It was after evening service at our church in Kollupitiya that our friend, Dr. Sam Thambar, a popular eye surgeon in Colombo, mentioned to us that he feared there would be violent repercussions following the killing of 13 soldiers by the LTTE in Palaly, Jaffna. The date was July 24, 1983.
My husband and I went to bed in a sombre mood even though we were unaware of the funeral of the soldiers in Kanatte that evening and the resultant mayhem in Borella and Maradana. We remembered earlier anti-Tamil riots in 1958 and in 1977.
At about 7 the next morning, the telephone rang and I found Vathana Thambar, Sam’s wife on the line, telling me with a sob in her voice that her sister, Pooshana Jehoratnam and family in Narahenpita, were under threat from a mob.
Earle and I got into the little Volks we used and drove to Elvitigala Mawatha off which road the Jehoratnams lived. The house at the top of their little lane was burning, but there was no sign of a mob.
Inside the Jehoratnam’s place, we found the occupants of the burning house – an elderly couple – looking dazed. Tissa and Pooshana asked us whether we could take these people with their young grand-daughter and domestic-aide to the safety of the lady’s brother’s house in Mount Lavinia. This we readily undertook to do and Pooshana also put in a few valuables of their own into our small vehicle.
As we drove out on to Elvitigala Mawatha, we spied a mob approaching from the right-hand side, so we turned left and drove back to the Galle Road and proceeded to Mount Lavinia without seeing anything untoward happening. The Selvaratnams (our passengers), were thankfully received by their relatives and we went home to Wellawatte little knowing that these unfortunate people would all have to run for their lives from the Mount Lavina house too, later on that same day.
Our youngest daughter, the only child still living at home, went to work. Although everything seemed outwardly normal, we had a feeling of unease and my husband said he would go to the bank and also to the market to buy some foodstuffs, just in case of trouble. He had been in the Wellawatte market when all hell had broken loose with the blood-curdling cries of mobs in the distance and buildings being set on fire.
Not long after he came home, we heard a commotion at the top of the road and a young man employed at the Tamil-owned Regal Pharmacy was seen running down our road with blood trickling down his face. Soon, we had refugees to whom we were glad to open our doors, most of them neighbours whose landlord wanted them to quit his apartments immediately, for fear of damage to his property. We could hardly believe what was happening, for we hadn’t ourselves witnessed the ugly incidents of earlier years. This time, we were in the thick of it.
I saw about six young men jump over the parapet wall at the back of our house and approach, looking fearful and desperate. It turned out they were occupants of a Tamil `chummery’ in the next lane – we had no option but to take them in too.
We sent all the `refugees’ upstairs. Our daughter and son-in-law and little son who occupied the upstair, moved downstairs with us. We had to instruct our friends not to speak loudly or to betray their presence in any way.
The mob could be heard turning into our road. We kept all our front windows open and my husband and I stood by our gate. They looked a vicious lot of men. “Are you Sinhalese?” they asked us. When we nodded, they shouted, “Why don’t you put a name-board on your gate?”
The first Tamil house was next to ours and it was locked up as the elderly widowed lady who owned it had gone to visit a son in Jaffna and the elder son and family who also lived in the house, had obviously gone away that day. The mob fell on what was a gracious home, the lady’s dowry house which was always beautifully maintained, and set fire to it, but not very effectively. They smashed what they could of furniture and belongings.
My husband fixed the garden hose to see whether he could douse the smouldering fire next door, but the thin trickle of water that came was useless. Our small grandson was looking round with eyes grown wide with apprehension and asked his mother why people were attacking the house next door. What could his mother tell a five-year-old whose father was Tamil? “Some bad men, robbers, are doing this,” was all she could come up with in answer to his question.
A young couple from Ratmalana, the daughter and sister-in-law of our neighbours, also came here, carrying only essential documents with them. Towards evening, we had a call from their Sinhalese neighbours in Ratmalana to say that their house and car had been burned by a mob. This couple was occupying only a tiny section of the house they had built as they had rented the major portion of it to a Sinhalese family because they needed extra cash to repay the monthly instalment on their housing loan. That family had fled before the mob arrived.
Our own daughter, returning from work that day, had been stopped by a mob for a heart-stopping moment and questioned as to whether she was a Tamil or a Sinhalese. We had a call from a church friend who said she and her younger son were safe in a friend’s house, but could we please rescue her husband and older boy who were stuck in their rented house down Vihara Lane, a not very salubrious area for Tamils.
Earle drove there and brought these two to join the crowd upstairs.
Looking back, I wonder how we fed everybody. We sent the meals upstairs. The Tamil boutique from which we had always bought our foodstuffs was no more, of course. There was a Sinhala-owned place nearby called the Parakrama Hotel. The mudalali there may have heard on the grapevine that we had unexpected guests, for he sent word to my husband that he could supply us with rice, coconuts, dhall, etc. and we gratefully accepted his kind offer. Our own domestic help was a young Indian Tamil girl and her brother who worked in a tailoring establishment, also took shelter with us. Two other young Tamil girls were the domestic aides of our guests.
At this time, I wrote a regular column in the “old” Sunday Times. The editor, Rita Sebastian (first woman to head a national newspaper), rang me and stipulated that I must on no account refer to recent events in anything I wrote. It was soon obvious that the media had decided to go along with the Government and black out the horror story as far as possible.
At home, we wondered whether J.R.(President J.R. Jayewardene) had been killed otherwise, why was there no word from him or from any Govt. spokesman in the face of such a national calamity and the complete breakdown of law and order? Then, on the Thursday, July 28, J.R., Athulathmudali and Premadasa at last appeared on television. What did they have to say? Our President said something to the effect that the Sinhalese had been provoked by the killing of 13 soldiers in the North; Athulathmudali said he was shocked at the sight of something he had hoped never to see again – food queues! Whatever Premadasa may have said later, at that time the words he uttered were: “Kavuda duk vinday? Duppath ahinsika thamunansela netha?” (“Who\has suffered? You poor, innocent people, is it not?”) We lost all respect for our Sinhala leaders that day.
The situation seemed fairly stable and since our church – the Kollupitiya Methodist Church – had opened its doors to refugees, we sent all the unattached young males who lodged in our house, to the church camp where we knew they would be safe.
Earle decreed that either he or I must always remain in the house and that we keep our front windows wide open to allay suspicion that we harboured refugees. Our `lodgers’, concerned about our food situation, would tell me what stocks of rice, coconuts, etc. were available in their homes and urge me to go and get the stuff.
My daughter and I would wait until the road seemed clear, peer fearfully to the left and right, and dart across to the abandoned apartments, feeling like looters, and then run back home trying to look inconspicuous as we carried whatever provisions we could. It felt like being in a film, so unreal did it all seem.
On Friday the 29th (which was to prove the worst day of that appalling week), my Tamil son-in-law wanted to go to see his mother who lived in the Bambalapitya flats. I accompanied him and we had been up in her flat for some time when we suddenly heard the noise of a gunshot, followed by shouts and the sounds of running feet. Looking down from the balcony, we saw a mad stampede by folk who had been queueing to buy food and shouts of “Kotiyo enava!” (“The Tigers are coming!”). The soldier on duty on the Galle Road had fired the shot we heard. This was another cunningly thought out ploy to incite people to further violence.
I was anxious to get back home, but remembered that our daughter had gone to Kollupitiya to help out at the church camp. So we first headed in that direction. Our daughter and a few others, some of whom were Tamil, crammed themselves into the back seat and we drove off, taking the Duplication Rd./Dickmans Rd. cut and meeting with no obstruction or opposition. When we got home, we heard that a blood-thirsty mob, brandishing murderous-looking fish knives, had come down our lane shouting that they would finish off any `Demelas’ they found. A terrified boy was found in a toilet at the back of our house – he turned out to be a Muslim who had come to visit a relative and been scared out of his wits at the sight of a mob in the distance and had run through the first open gate he saw, to hide at the back. We let him stay until his panic had subsided and he felt up to finding his way home.
We later learned that the “Tigers have come” cry had been simultaneously raised in different parts of the country and that a spate of killings had taken place that day in Colombo and elsewhere.
What happened in that week of July, 25 years ago is seared into my memory. The horror of it is unforgettable. The rubble that lined the Galle Road in Wellawatte, all that remained of Tamil-owned shops like the popular Colombo Stores, and the devastation of lanes like Ratnakara Place, Dehiwela, made it seem as if aerial bombardment must have caused such destruction. I mention only the destruction of property and have not touched on the brutal murders that were also a big part of the scenario. And this was long before the Tigers became a terrorist force or had unleashed their savagery on civilians.
May we never see such barbarism sweep unchecked over our land again, even in the face of extreme provocation.