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Harini Sivalingam - Sometime in July

My story of Black July is different from most. It is not a story of survival from an insider’s perspective, but rather that of escape from an outsider’s perspective. It comes from a point of privilege, for my family and I were mere tourist in our own homeland during that time. We were privileged in the sense that we were able to leave Sri Lanka and return to the safety and comfort of our home in Canada. My father had immigrated to Canada in 1966, and having married my mother in Sri Lanka, he sponsored her to Canada in 1971. My sister and I were both born in Canada. Yet, my family was still attached to their native homeland. We went back to visit family and friends almost every other year,that is until 1983 which would become our last family trip to our homeland.

What I remember most vividly were the events that preceded what would become to be known as “Black July”. At the time, my mother, sister and I were visiting relatives in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. The school year had come to an end and summer vacation was just about to start. I was four years old, and my sister was about to turn 10. My dad was still in Canada working, and he would have joined us later in July except events occurred that prevented this from happening. We were all staying at my grandfather’s house in the small village on the Jaffna peninsula where both my parents grew up. This was my second-time “going back home”. I had been to Jaffna once before for my 3rd birthday, but this would prove to be a life changing experience and my last childhood trip to my homeland.

Throughout most of the summer I had a great time playing with my cousins, enjoying the warm tropical like weather and being cycled around town on the back of bikes driven by various male relatives. While on one of those bike rides with an uncle, sometime in mid July, we came across a procession of people on the street just ahead of us. We stopped, and I watched in amazement as people holding signs and chanting in Tamil slogans that I didn’t understand marched past us. Then, I saw something that would never fade from my memory. Someone lit an edifice on fire. I was horrified. At four years old, I thought that someone was actually being set on fire in front of my very eyes. I had many questions running through my head. How could anyone set another human being on fire like that? How could someone hate another person that much? My uncle quickly reassured me that it was in fact not a real person, but a “scarecrow”. This was only mildly comforting information. It was many years later as an adult that I would come to realize that a few days later, in the capital city of Colombo, thousands of Tamils were indeed set on fire and burned alive in this very manner. Only it wasn’t “scarecrows” but real actual people, with families and loved ones. This horrific time period would become known as “Black July”. It was also later on as an adult that I would come to know what these people were protesting. A few young Tamil schools girls had been raped by the army soldiers and Tamils in the surrounding areas were in an uproar that this incident had taken place and that the army officials responsible had not been held accountable.

As we went home, my repeated questions continued to bombard my uncle. My uncle explained to me how badly the Tamil minorities were being treated by the Sri Lankan government. He told me about the discrimination that he and his friends experienced in school and at work. He also told me that one of the reasons that my own father had left Sri Lanka to come to Canada was because in order to get a decent job in Sri Lanka he would have been forced to learn Sinhalese. I listened intently, as the images of that afternoon were burned into my memory.

A few days later, another memory would stand out fresh in my mind. I was playing outside my grandfather’s house, when my grandmother and mother came running frantically out of the house calling my name. As usual I was outside playing and my grandmother grabbed me and took me to the bushes behind the house. We were told to stay down there and not to say a word. At first I thought this was a cool new way to play hide and seek. But soon, I realized that this was no game.

Our village, was next to an army camp, and apparently a group of soldiers from the nearby army camp were marching down the street in our area. They were shooting randomly around our village, and several people were injured as a result. A few of my uncles tried to attend to those that were injured and take them to a nearby hospital, but that proved to be too dangerous.

My grandparents, my uncle, my mother and I were hiding in the bushes behind our house for several hours in the intense tropical heat. It was a difficult task keeping me quite. We only had a few bottles of juice to keep us hydrated. My grandmother also began to worry about my sister, who had gone on a bike ride to the store with an uncle. We waited hours for her to return. Everyone was frantic that my sister was out there somewhere around town with all of this chaos occurring. My sister eventually returned home safely with my uncle, but the long absence caused fear and terror amongst the household, especially my grandmother.

A few days later, as news spread about the anti-Tamil riots taking place in Colombo, everyone began to panic. Our relatives were worried about getting us back to Canada safely. My mom was worried about my dad who was supposed to be joining us on our vacation. Meanwhile my dad was frantic in Canada worried about the safety of his wife and children. It was determined that it was no longer safe for us to be in Jaffna, yet, the situation for Tamils in Colombo was even worse. My sister and I were locked up inside the house. We were not allowed to go outside as the elders felt it was too dangerous for us. It felt as if we were prisoners in our own home.

Upon hearing of the anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka, my father immediately contacted the Canadian External Affairs Department and informed them that Canadian Citizens were trapped in Sri Lanka, during this crisis. The Canadian officials at External Affairs took immediate action to try to locate us. Unfortunately it was very difficult to communicate to anyone in Sri Lankaa during that time. However, this did not deter the Canadian government from trying to locate us. Canadian officials used every available means to trace us. Finally, they were able to get in touch with someone who worked at a CIDA funded project at Jaffna Hospital, who was able to send a message to my family to contact them. My mother contacted them through a phone exchange, as we had no landline in the house we were living in. We were told to come immediately to Colombo and contact the Canadian High Commission there. We were only allowed to bring one baggage with us, and we took a local flight from Jaffna to Ratmalana airport in Colombo where we were met by someone from the Canadian High Commission. They immediately escorted us to the international airport to get a commercial flight back to Canada. The very kind and compassionate officials from the High Commission office stayed with us until we got safely onto the plane headed back to Toronto. My father was in constant communication with Canadian officials who were updating him about our status. Our family will never forget the hospitality and kindness of all the Canadian officials involved in assisting us to flee the violence in Sri Lanka.

As the plane took off from Sri Lanka, from the comfort and safety of the plane, I looked out the window and down at the country of my parents’ birth. Perhaps I just imagined it, but from way up in the sky, the tiny island nation of Sri Lanka, looked just like a tear drop in the ocean. At that moment, I tear escaped my own eye, as I wondered when I would come back to this country and see my grandfather again, or play with my cousins, or get another ride to the store on the back of my uncle’s bike.

Little did I know that events that occurred in July, 1983 would drastically change the lives of millions of Tamils from the North and East. Over the years, millions of tears have been shed for loved ones lost due to 25 years of ethnic armed conflict. My experiences as a bystander of Black July pale in comparison to the stories of the thousands who directly experienced the brutality of the pogroms; those who were killed, had their homes set on fire, and lost their loved ones. “Black July” is a horrific event that is still fresh in the collective conscience of the Tamil people. We will remember those dark days, each year, sometime in July.

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