As I was working in Nuwara Eliya we decided to vacate the Mount Lavinia house. I had to bring back our belongings to Jaffna. By this time transport to and from Colombo had resumed.

But lorry drivers were still reluctant to go beyond Wellawatte. I went back to Colombo alone. I reached our residence around 7p.m. The Upasenas were very happy to see me. I narrated my story and said I wanted to vacate the place. We paid an advance when the annex was taken few months back. I was paying half month rent and the other half deducted from the advance. Mr Upasena told about the balance he had to pay. He also said the cash he had, had been spent on some purchases made for his grocery shop.

I told him not to worry about that and send me a cheque home. He did not tell anything. Having dinner with them I went to bed after doing the packing. Following day morning while having breakfast Mr. Upasena brought an envelop with the exact balance due to me. In return I left my furniture and kitchen utensils with them knowing that those were too little to compensate for what they have done, and said goodbye.


The riots changed the dynamics of the war indelibly - experts


The Tiger memorial erected in memory of Seelakili who died in the Thirunelveli attack. It was later demolished when government troops regained Jaffna  

The Four Four Bravo attack

By Amantha Perera

Second Lieutenant of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry Vass Gunewardena, was in a hurry to get back to his base at Madagal on the night of July 23, 1983.

He was part of a routine patrol that consisted of a jeep and a heavy vehicle that was on night patrol in Jaffna. There were intelligence reports that the Tigers, then a skeletal outfit of  two dozen full time members, were planning a major assault on the armed forces.

Eight days before, on July 15 the Tamil Tigers had lost one its founding members, Charles Anthony alias Seelan.  He had taken to his heels in Konadmulai area in Meesalai, Chavakachcheri when surrounded by troops who had raided his hideout on a tip-off.

Seelan was hit while running away and according to established records had asked Aruna who was with him to shoot him dead. Seelan thus became the first martyr of the LTTE.

Precision care

Velupillai Pirapaharan who was close to Seelan had vowed to avenge his death and had planned out the attack with precision care.

According to late Major Gen. Sarath Munasinghe who served in Jaffna as an intelligence officer in 1983, the Tigers had picked a spot 200 metres south of the Thirunelveli Junction on the Jaffna-Palaly Road for the attack. The road had been dug for telecommunications wire laying, making it easier to conceal the landmines.

The Tigers had buried explosives on the road and linked them to an exploder that was hidden behind the roof of a boutique that faced the road. Then a group of about 25 Tigers, probably their full strength, including Pirapaharan, Kittu, Iyer, Victor, Pulendran, Sellakili, Santhosam and Appiah hid behind the parapet walls on either side of the narrow road and waited for the Four Four Bravo patrol with Second Lt. Gunewardena in command. They were reportedly spilt in two groups one under Pirapaharan and the other under Kittu.

The Tigers had primarily picked the spot as it facilitated the easy hiding of explosives due to  telecommunication trenches. The area that was about 2 km. from Jaffna town was also not crowded and the plethora of by-lanes made escape easier.

The explosion

The Tigers had tried to attack security forces using explosives at least on two earlier occasions but the attacks had failed, putting added onus on the Thirunelveli attack.

The explosives were triggered as the jeep was almost right in front of the boutique. One explosion took place on the driver side of the jeep while another went off between the rear of the jeep and the truck, according to Maj. Gen. Munasinghe who described the events in his book A Soldier's Vision.

After the blasts, the Tigers hiding on the sides of the road opened fire. According to the Munasinghe account, only two persons survived from Four Four Bravo - Lance Corporal Sumathipala and Corporal Perera - while 13 others, including Second Lt. Gunewardena were killed.

The Tigers lost Sathasivam Selvanayagam alias Sellakili, one of its top leaders who was suspected to have planned the attack.

The attack on the Four Four Bravo  would be the most important turning point in the history of the Sri Lankan conflict.

The riots that followed fueled the nascent Tamil militancy with an ideological platform and manpower with thousands of youth who were flocking to join them. Funds, hard to come by prior to the 1983 riots, came in torrents.

Tamil militant groups

Sri Lankan writer  Rohan Gunaratna estimates that prior to the riots the overall strength of all the Tamil militant groups was 200 members. Of the Tigers who were full-timers during the July 1983 attack, only Pirapaharan  and one other, Baby Subramaniam, are alive and active in the organisation today. The latter was overseeing the Tiger educational department during the ceasefire.

"Prior to July 1983, all efforts by Tamil insurgent groups and their representatives to raise money overseas to sustain a war had been unsuccessful," Gunaratna writes in his essay International And Regional Security Implications Of The Sri Lankan Tamil Insurgency.

"It was July 1983, with the exodus of over 100,000 Tamil refugees and another equal number of displaced persons, that gave birth to a distinct Tamil Diaspora.

Escalation of the conflict

"By the end of 1983, there were over 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu alone and this number would swell up to nearly 200,000 with the escalation of the conflict," he adds.

"The exodus to the West was equally intense. Many countries in the West sympathetic to the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils would revise their immigration and emigration policies vis-…-vis Sri Lanka."

Canada where the largest diaspora community now lives was one such country that relaxed immigration laws.

While the militancy gained strength in numbers on the ground, funds came from the Tamils who fled, who were also the primary building blocks to muster international support and the international network.

Gunaratna also believes that the riots hastened the 'Indianisation' of the conflict.

The dynamics of the militancy and the war changed with the explosions at Thirunelveli, it was the turning point that dragged the country into unbridled conflict in the last quarter century.


Anatomy of the riots

By Amantha Perera

The last half of July 1983 is probably the most defining period in Sri Lanka's post independence history. The events that began with the killing of Charles Anthony, a key Tiger operative on July 15, moved at break neck speed. A government that had failed to  grasp the roots of the simmering Tamil militancy at its infancy, now utterly failed to notice the  cauldron it had lit with the handling of the Thirunelveli attack and its aftermath.

The Sarath Munasinghe account of the events has thus far remained the most authoritative of the incidents in Jaffna that fateful July.

Caught off guard the government of late President J. R. Jayewardene was indecisive over whether to cremate the bodies of the 13 services personnel killed in Jaffna or allow the Army to hand them over to the relatives.

"The General (then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Tissa Weeratunga who had flown to Jaffna) explained to us that the higher authorities had wanted the dead men to be buried in Jaffna or to cremate them in Vavuniya. News we had heard from Colombo was that people were becoming uneasy and the situation was tense," he says in his book describing the tense environment at the army command post in Jaffna on the afternoon of July 24, 1983.

First signs

By then, 12 hrs. after the Thirunelveli attack,  the first  signs of trouble in Colombo and in Jaffna had appeared. That afternoon while the Army Commander was discussing with the highest officers in government, crowds had already gathered at the Borella Cemetery and turned violent after no bodies appeared even by evening and the first attacks on Tamil owned shops was reported near the Borella Kanatte by 10 pm on July 24 night.

"By the afternoon of July 24, 1983, we had news of soldiers in Madagal, Velvettithurai (VVT) and Palaly army camps attempting to go on the rampage," Munasinghe says and later on describes the carnage he saw in Jaffna.

The bodies were flown out of Jaffna on the morning of July 25. On July 24 afternoon Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa told parliament that due to requests from relatives of the deceased the bodies would be  handed over to them.

Crowds once again gathered in front of the cemetery on July 25 morning, angry and expecting the bodies.

There have been reports since that the bodies, now into serious decomposition were displayed at  Kanatte. The Munasinghe account says that they were brought to Army Headquarters and then dispatched to the respective villages.

Government responsible

Tamil writers have suggested that  government higher ups were responsible at least for the beginning of the riots. These accounts suggest that the initial crowd furor near  Kanatte on July 24 afternoon was against the Jayewardene government, but was later turned into an anti-Tamil slogan by pro-government goons, who joined in later in the afternoon.

Despite the allegations a concerted government hand in the riots has never been clearly proven. 

The riots began in earnest on July 25 and spread. Thirty five Tamil prisoners, including the two most famous detainees linked with militant groups, Kuttimani and Thangathurai were killed in Welikada Prison. Seventeen more were killed two days later.

Riots targeted Tamil businesses in the city and the outskirts and soon spread to outstation towns like Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Panadura and Gampaha.

One of the worst attacks on private homes was witnessed at the Soysapura Housing Scheme - even in 1983 - a sprawling complex of over 50 apartment buildings built by various governments, in Moratuwa.

Tamil houses targeted

Gangs targeted Tamils houses, where the householders had left or sought the safety of neighbours. They went on the rampage breaking into the abandoned houses  and burning furniture and  other valuables on the streets below. Some threw chairs, TVs, cooking appliances and clothes from the top floors to the burning pyres below.

The carnage was only stopped when residents spent the nights on the streets below their houses after the first day of rioting to prevent any more harm and after security was provided by the government.

Jayewardene addresses the nation

It was four days after the riots commenced - five days after the Thirunelveli attack - that President Jayewardene addressed the nation. By then the damage was long done. Conservative estimates said that 800 may have died in the riots; other figures quote a couple of hundreds.

At least 300,000 were made homeless at one stage or the other soon after the riots and the Tamil militancy was given a life line and legitimacy.  Eighteen centres were opened in Colombo alone to house Tamils who had fled their homes. There were 15, 000 at the hanger in the Ratmalana Airport; schools including  Hindu College, Bambalapitiya; St. Peter's College; S. Thomas' College; St. Benedict's College; Ladies' College and Anula Vidyalaya turned into centres for the displaced overnight.

The Tigers and other militant groups received support from the Indira Gandhi government and training bases were set up in India. From a group of 25, it was given the boost to turn it into what it is today -  a  trans-continental operation with a sea going, and now an air wing as well.

There are many who believe that Black July could have been avoided, and there were several opportunities to do so. Unfortunately the fires were left to burn and not checked when they were embers -  they are still burning and raging.


Home is a refugee camp

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Life was irreversibly altered for many thousands of Tamils when thick black fumes consumed their homes and their lives in July 1983. But unheard and uncared for - except as an irritant or an occasional political embarrassment - Sri Lanka's Tamil refugees are making Tamil Nadu their home.

Most of them, over 100,000 in number consider Tamil Nadu their permanent home - some quarter century after the ethnic fires.

Strangely, as the Sri Lankan government launched an ambitious resettlement plan for those who fled their homes due to the outbreak of violence post Mavil Aru, forgotten were those who braved the seas to land in Rameshwaram post 1983, cutting their umbilical chord from Mother Lanka amidst tears and fears.

"We had no choice but to flee. We did not want to leave our homes. But now we don't wish to return," was the cryptic reply of Thangamathy Sirinivas (46), who was just a young bride when she fled to South India in a rickety old boat with her husband. Since then, they have raised their children inside a camp and come to accept that beyond the camp lay uncertainly and death.

Refugee policy of 'resettlement'

But some 24 years later when the government introduced a new refugee policy of 'resettlement' under the stewardship of Disaster Relief Services Minister, Rishard Bathiudeen, the policy stands on wobbly feet, for it excludes the Sri Lankans who fled to Tamil Nadu.

This silence in policy, importantly enough, marks a clear departure from the tone set by a 2002 government initiative, which sought to repatriate those living in more than 130 camps scattered in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The reluctance however, is mutual. As much as the political reluctance of the Sri Lankan state that prevents repatriation moves, across the Palk Straits, the refugees themselves are apprehensive about retuning home.

Sathyavathi, a 66-year-old refugee living in a tiny refugee home close to Chennai felt that having made Chennai her home, unwillingly then, it was pointless now to return home. "We made this camp our home. Our children braved the seas to seek refuge in Tamil Nadu. If we go back, our lives will be consumed by the violence there."

Without basic facilities

The camps are typical refugee camps - with not even the basic amenities. But these people, having fled their own homes - some, rather comfortable homes in northern Sri Lanka - prefer the cadjan roofs in Tamil Nadu above their heads.

"I never thought of ending up as a refugee. We had a three bed roomed house in Chavakachcheri. But I have forgotten my home bed. I don't want to live in perpetual fear for that's what Sri Lanka can offer us," adds Sathyavathi.

It is not just the basic amenities they lack in their camp homes. They cannot find employment, and live in poverty. Education for the young is a problem. It is a hard bargain, but the refugees have one guarantee that binds them to their camp homes - that they will not fall victim to shell attacks and turn to ashes from aerial bombing.

"You have no idea of the mortal fear that drove us away - we were then Sri Lankans. Then why were we driven out and never taken back?" asks Illiyappa (56), angry about the failure of successive Sri Lankan governments to assist them to return, to resettle and continue their lives in their original villages and towns.

The sentiment among many in the older generation of refugees is that too much water has already flowed under the bridge. With their fleeing, some irreversible conditions apply to them. There are legalities to be dealt with, in order to return. But 25 years inside a camp home, has broken their will to return. "Our country did not take any measures to help us return. Now we will die here," said Kanakapullai Vaheesan (61).

Despite the occasional harassment and the obvious lack of options, the refugees feel that they are indeed better off in the relative safety of the South Indian camps.

A direct contrast

This is in direct contrast to the refugees' own sentiments expressed as recently as 2002, when a majority of those living in Tamil Nadu volunteered to repatriate under a government scheme. Some 6,000 refugees returned to Sri Lanka at that time.

"That was in the afterglow of the Ceasefire Agreement," says R. Sampanthan, the parliamentary group leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). "There was hope then. The conditions are very different now."

 Perhaps the larger issue is that, having been left in limbo for up to two decades, these refugees have now come to consider Tamil Nadu their permanent home.

"Our children do not know Sri Lanka," says Sugunan Kishor, a Jaffna Tamil living in a camp just outside Madras. "They identify themselves with Tami Nadu. Some are married and settled there. To them, Sri Lanka is only their parents' home and nothing more. We were hopeful of returning after 2002. But with the increased violence, we have no desire now to return." Kishor once fished for a living, and he recalls with sadness how his once-fervent wish to "return home" has died.

"I have my parents living in the northern district of Mullaitivu. I will never be reunited with them."

Lack of government efforts 

For Vellamma Kadirsamy, a 56-year-old woman who has lived in the same camp as Kishor for several years; the lack of government efforts to repatriate, coupled with the now-intensified war, signifies a complete separation in the minds of many refugees. "Any hope of returning home to Sri Lanka is now over. We have nothing to go there for," she says. "Our children are here. Some members of our families living there warn us against our return."

According to Western People's Front Leader Mano Ganesan, "Most refugee children in Tamil Nadu now have access to education. Though certainly conditions of living need to be improved, but some kind of continuity in life happens there. Why should they upset everything and return to this simmering volcano?" he queries, insisting that human safety is of paramount importance. 

While Colombo has been unsure about what to do with the Tamil Nadu refugees, India has done little better.

Official Indian estimates claim that besides those Sri Lankans living in the designated refugee camps, 25,000 or more live outside.

Political pussyfooting

Besides these, there are also around 2,000 undocumented Sri Lankan migrants detained in 'special' camps, who are liable for prosecution under Indian migration and anti-terrorism laws. In March last year, finally, the Tamil Nadu police took steps to issue identity cards to Sri Lankan refugees who have been living in camps for more than 12 years.

However, the problem does not end there. The social disconnect and the political pussyfooting apart, the refugees themselves have now submitted themselves to their irreversible fate. They know, a return to Sri Lanka may not happen during their lifetime. And even if it becomes possible, they fear the consequences of such a return where they would have to pick up the threads of their life and build it on the rubble of July 1983.

As Vellamma Kadirsamy notes: "Sri Lanka is only a memory for most refugees. Whether they feel connected or not, it is a home they have no wish to return to, not even for nostalgic reasons."


Political fall out of the riots


The mobs spared nothing
in their destructive path

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

It was a conflict that was sharpening with each lost opportunity to resolve it amicably. In the history of the political disconnect, imprudent decision-making, violence and bloodshed; one of the most politically defining moments was when the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) parliamentarians en masse walked out of the legislature in protest of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.

The first to walk out opposing the August 1983 amendment was Rajovaram Sampanthan, the current Parliamentary Group Leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

In retrospect, the member who first forfeited his seat to symbolise the political separation the TULF felt due to the enactment of the Sixth Amendment, opines that historically, the conflict truly sharpened after the 1972 Constitution.

"The majority's call even earlier was for the Tamil-speaking people to oppose any candidate who advocated separatism. Then came the 1972 Constitution that, for the first time, enshrined the unitary character of the state. Further, for the first time it gave paramount status to Buddhism and the Sinhala race, thus reducing all minorities, both linguistic and religious, to second-class citizens," notes Sampanthan.

"Then, a resolution was adopted in 1976 by the TULF calling for a separate state. "Then Chelvanayakam resigned his Kankesanthurai seat rejecting the 1972 Constitution. The government deliberately delayed holding a poll for the constituency. Two years later when the election was finally held, Chelvanayakam was overwhelmingly returned and this also meant, that he was mandated to reject the 1972 Constitution," analyses Sampanthan.

He acknowledges that it was then that the debate on a 'separate state' gathered momentum.

The historical wrongs were too many, according to him. And the 1978 Constitution, in his opinion did no better. "Not only was the unitary character of the state emphasised but it also was made irreversible except through a process of a referendum, a near impossible feat to achieve." He believes, despite the steps taken by successive governments, Tamil people persisted in their struggle for equality in the country and the restoration of their sovereignty, if equality was not possible.

Mindset of the state

"This is why the 1983 genocidal programme is viewed as a reflection of the mindset of the Sri Lankan state. It was a demonstration that the Sri Lankan state meant to teach the Tamil people a damn good lesson if they were not prepared to submit themselves or be subordinates."

He also recalled Tamil MPs not being given security to attend parliament in 1983. "I am personally aware that the late Appapillai Amirthalingam requested for security from President J. R. Jayewardene who expressed his helplessness in this regard."

The final nail in the coffin was the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, as far as the TULF went. The amendment prohibited the violation of territorial integrity by espousing a separate state within the island and sought to impose civic disability on anyone who attempted such a move.

TULF's 16 legislators protested by forfeiting their parliamentary seats and refused to take oath under the new amendment. "We considered it a deliberate assault on the self respect and dignity of that Tamil nation."

Sampanthan observes that in the aftermath of the riots, hundreds of thousands of people fled the county while immense destruction was caused to Tamil owned property, a habit which, to his deep regret, still continues.

"Worse, the Sri Lankan state has not yet been able to come up with a political solution to the Tamil question as prevails in several other multi lingual, multi cultural, plural societies in the world. That's the bigger tragedy," he notes.

For staunch leftist and incumbent Minister of Constitutional Affairs and National Integration, D.E.W. Gunasekera, July 25, 1983 was the country's 'darkest day.'

"The violence irreversibly reduced the Tamil community to second-class citizenry overnight. It polarised the two communities beyond repair," he notes.

Historical wrong

Gunasekera feels that the historical wrong was in sticking to a single language policy that alienated Tamils. "Two languages would have ensured one country. For this mistake, we are now paying a huge price," he added.

Accordingly, he feels that a single day's events earned Sri Lanka international wrath, destroyed its image as a democracy and portrayed the nation as a barbaric and hegemonistic one. "Worse still, this aided the LTTE to grow into this immense monster," says he.

That's a view, Minister of Plantation Industries, D. M. Jayaratne readily agrees with. "The fact is that Sinhalese and Tamils now are thoroughly separated. This political separation was created by the political parties and fed by outside forces. The failure on our part to successfully hold peace talks for decades now has helped the LTTE to grow and command some respect internationally," he notes.

According to JVP's chief ministerial aspirant in the North Central Province (NCP), Wasantha Samarasinghe the ethnic backlash was not a response to the terrorism that was raising its ugly head, but a political one led by an extremist group within the governing UNP.

The primitiveness

"We all know the history and who led the attacks. The primitiveness was supported by the then administration and excuses were offered for the violence unleashed. That's why the country now has to pay such a high price and what aided the LTTE to grow in every way. The July riots in a way, justified the LTTE's terrorist struggle," he said.

In the violence too there was some disconnect, notes Deputy Minister of Healthcare and Nutrition, Vadivel Suresh. "Strange that the conflict was really between the Sinhalese and the Tamils of northeastern origin.  But the majority of the victims, including those who were killed and harassed, whose properties and business premises were destroyed and who had to flee the country were largely Tamils of Indian origin. What was their role in the militancy that was growing in Sri Lanka? On the other hand, they were contributors to the national economy and were not feeding terrorism or espousing separatism," he noted.

Demonstrated the bitterness

In hindsight, Western Peoples' Front (WPF) Leader, Mano Ganesan feels that it was the July 1983 ethnic violence that served as an eye opener to the international community as that demonstrated the bitterness with which extremists unleashed violence upon the Tamil community.

"This was also the beginning of Tamil migration towards Western nations and the building up of a strong Tamil diaspora which is the engine of the Tamil struggle for self determination, freedom, political rights etc. In whichever way the struggle finds its expression, the diaspora is the strength and it was created largely post July 1983," Ganesan adds.

The party that had its politics smeared by the ugly ethnic violence was the UNP. Despite a party founded on principles of plurality and a strong multi ethnic identity, it was the UNP that was in power and mishandled the episode that remains the nation's black mark.

According to UNP Spokesman and Galle District Parliamentarian, Gayantha Karunathilake, it was an 'unfortunate incident,' and insists "It was not the government policy to subject one community to violence, though many used the riots to beat the UNP with that stick. It was the work of a group of extremists, unable to control their emotions." Karunathilake protested that the UNP has always remained an inclusive party that has fought for equality amongst all communities and is inclusive in its membership, identity and political approach.

Recalling the events before, Karunathilake observed that in 1977, a policy document was tabled with a view to finding a political solution. "The need was to convene a round table discussion but the then opposition sabotaged it. By 1983, the problem was worse and the opposition political parties' attitude did not help," he said.

Post riots, Karunathilake said the UNP tried to make amends and established the REPIA Authority, to compensate the victims and to help rebuild their homes and lives.

Next, in 1984, an All Party Conference was convened and the SLFP stayed away. "Then came the Parthasarathy Agreement through which India wanted the northeast merged and then talks commenced in Thimpu."

In retrospect, all efforts have proved futile. The memories of Black July still remain. "It was unfortunate that Black July happened. It is a smear on Sri Lanka's reputation and 25 years later, the best way to overcome the past lapses is to move towards achieving permanent peace," adds Karunathilake.

I was nearly killed - Ganesan

The July 1983 riots caused many deaths and near deaths. Among those who were lucky to survive but is traumatised by the memories of near death is Western People's Front (WPF) Leader and Convenor, Civil Monitoring Commission (CMC), Mano Ganesan himself.

Never did the Ganesans, a happy family settled in Colombo think their lives would come under great peril in a city that they lived in comfortably.

Following the Ganesans' Havelock Gardens house being burnt to cinders during the July riots, the three boys - Mano, Prabha and Baskaran found a temporary home at Mahanama College, which was converted into a refugee camp.

It was the kindness of the late Yasapalitha Nanayakkara, a renowned film director cum producer that prevented the Ganesans from meeting their maker instantly when violence broke out. Nanayakkara, a friend of Ganesan Senior, a popular Tamil film idol and producer ensured the family's safety by driving the boys to the refugee camp.

The boys' father, V.P. Ganesan, his wife and daughter were driven to leader of the Democratic Workers' Congress, late Abdul Aziz' Layard's Road home.

"Dad visited the camp the next day to see us. We drove up to our destroyed home and were returning to the camp. Suddenly, there was much commotion on the road, and our vehicle was stopped. A junior ranking army officer spewed filth on us and ordered us out of the vehicle. There were many people shouting, "pour diesel over the vehicle, put them all in and burn the vehicle," recalls Ganesan.

The young boys were petrified.  They were, together with their father, Uncle V. P. Sathasivam and cousin Mohan, told to stand facing the wall and raise their hands. "I said a prayer and thought, this is it."

The officer not only used abusive language but also called them terrorists who had arrived from Jaffna to destroy Colombo.

"A senior officer moved in just then, apologised and helped us get back to the camp. To this date, those memories remain vivid in my mind. I will carry them to my grave," says Mano Ganesan. 


The Maharaja story

Rising from the ashes


Assets of Maharaja Organisation
destroyed in the riots

By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema

The Black July riots targeted many leading businesses in the country and key among them was the arson attack on the Maharaja Organisation.

The irony however, was that the Maharaja Organisation was targeted despite the fact over 80% of its employees were Sinhalese. The organisation was targeted solely due to the fact that the heads of the group were of Tamil origin.

And today, 25 years after the riots, the Maharaja Organisation has not only regained its business edge but also positioned itself as a leading electronic media organisation in the country.

Theirs has been a real life story of grit and determination. It is a story where a company stood together to rebuild and start operations within the shortest time, as short as one day.

In line with the group's motto, "The courage to be different," the owners instead of folding up and running away from the country, within hours, even as the smoke billowed, decided to regroup, reorganise, and commenced the rebuilding operation.

Rise above adversity

The company's success has always been the power it possessed within to rise above adversity. It was this power that helped the group survive one of the worst attacks during the 1983 riots, when the Maharaja Organisation was burnt down to ash.

The organisation since its inception as a trading house in 1938 saw a rapid growth to form the Maharaja Organisation Limited. In 1967 all the subsidiaries, along with A.F. Jones, a foreign owned tea export house that was acquired the same year, were amalgamated to form the Maharaja Organisation Limited.

Since 1967, the institution was moving upward taking every possible opportunity to expand.

The group went into the manufacture of batteries (Berec), furniture (Jones Furniture), toothpaste (Chemway), pharmaceuticals (Maharaja Pharma) and packaging (Jones Printers), as well as construction through Jones Engineering, and also represented strong brands such as Solahart, Telefunken and JVC TVs and Honeywell.

The group was at its peak when the fateful Black July riots reduced the country to ashes.

Destroyed by mobs

On the day the riots started, the organisation closed all its offices so that the staff could go home. A while later, almost within an hour after the staff was sent home, all the factories - S-Lon (PVC), ICL (cosmetics), Chemway (toothpaste), Jones Furniture, Jones Printers and Maharaja Pharma were attacked, burnt and destroyed by mobs that were causing mayhem in most parts of the country.

The Maharaja Organisation's headquarters at Bankshall Street, Pettah was also burnt down.

The 1983 riots brought the Maharaja Organisation virtually to its knees and within a period of three days, everything had been burnt to the ground.

At the time the riots broke out, the Maharaja Organisation operated out of  five major locations; the head office at Bankshall Street, factory complexes at Meegoda and Ratmalana, the investments head office at Union Place and the tea operations at Braybrook Place.

In July 1983, the group had in its employment about 3,000 workers, and the employees were mainly Sinhalese. Interestingly, in the factories that were burnt, almost 99% of the employees were Sinhalese.

Repay depositors

A. F. Jones, the group's tea company and Maharaja Investments, which was a finance company were the only two establishments spared by the mobs.

However, as expected, there was a run on the financial institution, which was immediately arrested when the group boldly decided to start advancing money to repay any depositor who wanted his money back.

The Maharaja Organisation believed it was an orchestrated attack on the group and decided to systematically start rebuilding from what was left.

The government then formed an organisation called REPIA for the rehabilitation of assets that were affected in the fire and all assets that were thus affected were vested in the government and the government took charge of the role to rebuild. 

The REPIA Board took over the group's damaged properties and was reluctant to divest them back to the Maharaja's management saying that the organisation had to rebuild before the board did so.

However, upon being categorically told that if the board did not divest they would be saddled with restarting the operations of the Maharaja Organisation, they accepted the group's proposals and divested all the damaged properties back to the company.

Production process

The  management decided to move the group's cosmetic plant to Union Place in Colombo where the company's motorcar division was situated and the production process commenced within three weeks.

In similar vein, the S-Lon Plant commenced production within four months.

When the group decided to rebuild, the workers had offered to work free, but the managing director of the group had ensured that everybody was paid their full salary and nobody was asked to leave.

 The whole rebuilding process was made quick because of the strong backing the group received from the Bank of Ceylon which advanced the company the required money even before ascertaining the extent of the damage.

The setbacks in 1983 spurred the group to once again become one of Sri Lanka's leading private sector institutions.

The organisation took the opportunity to retool their factories and was able to get in new technology and reorganise the manufacturing operations but did not restart some of the businesses, printing being one of them.

The Maharaja Organisation's decision to rise from the ashes, some say like the pheonix, has shown this war battered country that even in the worst of times, there is always hope.   


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