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Thiru Thiruchelvam

My name is Thiruchelvam. I am 60 years old. I have been a journalist for the last 40 years. In Canada, I am working as a newcomer settlement consultant. In addition, I am the chief editor of a magazine called Tamil’s Information which I initiated nearly 18 years ago.

Before 1983 riots, I was living in Colombo since 1969. I was working as a journalist while my wife was a teacher. Our son was born and raised in Colombo. Most of my neighbors were Sinhalese and we were living together like brothers. I think I was one of the first families to experience the violence. Twenty five years later, the shocking feeling still resides within me.

Around 1 am, my family was already in bed. I got a phone call from one or two friends saying that there was a group of people coming towards my area with sticks, stones, and weapons. We did not take it seriously since Tamils in Colombo were rarely targeted in this manner. So, we assumed the mob would ahead out of the city. Within a few minutes, my windows were smashed. About 30 people, mostly in their sarongs and using foul language, rammed through our door. I quickly hid my wife and son under the bed. Soon, they found me and held on to me. They began looting the entire house and then damaged the furniture. I was panic stricken as they barged into the bedroom where my wife and son were hiding. Fortunately, they did not find them. Instead, they took all the clothes and jewelry. One person held a knife to my throat and asked for my ring. I gave it to him. As they let me go, the others dissipated out the house and into other homes. A few remaining went inside the kitchen and opened the gas in order to set the place on fire. At that point, I got hold my wife and son and quickly crept away as our house burst into flames. That night, we hid in my neighbor’s home.

On the 25th morning, my family and I along with many other affected Tamil families gathered at the nearby St. Theresa Church. I contacted my friends to explain the situation. However, they were quite confident that they would not be targeted since they were residents within President Jayawardene’s riding. As resident of the President’s riding myself, I reaffirmed to them that they urgently needed to evacuate their homes with their families and valuables. However, they did not listen. Despite my warnings, Mr.Chandralingham, principal of Bampalaipetty Hindu College, and Mr. Somarthanath, the chief editor of Thenakaran paper, went into work on the Monday morning. They did not make it back home in time and their houses were burnt. Even more sadly, they could not find their family members.

We stayed at the church for nearly two days and then moved to a camp set up at Therestin College. For the first two days, the government nor security officials did not take any action to curtail the violence or assist the victims. On the third day, a few refugee camps were set up.

Over the next few days, I heard word of many killings. Many of my childhood friends and contacts as a journalist were killed or burnt in the streets. We did not even get the chance to attend a funeral.

Near the end of the week, I along with many other males within the refugee camps decided to go back to our houses and collect any remaining useful items. However, I was caught by two army personnel as I walked a few blocks away from the camp. As they stood a foot away from me, they asked me to remove my clothing and strip down. I began removing my clothes and I was trembling since I was quite sure they were going to kill me. At that point, I began lying that I was actually a Sinhala. In Sinhala, I explained that I was journalist and that I worked for Radio Ceylon. With those words, they walked away. After escaping death so narrowly, I ran back to the camp and hardly moved for the next few days. I wanted to leave Colombo right away.

My family and I decided to go back to Jaffna. Even my young son who had grown in Colombo, was ready to leave. He could not believe we were targeted simply because we were Tamil. I resigned from my position as I planned to started my own daily paper in Jaffna. I wanted publish the true stories as opposed stories based on government press releases and restrictions.

As my own paper began increasing in circulation through the Northern province, I was continuously targeted with violence and imposed to carry only articles proved or provided by the government. Despite arrests and bombs, I continued to run the paper. On May 10, 1989, paramilitary surrounded my house and attempted to kill me. Though I was able to escape, they got hold of my only son and killed him. They threw his body out onto the street.

Through my external contacts, Amnesty International learnt of my son’s death and brought my wife and I to Colombo in thirty days. They were our saviors. After recognizing that my life was not safe in Colombo, they offered me in residency in Britian, Australia or Canada.

As a journalist, I read widely about Canada’s newcomer programs and how they welcomed refugees from Sri Lanka after the events of Black July. I wanted to be in country where I would be given the opportunity to make a difference in the community. Thus, I choose to move to Canada.

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