The events of July 1983 are poignant for the entire Tamil population around the world. Between July 24 and 29, Tamils were systematically targeted with violence in Colombo and many other parts of Sri Lanka.
July 24 (Day 1): At 1 o’clock in the morning of July 24, the army rounded up hundreds of Tamils in Trincomalee, Mannar, and Vavuniya in the Northeast who had fled the anti-Tamil riots of 1977 and 1981. These Tamils were forcibly taken and left without possessions in the central hills.
Before the riots broke out in Colombo, the army in Jaffna went on rampage killing 51 innocent Tamil civilians. In Trincomalee, similar violence broke out as members of the Navy randomly shot at civilians and burnt down Tamil property.
In the evening in Colombo, the state funeral was being organized for the soldiers. Thousands of people arrived at the cemetery but the bodies failed to appear. After waiting several hours, much of the crowd objecting the burial in Kanatte and demanded the bodies to be returned to the next of kin. As the large crowd began to leave the grave, a new group of people (identified as government gangs) entered the Borella junction and raised anti–Tamil cries. As the anti-government cry subsided and anti-Tamil cries became dominant, arson and murdering of Tamils broke out.
July 25 (Day 2): After the midnight lull, mobs were led by people with voter registration lists in hand torched Tamil homes, looted and destroyed Tamil businesses. All traffic was searched, and any Tamils found were killed, maimed, or burned alive. Cyril Matthew, Minister of Industries, was witnessed directly pinpointing shops to be burned down.
Many policemen were deployed throughout the city; however, they tacitly stood and watched on. Witnesses recall lorry loads of armed troops leisurely waving to looters who waved greetings back. Curfew was only declared by the President late in afternoon after the worst was over. However, the violence continued unabated. Tens of thousands of Tamils who were homeless, sought refugee in schools and places of worship.
In Welikade prison, 35 Tamil political prisoners who were awaiting trail under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, were massacred by Sinhalese prisoners with the complicity of jail guards using spikes, clubs and iron rods.
The violence spread rapidly throughout the country, engulfing towns like Gampaha, Kalutara, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya and Trincomalee. One town was completely wiped out - the Indian Tamil town of Kandapola, near Nuwara Eliya.
July 26 (Day 3): Government imposed a strict censorship of media reporting on the anti-Tamil violence. Word spread of Sri Lanka’s state of disorder as eye witness accounts and photographs taken by returning tourists illustrated the scale of violence. They described how Tamil motorists were dragged out of their vehicles and hacked to pieces while others were drenched with petrol and set alight in full view of the security forces. The International Airport in Colombo was closed.
July 27 (Day 4): 17 more prisoners at Welikade Prison were hacked to death just two days after the prison massacre. The surviving 36 prisoners are transferred to other prisons. Rioting continued and the curfew is extended. Witnesses of the violence reported that charred corpses of Tamil victims lined the streets of Colombo, some mutilated with X’s.
July 28 (Day 5): President J.R. Jayewardene addressed the nation for the first time since the anti-Tamil pogroms, only to fan the flames of anti-Tamil sentiments by stating that anyone who advocated for separatism would lose all their “civic rights”. He states, “….the time has now come to accede to the clamour and natural request of the Sinhala people to prevent the country from being divided.” Vigilantes set up make-shift roadblocks in villages across the island, searched cars and buses for Tamil passengers. In one incident, a Sinhalese mob burnt to death about 20 Tamils on a minibus as European tourists look on in horror.
July 29 (Day 6): Tamils in Colombo began evacuating by cargo ship to the Northern city of Jaffna. Hundreds more internally displaced persons waited anxiously for the next cargo ship to transport them to Jaffna.
July 30 (Day 7): Violence began to dissipate. There was an extreme food shortage in Colombo and across the island as a result of the week long violence.
Post-Riots: Tamils fearing persecution, flee their homeland for Western countries. Tamils began to seek refugee in places such as Canada, Europe, Australia and the U.S. Canada introduced a “Special Measures” program for Sri Lanka allowing family members of those affected by the Anti-Tamil pogroms to join relatives already in Canada.