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“We kept vigil with clubs and chili powder.”

These Sinhalese risked their own lives 35 years ago when angry mobs searched for their Tamil neighbours during one of Sri Lanka’s darkest periods.

23.08.2018  |  

Thirty-five years after ‘Black July’ 1983, when ordinary Tamils were attacked as retaliation for a Liberation Tigers ambush of Sri Lankan military, The Catamaran spoke to three Sinhalese witnesses who stood up to angry mobs and risked their lives to save their Tamil neighbours.

Kithsiri Nissanka, 52, a driver for a Muslim businessman in Jawatte during the time of the riots

From Hatton and living in Piliyandala

“People appeared to be haunted with some sort of fear. They were assembled at the shops and public places. At the Kanatte Cemetery in Borella a large number of dead bodies of army personnel were buried within the night and people were saying that the Liberation Tigers were advancing to Colombo to kill the Sinhalese.

That day was, I think, was the 25th of July. Tension was everywhere. Around 2.30 p.m., in order to go to Bambalapitiya, I got on the road and started walking.  There were no buses.  There were riots here and there. I was 22 years old at that time and I was interested in seeing what was happening.  All along the road, shops belonging to Tamils were broken into and the goods inside were looted.  I saw people carrying these things with them.  Many shops were burning. I can remember a house at Torrington Junction was also burning.  There was smoke all over. I walked up to Thummulla – shops were burning there also.  A friend of mine was working at Salu Sala. He was from Kandy.  I came to know that he was also attacked and was in a critical condition because of his black complexion. Many Sinhalese people were also attacked because of their black complexions and considered to be Tamils.  As a result, there was tension amongst Sinhalese people as well.  I returned to my place.  It was then I was entrusted with a responsibility.

We came to know that our factory guard’s family of 6 people was in trouble at Pinwatte in Pelyagoda.  They were Tamils. With courage, I set out on a vehicle to bring them. Even now my body shudders when I think about the scenes I witnessed on the way.  It was such a terrible situation, I do not have words to describe it. There is still a question lingering in my mind, ‘How did these ordinary people turned into beasts?’ However, I brought them safely to my boss, the Muslim businessman. They were allowed to stay there. I bought food from the shops and gave it to them. Had I not come forward to bring them to safety on that day, that family would not exist today. If I had not been able to save them, the incident would have traumatised me all along my life.  Today they are doing well in that place. Although 35 years have passed, even now I am unable to forget the terrible scene and violence forever.”

Thayawathy Mineke, 69, currently residing in the Navagampura area in Grandpass, Colombo.

“Whenever I go to Peliyagoda on business I never fail to visit their house. Though many years have passed, they still consider me as their family member.  Now the next generation in the family has come.  I am their hero, even now.

They say the Sinhalese people killed the Tamils. But do you know how many Sinhalese people saved the Tamils? We take pride in saying that we were able to save at least one Tamil family. At that time the majority of our neighbours in Grandpass were Tamils. We were living as very close relatives. On July 25th and 26th the days the riots started, the entire country was in a restless state. ‘Tigers are coming, Tigers are coming!’ everyone was saying.  We were also afraid.  Shops were broken before our eyes. They set them on fire, putting tyres inside. People were looting the broken shops. Many strangers, people we have never seen, were loitering in our area with knives, swords and clubs in hand.  It took us a long time to pacify our neighbouring Tamil residents who were shivering with fear.

On the 26th July, the riots worsened. Many Tamil families who lived around us went missing within that night. So far, we do not know what happened to them, whether they escaped fearing death, were abducted or killed. But we decided to protect a Tamil family: a father, mother and two small girls, who were our next door neighbours.

“Ko, Themaloo innawathe? Hang gene inna eppah, Therunnathe? ( Are there Tamils? Do not hide them. Do you understand?)” they were shouting on the road with raised swords. But through the rear door we invited that family inside our house and hid them. Oh God, so dangerous were those moments.  Even now when I think of it, I fell fear running through my body.  Our house was a small one.  Where were we to hide them?  They were afraid and were embracing each other and crying.  I had my two sons to keep watch at the door and I consoled them.  A group came with swords, knives and clubs and searched the adjoining house for Tamils. Their household utensils and other things were thrown out on the road.  They threatened my sons and asked where were those Tamils.  When my sons insisted that they did not know the crowd left after warning that they would also be killed if they had the Tamils hidden with them.

They were so afraid, they did not eat anything for the whole day.  We were also frozen with fear. If they were caught by the thugs, their stories would have been over on that day itself. They would have been put to death in burning tyres in front of us.  How could I bear that? Due to the fear we experienced, my son suggested to take them and hand over to the Grandpass Police Station. Under the circumstances, I did not have confidence even in the police, because I had seen with my own eyes the police going around with the thugs. I had also seen them watching the burning tyres with amusement.

My sons went to bed after keeping knives and clubs ready at the doors, ready to attack if anyone came and knocked. I always a tin can filled with chili powder had by my side. If anyone came we could throw the powder in their faces and escape.

The three days that started like this turned into thirty days. Even after the riots were over they were experiencing a shock which they could not overcome.  After some days, they decided to leave.

When they were leaving they hugged me and sobbed, a scene I will never forget. Since then I did not hear from them. What to do?  We were unable to create a situation for them to live with confidence. I feel sorry when I think about it even now.

“Those children’s mother always wore a big red ‘pottu’ on her forehead. She looked beautiful with it. When the riots took place, I took a cloth in my hands and wiped off that ‘pottu’ without any trace, in order to conceal their Tamil identity. Since that day, I did not see that big round red ‘pottu’ on her forehead. When I think about it even now, I have a feeling of guilt in my mind, because they do away with the ‘pottu’ only when the husband dies.”

Gunaratne Punchihewa, 74, at the time a municipal assistant

 People wailing and crying could be heard everywhere. Tyres were burning here and there. Some people, including me, were assembled at the Municipal Councillor’s house. People were going across the road, each carrying a big television set and various other electrical goods. We stopped one of them to inquire and found that an electrical shop belonging to a Tamil businessman was broken into and they were taking the things from that shop.

With our hands folded on our chests we watched everything. Then someone told us: ‘A Tamil woman who went along the road was stripped naked because she had a ‘pottu’ on her forehead and her head was smashed on a rock.  He had seen this and came running.’

We discussed with the Municipal Councillor, who telephoned some known people and said the situation was very bad. After some time passed, a crowd from that area came out with knives, swords and clubs to protect the Sinhalese people. When they passed us they were shouting “Kotty enewa, Kotty enawa” (Tigers are coming).  When they came near our house, they told the Municipal Councillor that they were there to protect the Sinhalese people and for him not to worry.

It was only afterwards, that we thought about saving the Tamils living upstairs. We thought of a plan.  We heard that the crowd that went shouting was calling “Kottiya innawathe” (Are there tigers) and going from house to house looking for Tamils. So we decided to protect them, some way or another, for the night.  We were seated at the entrance to the flat with clubs and knives and pretended to be their accomplices.

We spent the night playing cards and lying down.  The next day dawned. I do not remember whether it was 27th July.  Owing to the curfew the riots had stopped.

The Municipal Councillor came to know that a refugee camp was set up at a boys’ school for the people affected by the riots. Considering the safety of the said family we got ready to take them to the refugee camp. In a defender vehicle with tinted windows, the driver, myself and a police officer went out with them and left them in the refugee camp. Because of that I am able to live without any guilt. They are still in touch. My son is running a shop, but I am unable to go there. They used to come to the shop and enquire about me. I feel very happy when my son tells me about it.”

by Priyatharshini Sivarajah