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Inthiranee Suntharalingam

My name is Inthiranee Suntharalingam. My husband, two daughters and I survived the shocking violence of Black July. Prior to the riots, we were living in Colombo for many years.

Early morning on July 25th, my husband’s co-workers at the Paper Corporation were shocked to find him at work. Given the violence they had witnessed on the streets, they urged him to return home immediately. He took the bus and picked up our youngest daughter at

the Holy Family Convent. As they tried to slip away from the violence swelling around them, a crowd yelled and pointed at him. “There goes a Tamil man! Catch him!” they yelled. Luckily, he was fluent in Sinhala and yelled back in Sinhala, “Where?! Where?! Where is this Tamil man?” They believed he was Sinhala and broke apart to find other Tamils.

By the time, they arrived at home. We could see smoke and fire ever increasing from the direction of Dehiwala. We changed quickly and planned to leave immediately. As we stood outside along with two other Tamil families, we realized that there is no possible escape. Tamil houses were being burnt lane by lane. Our lane was next. In the direction of Galle Road, we could see many trucks filled with men. Near the beach side, we heard that there was another big crowd.

As we stood in terror, a Muslim family came to our rescue. They took all the three families inside their home and hid us in their storage room. Everyone huddled and sat in silence even through the sounds of the mobs and the fire raging. After a few hours, the Muslim family returned. They explained that a group of men with petrol can and voters’ list on hand tried to verify with them whether Tamil people lived in our house. They answered that we were on vacation and that in fact they owned the house. They were able to save our house from being burnt however the houses of the two other families were burnt to the ground.

We returned to our house that night. However, our neighbor asked us not to turn on any of the lights and remain quiet until calm had returned to the city. If they found us, we knew the Muslim family and us would be in grave danger. The next day, our neighbours found us a Police jeep to escort us to the camp which was set up at the Hindu College.

When we arrived at the camp, we were shocked to find many of our good friends there as well. It was overcrowded with more than 16,000 Tamils from the Colombo 6 area. The families of doctors, teachers, lawyers, engineers, government officials and many well know businessmen took refuge on the grounds and in classrooms. Since houses were also targeted through night, many of them escaped with only their night gowns and sarongs. Through the support of external donations from Tamil businesses and volunteered services of the camp refugees, there was a single daily meal, medical services for the injured and maintenance of the toilets. We were on our own without any protection or assistance from the government.

On July 29th, Black Friday, most of the killings took place. Families from the camp went back to their house to collect any valuable possessions such as photos and passports. However, many never returned. One of our family’s friends and his son left early in the morning. As word spread of the maiming of Tamils on the streets and in buses, his wife ran to the gates and waited for them. Through the night and into the morning, she stood there looking intently out into the empty street. No one had the heart to pull her away and make her understand that they were probably killed as well.

After hearing many experiences of the other refugees and realizing the level of organization that was employed to execute the violence, the wide consensus was that Colombo was no longer a place for the Tamils. When forms arrived for transportation options to Jaffna, Batticalo or Trincomalee, we accepted to take a ship to Jaffna without a second thought about the livelihoods we had built in Colombo.

We were sent on a crowded cargo ship to Jaffna. Those who were inside the vessel hardly had any room to move about. Without fresh air, many were continually vomiting where they sat. Those who were on sitting on top of the vessel were being scorched under the summer sun and by the heat of the metal ground. After three days without food or any maintenance of the unsanitary conditions, the journey finally came to an end. Hundreds of Tamil volunteers waited to take care of us at the harbor in Jaffna.

After a few months, we sent our eldest daughter away to Zambia where she got married and worked as an accountant. To make ends met, my husband reluctantly moved back to Colombo and to take up his former job at the Paper Corporation. However, anxiety took over lives as we worried about each other’s safety. In 1986, we decided to stay together in Colombo. With escalating violence from the Sri Lankan Army in Colombo and the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Jaffna, we realized we needed to leave Sri Lanka. With an understanding of the growing prosperous Tamil community in Canada, our daughter applied for self sponsorship in 1990. Soon after, we applied as well.

As I think back, I am truly grateful especially to the Muslim family and Canada. We suffered only 14 days. However, many Tamils continue to suffer in Sri Lanka without food or shelter every day. It is quite unimaginable.

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