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It all began with LTTE ambush and Army retaliation

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By A Thirunelvely Eyewitness

Black July 1983 – 3

Many Tamils who recall horror stories of the July 1983 riots lived in Colombo at the time. This was where the worst atrocities were committed.

In Jaffna, however, where Tamils were the majority, not much violence is related. I, being a native of Thirunelvely, Jaffna where it all started, come from one of the very few families who do relate it.

Thirunelvely is a little town in the Jaffna District and some believe, the name translates to ‘God’s-paddy-field.’ It was in Thirunelvely, just about half a kilometre from my home where the LTTE killed an Army Patrol, setting off the subsequent violence. When the soldiers’ bodies were brought to Colombo, it set off the riots.

I was just a two-year-old at that time, and have no memory of those events. But my mother, who was in an advanced state of pregnancy with my sister then, often recalls it with horror. As such, it is an event that is part of my psyche; something I often heard while growing up in the country my parents had relocated to, post riots.

Both my parents had grown up in Sri Lanka and dearly loved their home country. But 1983 convinced them that the country, even the mainland of Jaffna, was not a safe place for Tamils.

Here in her own words is my mother’s recollection of events, that fateful night and subsequently, in Thirunelvely, Jaffna:

That fateful night

“I was eight months pregnant in July 1983. It was my third child and a difficult pregnancy; doctors had warned me not to do anything strenuous or worry unnecessarily. The worry part of it came because my husband had recently gone abroad to work. He was a local school teacher and his salary simply wasn’t enough to support our growing family.

So, five months earlier when I was just three months pregnant, he had gone to the Maldives as the pay was slightly better there. I lived with my old parents and unmarried sister, along with my two young children.

My worries then were simply that of any ordinary housewife; taking care of two very young rambunctious children; raising them more or less alone because my husband was away; worries about money.

The Jaffna I had grown up in was quite peaceful and idyllic. Tensions had officially started with the growth of militancy in 1977, and as at 1983 we were still having regular problems like the rest of the country.

I was deeply asleep that fateful night of 23 July, when I was woken up by my sister at midnight. Then I heard it. Explosive sounds like firecrackers going on and on! It carried on for quite some time. We didn’t know what was happening, but we were very frightened as we knew of the escalating tension between the militants and the army.

Subsequently, all those sounds – shells, bombs, gunfire – became very familiar to our ears, but this was in the beginning when such noises weren’t the norm, and it was terrifying.

There were not many telephones in the area – we didn’t have one. Each house stood on quite a few perches of land, so the neighbours were not within calling distance. We didn’t have the comfort of coming out of our houses and grouping together to know what to do.

Escape route

The militants had a habit of doing something to the army such as lobbying grenades at them and then running away, usually through the back winding lanes and over house walls. Residents of those houses would have had nothing to do with it, but the army in hot pursuit was known to fire indiscriminately. Quite a few home owners had been fired at, when the army pursued the ‘boys’ by jumping over private property walls.

As such, people thought it was dangerous to be in the house when firing was heard and generally ran out, usually into some back lanes, which our Jaffna villages are full of. It was the general belief that the army was familiar only with the main roads and so people – and the militants – used the minor dirt lanes to escape trouble.

On that night, my family too decided to follow the same policy. But I was terrified. The night was pitch-black. The electricity had suddenly gone out and it was months before power was restored. We didn’t have torches or candles (we learnt to equip ourselves with these essentials only later).

My daughter was a two-year-old kid, and whimpering. Her brother, an inquisitive four-year-old, was as usual demanding in his characteristic squeaky breathless voice to know what was happening. “What is that noise? Why is it not stopping? Why has the electricity gone? Why are the dogs howling?”

As if the racket from the grenades and gunfire were not enough, all the neighbourhood dogs were howling fearfully. To this day, I don’t like to spend nights in Jaffna, because if some dog takes it into its head to start howling, I wake up with the same panic I felt that day. Those are the memories I’d rather forget.

My 73-year-old father and I were so frightened that we didn’t run out to the back lanes immediately. Much to the anxious dismay of my mother and sister, we kept going to the bathroom again and again, sometimes knocking at the door, yelling at the other to come out soon. The fear had loosened our bowels. We were unable to run, much less walk anywhere.

The thoughts going on in our heads were, “We might be gunned down at any minute now” and it didn’t help that my father and I were holding all the others up as well. Eventually, however, we did sneak out the back door into a lane and walked nearly a mile into the interior to get to a relative’s house.

We stayed there the next few days, because it was over those days that the violence occurred. We were one of the lucky ones to escape unscathed. Quite a few people we knew were killed.

Lingering memory

In revenge, the army came, firing into homes in Thirunelvely. Families at home as well as people escaping in the lanes were shot. I still remember a wealthy old gentleman, going around begging people for money, dressed in spotless white veshti and shirt. He became a regular feature in the neighbourhood after that incident. His only child’s death caused him to lose his senses. I knew of many tragedies, but this was something that never failed to hurt me – the sight of that wealthy and venerable – looking man going begging from house to house – 25 cents, that was all he ever asked for. “Give me 25 cents. My only son is dead.”

Apparently, the parents had told the son, a good-looking and intelligent young man of whom they were very proud, to run for dear life, choosing to stay back themselves as they were too old. The boy was shot down, round the corner from his house, while the parents back home stayed safe.

In the Maldives meanwhile, my husband, just 42 years old, had to be hospitalized when he heard of the riots. He had wanted to take the next plane out to Colombo but his friends had hidden all his money and passport to prevent it. “Of what use is your going into that mayhem? If anything has happened/is happening to your family, you are not going to prevent it by going there, so stay safe here.”

Unable to reach us as we didn’t have a telephone and unable to come to us he developed high blood pressure, fainted and had to be hospitalized. He has had to take medication for blood pressure ever since.

It was nearly two weeks before we managed to contact him to tell him we were all right. He returned home in December and the following year, the entire family went to stay with him in the Maldives. The Sri Lanka we have grown up in had changed beyond recognition. It was time to go.” Courtesy: Ceylon Today

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