by Sumi Moonesinghe, The Island, Colombo, February 6, 2022
July 1983 was one of the darkest months this country has ever experienced. It was then that I saw my countrymen turn on each other and where barbarism outweighed every Buddhist precept upon which the country had built its foundations. Black July is what it came to be known as – or Kalu Juliya –the anti-Tamil pogrom that was triggered by a deadly ambush in Jaffna by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which resulted in the deaths of 13 army soldiers. Believed to have been orchestrated by some members of the UNP, by July 24, anti-Tamil rioting had spread across the city of Colombo and quickly to other parts of the country.
The day the riots began, Susil and I had been on holiday in Nuwara Eliya and were driving back. Going past the junction of Kanatte, the main cemetery in Colombo, we noticed a large crowd gathered but didn’t take too much notice of it. When we got home, we heard that the bodies of the 13 soldiers killed by the LTTE had been brought to Colombo for interment. The Government made a colossal mistake with that decision.
The LTTE had been founded way back in 1976 with the aim of securing an independent Tamil Eelam, or separate in north-eastern Sri Lanka as a response to what was was widely considered successive governments being discriminatory towards the minority Tamils. There had been anti-Tamil pogroms in 1956 and 1958, carried out by the majority Sinhalese, and oppressive action which caused the eventual genesis of the LTTE leading to yet another anti-Tamil pogrom in 1977. The subsequent burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981 added to the woes and was widely believed to be sanctioned by the incumbent government.
But it was with the deaths of these 13 soldiers and the anti-Tamil pogrom carried out by Sinhalese mobs in July 1983 that fuelled a full-scale escalation of violence that would ruin the country for nearly three decades.
When Susil heard about the mass funeral being held in Kanatte, he predicted problems for the country. There were rumbles of impending riots and on hearing these, we phoned some of our friends and told them to be vigilant as trouble may be brewing. In fact, I remember Susil asking them not to stay in their homes but to move to safe places.
We were too worried to go to sleep and for good reason. Because by 4 am, the whole of Colombo seemed to be burning. My bosses, Maha and Killi were Tamil, and I knew they were at risk. By 12 noon, the mobs had already attacked and burned most of the Maharaja properties starting with Berec, our battery factory, our Group Head Office, Maha’s home at Coniston Place and every factory the Maharajas owned.
Before the attackers had made it to Maha’s home however, we quickly transported Maha and Ruki as well as our friends Thanchi and Vasanta Coomaraswamy into our home.
Transporting Tamils to safe places also became hazardous. The mobs were uncontrollable and were fanned out across all the main roads. They had lists bearing the addresses of the Tamils and were strategically searching for those homes, to loot, bum and kill. I remember the beautiful house belonging to K. Gunaratnam down Bullers Road where mobs pulled down massive crystal chandeliers from their sockets, brought these onto the road and dashed them into smithereens. Vasanta’s mother’s house was also burned. I remember walking into the smouldering house looking for his niece who was pregnant.
She was nowhere to be found and I prayed nothing had happened to her. I was near to tears by this time because I was imagining the worst and was quite relieved to hear that she had jumped over the wall and managed to save herself. My astrologer Mr. Arulpragasam’s house was set on fire and Susil and I brought him to our home and kept him with us.
Until his immigration papers to Australia were approved, we rented out an annexe for him to stay. We also brought the Food Commissioner Mr Pullendian and his wife to stay with us. Their home in Wellawatte had also been razed to the ground.
Then there was Potato Shanmugam, named thus because he was the biggest potato importer in Pettah, in addition to being the biggest sugar buyer from Jones Overseas. Over the years, I had forged a strong bond of friendship with him and his Finance Director Mr. Sangarasivam. This bond was so strong that each morning, Mr. Sangarasivam would come to our home after going to the kovil and place a vibhuti on three-year-old Aushi’s forehead before he made his way to work in the Pettah. Such was their closeness to us.
When the riots began I remembered Potato Shanmugam having taken out a number of bank loans to finance a huge stock of sugar in his go-downs. Susil anticipated problems for the man, and pulled some strings to place a quick board at Shanmugam’s stores stating ‘Property of the Food Department’. This was to ensure the mobs won’t attack the property assuming it was government property.
In the week of the riots with anti-Tamil sentiments fully fueled into unimaginable proportions, Mr. Sangarasivam had bravely visited the banks to assure them that their collateral was safe_ He called me from there saying, “Madam, don’t worry. We are fine. The stock will not fall into the hands of the mobs nor will we get burnt because you put up that board. Nobody touched the place.”
I spoke to the Bank Manager as well, assuring them that the stock and as a result their money was safe.
That was the last time I spoke with Mr. Sangarasivam. He was driving back from the bank that morning when he was stopped by the mobs at the Pettah Clock Tower, pulled out of his car, shoved into the boot, the car doused with petrol and set on fire.
The insane killing of Mr. Sangarasivam was the turning point for me. I completely collapsed. This was the man who came to our house every morning and would bless my child before he left for work. How are human beings capable of such brutality? I was truly shattered.
When I heard of Mr. Sangarasivan’s death, I just bent over and cried. It seemed a never-ending nightmare and I was hoping against hope that I would wake up from this bad dream. I had come to that point when I wanted to pack up everything and leave. But how could 1, when our friends were feeling the deadly brunt of a racial riot that our country had never experienced before? I couldn’t possibly abandon them now!
Susil and I spent an inordinate amount of time on the road trying our best to get whomever we knew to safety. The country was seething and tempers were rife. I even took a policeman in the car with me to 4th Cross Street to bring the cash in the safe belonging to Potato Shanmugam. I couldn’t bear to open my eyes when I got to the Pettah. The whole area was burning.
The moment the news hit the international news wires, our foreign partners began calling me to find out how we were doing. I really didn’t know what to say. I was so ashamed of my countrymen, the majority Sinhalese who were now known all over the world as murderers. The images spread around the world showed the Sinhalese as brutal, cruel people carrying out barbaric actions that had never been seen in the civilised world in modern history.
By this time, our home was filled with Tamil friends taking refuge. There were so many cars parked outside that even the neighbours figured it was not a good sign and refused to let us park. Hema Premadasa, the wife of the Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, dropped in to see Maha; and I think word got around that we were sheltering Tamil people in our house, which also spelled danger for us.
My Tamil staff including my Finance Director had been taken to an Internally Displaced Camp came because they had lost everything they owned. I wanted to do whatever I could to make their pain go away. We visited the camps, took food and other necessities for them, but this -just didn’t seem sufficient for the pain and indignity they suffered.
The riots began. on a Monday early morning and went on unabated until Friday. As Susil and I watched helplessly, one aspect became very clear. Our good friend J R had all the power in the world to stop the riots and reinstate sanity in the country, but he never did. In that week, Susil and I made multiple trips see J R, pleading with him to stop the massacre that was now totally out of hand.
I still remember Satyendra, Maha’s brother-in-law, calling J R during one of those visits, asking him to do something. Not once did J R come out publicly and ask the mobs to stop the attacks or express sympathy for those killed and displaced.
The riots however did simmer to an uneasy halt on the Friday of that week which was named ‘Kotiya Day’ – the day of the Tigers. And it was not the Government’s apathy that did it. The rumour mills had begun churning out unsubstantiated statements which fortunately, for once, worked as an advantage. The rumour that the Tigers were in Colombo and murdering people indiscriminately began spreading like wildfire and the rioting petered out.
But in those five days of the Government’s procrastination and indecisiveness, over 4,000 Tamils and some Muslims who were mistaken for Tamils had been killed, with even those injured and those in hospitals killed. Over 300,000 were displaced, homes, vehicles and over 2,500 businesses destroyed. Such was the blanket of hate that had descended on this country.
An uneasy calm descended over the city and gradually, those who yet had places to go to, moved out of our home. Maha moved to Guildford Crescent as did the other families at home. But we were still on tenterhooks. We were so attuned to unusual noises due to the fear that had enveloped us that one night when Susil heard what he thought was a strange noise, he said, “We can’t bring up our family this way. The children are living in fear and are traumatized. We have to leave.”
Susil called the Manager of Swiss Air whom we had met in Singapore and taken out to dinner on one of our trips, and requested four tickets to London. Apologizing profusely, the manager said there were only three seats left on the next flight and if we could keep Aushi on our laps, which was against IATA rules but since these were unusual circumstances, we could go. We left for London that night.
Even though I agreed to leave Sri Lanka on Susil’s incisive reasoning, I regret leaving Sri Lanka that day. It was the worst decision I made. I had so much confidence in Susil and would never question anything he did or said. But I left Killi and Maha, when they needed me the most. I was a Director of Jones Overseas, one of the biggest companies in The Maharaja Group, and it was my responsibility to stay and weather the storm with them. The factories had been burned to the ground and our people were in camps. While I mulled over this conundrum in my head and had many a misgiving, I knew in my heart that neither Killi nor Maha ever held my decision to leave against me.
We returned to Colombo after a month. There still remained that uneasy calm but on the surface, it seemed like it was ‘back to business’ in Colombo.’ While we adults have the ability to delete unsavoury details from our minds and carry on, the horrific scenes we had left behind had been ingrained in little Aushi’s mind. On the way back from the airport, Aushi, in all her innocence asked me, “Are those things still burning?” That was her last memory of Sri Lanka because when we left that fateful night, all she saw was fire everywhere. Anarkali however, was old enough to understand and didn’t quite express herself with that kind of innocence.
(Excerpted from Sumi Moonesinghe’s recently published Memoirs)