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
as our wedding took place at short notice in
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
The number of refugees were increasing
daily. Soon it became around 15,000.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
changed the dynamics of the war indelibly -
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
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 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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
The Sarath Munasinghe account of the events
has thus far remained the most authoritative
of the incidents in Jaffna that fateful
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.
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
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
Despite the allegations a concerted
government hand in the riots has never been
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
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
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
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,"
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
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
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"
"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.
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
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
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
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
He acknowledges that it was then that the
debate on a 'separate state' gathered
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
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.
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,"
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
"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
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
"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,"
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
The group was at its peak when the fateful
Black July riots reduced the country to
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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