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Sunthar Umasuthan

When I arrived for work as usual around 8:00 AM Monday July 25, 1983 there was an unusual gathering in the front lobby of my office in Slave Island, virtually in the heart of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city.

The frenzied talk was that violent mobs were attacking Tamil shops and houses in and around Colombo. Concerned at this racial eruption, something that had begun to plague Sri Lanka since 1956, our company decided to close the office for the day and advised all employees to get back home safely.

Left with the safest option under this circumstance, I decided to walk about six to seven kilometres back home. It was risky to go on any vehicles or by public transportation. I came to know the mobs were checking all the vehicles to attack Tamils.

On the way home I saw the mobs armed with iron rods and petrol cans torching cars, attacking people, looting shops and there were so many people carrying away things they had plundered and pillaged from Tamil shops and houses. Many of them were dancing in the street and it was a blood-curling experience to me.

I reached home, a rented unit in a house at Wellawatte by 11.00 AM. Some of the people sharing the house like me decided to move to their Muslim friend’s house nearby. Only three of us, all males were left in the house helplessly waiting as if for the worst to come. We had no place to go to at that very moment without taking a terrible risk.

We could see the flames in the air which indicated that houses in the immediate vicinity were burning. We were making our plans on how to escape when the arson-crazed looters came to our house.

About 25 mobsters jumped over the locked gates and forcefully entered into our house. When we heard the sound of the people, we ran behind the house and jumped over the fence and hid under bushes and banana trees. We waited there holding our lives in our hands.

If we were caught that would be the end of our stories. During this time, the house was looted of all the valuables. The doors, windows and furniture were all smashed up. We were fortunate they didn’t burn the house down; may be they ran short of petrol at that time.

In the morning we found our way to the refugee camp at Saraswathy Hall at Wellawatte, with only what we were wearing that night. I had lost all my valuables accumulated to that point of my life.

When we reached the camp, there were thousands of people with so many heart-rending stories of their own. Compared with theirs, I had lost nothing. Many had lost their loved ones brutally massacred and even their life’s savings. Apart from the killings, houses were burnt, hands were chopped off, legs broken and it was an endless litany of mob ruthlessness. All these happened within a day. And all these were happening in front of the police and the armed forces who were watching, without taking any action.

No one was arrested by the Sinhalese dominated police or armed forces, and no one was charged or punished at that time. More surprising was that the people who carried out these atrocities were not from that area. They came from far away places but still they were able to identify the Tamil houses without any difficulty. I heard later they had the electoral voting lists in their hands. It was evident the entire attack was meticulously planned and there was a political conspiracy to drive the Tamils out pr destroy them.

Political commentators later arrived at an observation that what was indeed planned was genocide against the Tamils.

I stayed in the camp for a few days. There were about five thousand refugees cramped in the small hall with one or two wash rooms only. I couldn’t get the chance to be on the first ship which left Colombo with the first batch of refugees to Jaffna, our traditional homeland. A week later, a Sinhalese partner from the firm I was working came to the camp and took me away. Thereafter, he helped me to go abroad on an official visit.

From that time my story took a different route through various countries and finally December 1988, I reached Canada my new home.

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