An Eye Witness Account Of The Day When The Jaffna Library Was Burnt
By Dilip Kumar
(Dilip Kumar was, when these events took place, a senior student at St. Johns College in Jaffna. He is now a resident of Scarborough, Canada.)
One the morning of 1st July 1981, I woke up early and got ready to attend an accountancy class scheduled for 6 am. I was on time for the class despite the early hour but found on my arrival, scenes of some confusion. I was told that the class had been cancelled because Sinhalese policemen, both in and out of uniform, had ransacked and set fire to the home of the Member of Parliament for Jaffna Mr. V. Yogeswaran.
Together with my friend Rajkumar we proceeded on our bicycles to Mr. Yogeswaran’s house that we reached in about ten minutes. The scene before us took us aback. We saw the destruction of the MP’s house which had been set alight and was still smouldering. The MP’s car which was parked within the compound beside the house had also been damaged and set alight. It was still smouldering when we arrived.
I saw the MP Mr. Yogeswaran at the gate to his house. He was wearing a pair of khaki shorts and appeared very shaky. In answer to my question, he told me that there had been in all, around 10 to 15 persons in the house at the time of the incident. He said that on the previous night around 10 pm, a group of persons had come to his house and called out to him by name. He went out up to the gate at the top of the garden which had been shut and padlocked for the night. One of the persons in the crowd asked in Sinhala ‘Yogeswaran mahataya innavatha’ (Is Mr. Yogeswaran in?). Mr. Yogeswaran said that he realised that something was up. It was very unusual to have a group of Sinhalese men call this late at night and ask if the owner was in, in a very intimidating tone.
He therefore told them that the MP was not at home. The men apparently believed him and took him to be the night watchman because of his khaki shorts. They however grabbed his hands through the metal bars of the locked gate. He was able to pull his hands back and his hands were still bleeding when we met him. He said he had run towards the house screaming to his wife to get out of the house. They were both able to make their way through the rear fence of the house into their neighbour’s property before the group of men forced their way in.
My friend Rajkumar and I got on to our bicycles and cycled towards the Jaffna Library. What we saw was almost unbelievable. This beautiful building with its wealth of rare and irreplaceable first editions and manuscripts, some of them on ‘ola leaves’ was covered in dense smoke. We could not enter the library for the smoke. There were about 10 or 15 persons on the premises. There was only one tap outside the building and this was beside the statue of Saraswathi, the Goddess of Learning, facing the building as one approached it. But there was nothing we could do. Apart from the distance from the tap to the smouldering library and the books, we did not have sufficient implements or manpower.
Yet, only two minutes walking distance from the library, was the Jaffna Municipality building and offices and the municipal fire station with its fire trucks, manpower and implements. It was of no use, the firemen were too scared to try to put out a fire that had been started by the policemen quite a few of whom were still around with their guns.
As we rode past the Regal Cinema we made a left turn at the Shanthi Cinema and took a little known lane behind Subas Café and through the Haron Cinema. I saw as many as 50 Jaffna people gathered along the route I took. They told me that the New Market was burning. My friend and I went through the Kottadi Road and saw that the heads of the statues of the great Tamil poetess and poet Ouvaiyar and Thiruvalluvar that had occupied a prime location in Grand Bazaar at the New Market and at the junction of KKS Road had been knocked off. A statue to Mahatma Gandhi had also been destroyed. The Old Market had been ransacked and looted by the police and I saw dried red chillies from the shops scattered on the ground as well as rice, kithul, dry fish and various other condiments.
I heard from passers by that the EelaNadu Press had been ransacked and burnt. I proceeded towards KKS Road where the offices of the EelaNadu were and saw that the print works had been completely burnt. I was told that Mr. Sivanathan, a director of EelaNadu, had suffered severe burns and had been taken to the Aanaipanthi Hospital. Mr. Sivanathan is the father of a friend so I decided to go to the hospital and see him.
I went to the hospital and found that my friend’s father had been badly burnt. All his hair had been burnt and he was practically bald. My friend Balakanna told me that his father had fainted due to inhaling excess smoke and that a co worker had bravely carried him to safety from the second floor to the ground floor, using a single drainpipe. Mr. Sivanathan is today, a resident.
There were very few people in the town. There would have been, in all, around 200 to 300 heads. Yet, when a military vehicle passed by with soldiers pointing their guns, their fingers on the trigger, there was general panic. Barely 10 to 15 persons stood their ground. The others bolted with cries of ‘odathai’ ‘odathai’ (don’t run, don’t run) from those who stood their ground, ringing in their ears.
The military started to bring in small Baval armoured vehicles and some new attack vehicles I have not seen in Jaffna before, all this, to ‘attack’ unarmed civilians who took flight at the sight of any army vehicle carrying soldiers!
I was very scared, having seen the dead body at the Book Depot that I returned home.
I continued on my journey towards Kasthooriyar Road and saw just empty space in the middle of the Jaffna bus stand. On normal days, this bus stand would have been a hive of activity with buses and vehicles constantly entering and leaving. All I saw today was a few policemen sitting in front of the Sunlight Laundry – of course they were armed. I needed to cross into Hospital Road and it was very easy crossing through the bus stand. On other days I would have had to take the long route through Stanley Road where the Windsor Cinema is.
As I approached the bus stand I saw around 20 policemen in white T shirts and police uniform trousers. They stopped me and told me to get into the drain and stand there. One of then said to me ‘sinna podiyan paakirathu enna kaurtha kodi kaatu kiratha?’ meaning, ‘you look a small boy but you are the ones showing the black flags’. I told them that I had nothing to do with black flags. One of the policemen asked his boss to let me go as I was only a little boy. Meanwhile, the group had detained another person so they let me go. I was by now soaked with the smelly drain water. Perhaps they thought it was sufficient punishment.
As I cycled further, behind Hospital Road I passed the BMICH building and saw Tamil people looting building material from the shop. I thought to myself that only 200 meters away were policemen harassing innocent Tamil people while here were Tamil people, who lacked the guts to protest about what had happened, looting this shop. There was no law and order when the policemen themselves were guilty of breaking the law.
I heard that some persons had been killed in front of the Naga Vihare at Aariya Kulam Junction. The Vihare was well protected by the military. I heard that a young graduate of the Jaffna University had been piling bodies in front of the Vihare when he was apprehended by the army.
They had forced him to throw the bodies into a fire they had started. I later heard that the young man was himself thrown, alive, into the same flames!
I dedicate this article to the many Tamil men, women and children who lost their lives to the Sinhalese policemen whose ‘strings’ were pulled by the hidden ministers in Jaffna and the big man in Colombo. I particularly remember the young graduate of the Jaffna University who demonstrated his personal protest by piling up some of the dead bodies in front of the Naga Vihare and lost his own life in the process.