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V. Mahadevan - Smoke on the Horizon

“There is lot of smoke on the horizon,” my little sister screamed running from the balcony. Something is on fire. It must be a house or a big building. It was Monday the 25th of July 1983 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The time was about eight in the morning. The schools were closed that day because there were rumors about some riots.

My mother was pressing dad to skip work for the day, as she was scared something might happen. It all started with the news of thirteen Sinhala soldiers getting ambushed by the Tamil Tigers in Jaffna on July 23rd.

Meanwhile, there was an unusual sight on the road. Some people were carrying big TVs, VCRs and many things on their shoulders. There was a woman who had many new clothes on her shoulder.

Suddenly, the doorbell rang and I looked to see who was there. Uncle Jega, one of my dad’s brothers in laws, was there. He looked battered and shattered with blood oozing from his scalp. His clothes were torn. He was a manager of a jewelry shop in the town. That morning, a mob entered his shop, assaulted him and looted the shop. He was lucky to be left alive. Before he opened the shop that morning, he put all the expensive jewels in a box and hid it. He carried the box to the police station thinking he will deposit it there. However, the police constable took over the box and kicked him out of the Police station.

Now, smoke rose from the top of the road from the direction of the famous Hindu temple. My mother was confident that nothing would happen to us, as there were only three Tamil houses on our road. I was still on the balcony watching the road.

Suddenly I heard loud noises and saw a big group of thugs carrying knives and axes walking towards the direction of our house. They were searching for Tamil houses. Our neighbor pointed our house to the leader of the mob. The fear of death washed over me. I felt a current going upward through my spine. I ran inside screaming, “Everybody run! Everybody run!” I reached the back balcony and jumped from there. I landed first on my left heel. I remember having terrible pain there but managed to jump over the wall to the other lane. But I didn’t know what happened to every one at home.

My left foot was hurting but I was still alive. I slowly walked towards the beach limping. I saw another smaller mob there. Before they spotted me, I hid myself in a bush. They seemed to be planning for their next loot and kill. After they left, I quietly walked to a friend’s house, which was not attacked yet. They were ready to abandon their house and leave. I was still in shock. I changed my clothes and had something to drink there. I disguised my self like a typical Sinhala fellow wearing a T-shirt and a sarong. They insisted that I should join them to go to a safer place but I was adamant that I wanted to go back to my house.

So I walked back home limping. When I reached my street, I saw my house was on fire. There were few onlookers there but the mob left. I moved closer to my house, which was built by every sweat of my dad. That was our dream house. We designed it. We painted it. We played in it. We studied in it. Every thing was on smoke. I thought every one else was dead and burning until a Catholic priest appeared from inside the gates with a bucket. He assured me that every one was fine except my two brothers who were missing. Every one else was taken to the monastery and they were safe. One of the priests took me to the monastery and there were five families there. My mother was weeping and my dad was in shock. My little sister was also crying. They were bit relieved to see me but that time no body seemed to know what happened to my brothers.

The events after I jumped from the back balcony were shocking. My mother with sobs narrated what happened. After I screamed about the mob and jumped from the first storey, every one jumped to save their lives. My mother ran into the storeroom of the house behind where recycled bottles and newspapers are stored and hid behind a sack of old bottles. She could peep between two sacks and see everything that was happening. One by one everybody jumped for safety. My teenage brother jumped before my little sister. He shouted from below for her to jump but she couldn’t reach the balcony wall. No body else was in the house and the mob was trying to break the front door. My sister was struggling alone in the balcony as my brother screamed at her to jump. We don’t know where he got the strength but suddenly he climbed back up to the balcony holding the drainage pipes. He lifted the little girl, dropped her to the floor and the jumped again. He ran away leaving her there unconscious, as he didn’t have the strength to carry her on his shoulders. Meanwhile the mob looted, took away whatever they could, shattered the rest and set fire to the house. One of the thugs came behind the house and saw the little girl lying on the ground. He kicked her in the back. She was unconscious and he was in a hurry. He left her there thinking she is dead. All the while, my mother was watching. When the fire rose, the heat woke her up and she ran into the same building where my mother was hiding.

Around eight in the night, one of the priests brought us the good news that both my brothers were safe in one of our Chinese neighbor’s house. The older one who saved my sister had a big cut on his palm from a piece of bottle embedded on the wall.

There were few more families with us. Some had lost there loved ones and some had lost their valuable savings. There was a young man named Prabha who arrived from Jaffna to take up his new job in a ship, which was leaving in few days. He lost all his money but was lucky enough to be alive only with a sprained ankle.

On Wednesday, things looked calm. So I ventured out to the top of the lane to assess what had happened on the road. The temple was damaged and half burnt. The Tamil shops were totally looted and burnt while the Sinhala shops were carrying on their business as usual. I met two of my classmates- Sasi and Niruthan. They were staying in a refugee camp on the opposite road. There were thousands of people staying there. Luckily, Niruthan’s house was not attacked but his family moved to the refugee camp fearing the riots. He was planning to go to his house on Friday morning to retrieve some valuables. He invited Sasi and me to his house to help him. So we agreed to meet around nine in the morning and he would pick us up at the same spot in his father’s jeep. His dad worked for the income tax department and he had a government jeep.

On Friday, when I was getting ready for the trip, the chief priest called me to ask a favor. He wanted me to accompany Prabha to downtown Colombo. He was supposed pick up his passport and leave for his job on the ship. The father chose me, as Prabha was new to the city and I was fluent in Sinhala. So I had to abandon the planned trip to Niruthan’s house. There was no way to contact him in the refugee camp. So we left for downtown Colombo, which is known as Colombo Fort. It took an hour to locate the address in Colombo Fort. He picked up his passport and we boarded a bus back to the monastery.

Suddenly there was big noise of an explosion and people started running. There was smoke everywhere. We were still in the bus, which took a turn from the main road. There, we saw mobs with sticks, knives and gasoline tanks in their hands. They were shouting “Kottiya! Kottiya!” which meant Tiger in Sinhala. There was a rumor that the Tigers had attacked Colombo. So the mobs started their rampage again. I told Prabha not to open his mouth at any circumstance. Five of the mobsters boarded our bus and dragged the Tamils out. My hands are trembling now to describe what we saw. I am still unable to describe those scenes.

We were seated in the back row. I pretended to be cool hiding my shivers. Prabha was shell-shocked but he also maintained calm and looked the other way. One of the mobsters with a broken bottle in his hands came to me and asked whether any Tamil dogs were left behind us. I talked to him in Sinhala and told him that no Tamils are there.

We arrived in the monastery totally shivering and unable to talk. The scenes we saw on the way will remain with me all my life. Burning cars turned upside down with people inside. Burning bodies. Women running with torn clothes. I couldn’t speak or eat for the next two days. I was in shock.

That was not the end of terror. I got the most devastating news two days later. All of us hoped and prayed the news to be a rumor. Niruthan with his father and three cousins were attacked by a mob and killed brutally on the fateful Friday.

Niruthan with his dad and three other cousins left the refugee camp on that Friday morning. They were on their way home when the riot started again when the rumor of Tigers started. They were traveling in a government jeep driven by a Sinhala driver. The vehicle was stopped by a mob, which dragged Niruthan’s dad out. Rest of them ran for safety. When Niruthan saw his dad being assaulted, he came back to the scene and thrashed one of the mobsters. We heard what happened after that from the statement given to police by the shocked jeep driver. All of them were brutally murdered like slaughter animals and burnt alive. I get a shiver even now of thinking that I was also invited with them.

What did the Tamils do to deserve this? What has the international community done to stop this madness other than condemning and condemning again and again with mere words? Sri Lanka hasn’t change past twenty-five years. The Sinhala chauvinists haven’t changed.

There is still smoke at the horizon.

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