The horror of the July ’83 pogrom against the Tamil peoplemust never be forgotten. The only insurance we may have for preventing a reoccurrence of instances of unimaginable, organised cruelty committed by one group of people on another may be to constantly remind ourselves of that unimaginable moment in history. This is what I would [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

‘Insurance by remembrance’ needs more than just horrific recollections of July ‘83


The horror of the July ’83 pogrom against the Tamil peoplemust never be forgotten. The only insurance we may have for preventing a reoccurrence of instances of unimaginable, organised cruelty committed by one group of people on another may be to constantly remind ourselves of that unimaginable moment in history. This is what I would call, “insurance by remembrance”.

Yet, as pogroms against Jewish communities in history have shown, in 19th century Russia, 20th century Nazi Germany, Egypt and even the USA, memorials and reminders are meaningless in the face of a violent, manipulated mob.

The numerous museums, the films, and the carefully archived documents and objects that revisit the Nazi Holocaust hope only for this: that such horrors would never be allowed.That those who have been taught its history will recognise the signs of violence sanctioned by the state that can commit the unimaginable.That, those who recognise the signs will never allow them to run their course, again. The Jewish community has been particularly diligent, given the intellectual and monetary resources that they possess, at keeping the events and crimes of the Holocaust alive almost 60 years later.

Yet, in the USA, in a city where the Jewish community’s presence is both strong and powerful (Brooklyn, New York),that “insurance by remembrance” could not stop mob violence against a minority Jewish community in a predominantly African American neighbourhood, called Crown Heights.

This is what happed in Crown Heights.One of the cars of a motorcade driving the Rabbi of the Jewish Hasidic sect in the neighbourhood, killed one and seriously injured another Guyanese immigrant child.The angry crowd surrounded the scene and attacked the Jewish driver and other Jewish men at the scene. Riots broke out when rumours spread that, of the ambulances that had come to take the children to hospital, one, run by the Hasidic community, had given preference to treating the Jewish men and had neglected the dying black child.

Angry groups of African American men in the Crown Heights neighbourhood turned to raging violence. Within hours of the accident, Yankel Rosenbaum, a Jewish student, was stabbed to death and attacks on Jewish houses, people and the police by the mobs went on for three days. When the police finally brought the riots under control 43 civilians had been injured but the police had taken the brunt of the attack with almost 153 police officers injured. All this was in 1991. This violence was despite 46 years of remembrance of the crimes committed against the Jewish people during WWII.

In hindsight, historians and commentators would look back in horror, give different interpretations to the event and Rudolph Giuliani, the next Mayor of New York would call it a “pogrom”. While the riot was spontaneous and there was no state sanctioning or pre-meditation, there would later be accusations of police and jury bias. The unavoidable fact was this:the mobs openly resorted to anti-Semitism and used anti-Semitic slogans and targeted their violence at the Jewish community. During the three days and four nights of violence, no leader of the African American community condemned the violence.

All lessons in history, carefully preserved artifacts and constitutional guarantees are helpless when confronted by a violent mob with its members fuelled and manipulated into hate by their private depravations, which are, almost always, economic. It is on these deprivations that individuals or state manipulators prey on to instigate a pogrom which is usually triggered off by a seemingly spontaneous event. Such violence can flare up anywhere, at any time. They only need the right triggers.

“Insurance by remembrance”, therefore, is no insurance at all. It needs more. “Insurance by remembrance” requires strengthening, emphasising and vociferous recallingof the one thread of sanity that prevails during mob violence and events such as pogroms and holocausts. That binding thread called humanity.

For always, underneath the open violence and barbarity, humanity prevails. It is by calling to this thread of sanity and by reaching out to that thread in times of recollection, by emphasising and building on it, that a vulnerable community will have its real guarantee against violence. For, as history has shown from Berlin in 1939 to Brooklyn in 1991, state mechanisms, “leaders”and state reforms have never been guarantees for the safety of vulnerable communities. Yet, history has also shown that the thread of humanity always appears during events of violence against communities.

In the July 1983 pogrom, while organised rioters killed, maimed and looted, and the state sanctioned them and remained silent, that thread of humanity emerged and prevailed in Sri Lanka. While the lives and property of thousands of Tamil people perished, thousands of those were also saved by the Sinhalese. The numbers of those saved outnumbered the numbers of those who died at the hands of the mobs.

There are hundreds of photographs of the burnt homes, the ransacked streets and the charred bodies of the ’83 pogrom against the Tamil civilians of Sri Lanka. However, it is difficult to find a single photograph of the involvement of the Sinhalese civilians in saving the lives of Tamil civilians.

There are no photographs of Sinhala families helping Tamil families over parapet walls into their homes in the dead of the night, of children sharing their rooms, clothes and meals, of Sinhala families pretending that they had no “visitors” when the mobs banged on their doors and threatened them.

In the July 1983 pogrom it was those Tamil people who had strong links with Sinhalese neighbours and friends that found immediate shelter and safety for their entire families.This was, in almost all cases, in the homes of Sinhalese who put themselves at risk to protect them. Some Sinhalese confronted the mobs as they entered their neighbourhoods and prevented them from looting and burning homes, some, unable to confront the mobs, gave shelter and cover that saved lives of thousands of families, and others, over the weeks that followed, collected food and essentials to be sent to the shelters that came up after the riots.

In private, many Tamil people, especially those who remained in Sri Lanka to re-build their lives, acknowledge over and over again the role that a particular individual, a Sinhalese, as a civilian, a neighbour or a friend, played in saving their lives during ‘83.

A friend of mine posted on Facebook this week: As black July of 1983 is remembered, I like to salute and bless those people who put their lives on line to protect others like me and my family and many many others. While the wicked worked hard to burn down homes and people alike these saints helped to protect them. My mom and I were taken in by a neighbouring couple and kept in their home as I watched through the window armed men with kerosene and fire trying to enter the road where we lived to burn down our home.

In 2006, my father had a visit out of the blue from a Tamil man who had lived as a child in our neighbourhood. We had not heard from him or his family since 1983. He chatted to my father about his brother’s successful career, his own family and how he had built a life for himself in Sri Lanka since 1983. Without ever mentioning the night he and his brother spent at our home when the rioters were looting the neighborhood, he told my father about his life today.

It was, I believe, only after he had left that my father realized that this man had chosen to visit him in July, a few days before the annual remembrance of July ‘83. His gesture spoke of what he felt towards my father for offering him and his brother a night at our home which allowed them to build lives after 1983. A life very different to those who were not that fortunate: those who had encountered the mobs alone in buses and on the streets and those surrounded by people who pretended not to see and not know. The majority of Sinhalese civilians however, were different, they didn’t allow baser human qualities to overpower their humanity, in the face of a Tamil friend or neighbour, or in some cases, even a stranger, in need during the July pogrom.

As we recall July ‘83, if we could also focus in public on this one glimmer of hope in the ethnic pogrom of ‘83, it would be possible to start building the real mechanisms for reconciliation. Inter-communal affiliations that are rooted in the minds and hearts of civilians can never be shaken whatever the state regime and whatever the constitution. State reforms will be valid and effective only once this foundation has taken strong hold in the civilian population.

Both the Tamil diaspora who have no need to build a future for themselves in Sri Lanka and the foreign media who do not have the depths of insight or the political will that the Sri Lankans living in Sri Lanka have, give July ‘83 a colouring of hate that is not qualified by any other reality. They refuse to offer a single glimmer of hope on which to build ties for reconciliation. It serves their purposes not to. However, we who live here and wish to call this our home need to build our lives together.

A completely blackened portrait of Black July will not serve us now to move forward as a society. Most importantly, such a picture is misleading and inaccurate. It will only alienate the two communities socially to the point that the acts of remembrance will have the opposite effect tothat they aim to achieve.

It is only by building on the thread of humanity that emerged in Sri Lanka in July ’83 and by having the courage to acknowledge in public the other dimensions to the narrative of the ’83 pogrom, that real mechanisms for the prevention of and justice for such events in our history may be achieved. It is the only way that “insurance by remembrance” will guarantee real safety.

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