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Vinotheeswaran Muthulingam

I was 22 years old at the time of the riots. On 1983, I was in Colombo, #75 IBC (International Buddhist Centre) Road, Wellawatte, Colombo 6.

In 1979, I had moved from my birthplace, Jaffna, to Colombo to work as a Wharf Clerk for A.P. Gordon & Co. I was living in the company owner’s house. He was also my father’s good friend. That morning, he said his driver would not come, that we had to go to the yard by ourselves. He said there was some problem in Jaffna, and it looked like there was a reaction to it in Colombo. As we started out, I could see all the stores burning in the road. It was at that time that I understood the seriousness of the situation.

After finishing the work at the garage, we were ready to go to the office, but the situation had become bad. Around 11 o'clock, we went by Kolanawa Rd to Dematagoda. But the Petroleum Corporation road was closed, so we had to find another way to get in. As we decided to head back to the yard, we saw a burning lorry in front of us. In addition, a bus was stopped and passengers were being interrogated. As we were passing them, a group of men stopped us. They told us all to get down and took away the car keys.

At that time, I had a beard and looked quite different. People could not tell whether I was Tamil. "You're a Sinhala, get down," they told me. Then they went on to my boss. He was known to them. They came saying his name, "Hello, Mr Ponnambalam mahattaya," and one of them got into the driver's seat. They broke his briefcase, and took all of his documents, his cash and checks. I was standing outside, away from the car. Then they asked me, "He's a Tamil, isn't he?" I said, "Yes, he is Tamil, but not from Jaffna." I had to lie. We were both from Jaffna. I couldn't say much, because if I missed a word or mispronounced it, they would take me too. My boss had given donations to the local Pansala (Buddhist temple) and in recognition they had wrote him letters of appreciation. Luckily, these letters were in his briefcase. When they saw that, they did not know what to do. Finally, they decided let him go. To this day, the words – You are Sinhala- still resonate in my mind.

We returned to the garage. There was tension everywhere- in their thoughts, views and speech. Everything was different. In a little while, a big group came inside. They ransacked and took everything. I was standing outside, watching what was happening. Ranji, a bus conductor who had worked for us before, came to the yard. When he came in, they took the cash from his pockets and everything from his briefcase. At the same time, Wellampitiya police station was less than 150 metres away. An inspector came in a jeep, and parked it at the entrance. As soon as the police officers came, the looters ran away and jumped the fence. They told us, "You shouldn't be here. Everyone please go to the station." So then my boss, another lady and I all went to the station, following by the jeep by car. Half an hour later, we saw smoke rising from the garage. It was visible from the station. Everything was burning. Then the rest of the people came and joined us at the station.

However, on the second day, we felt that the police station was not safe, as it was a small station in a primarily Sinhalese area. A bus took us to the Rajagiriya President's College, and many of us took refuge there. We had limited facilities. Though the building was filled to maximum capacity, people continued to flow in. Without rooms, they had sleep out on the grounds.

On the fifth day, people were saying that the Tigers had come to Colombo, and there was a reaction in the Pettah. Only four or five officies stood on guard to protect us. For a little time, we had peace, but then the passing vehicles on the road from Rajagiriya up to Borella were turning and coming back. Without a radio, we had little news and didn't know anything about what was happening. On both sides of the road, we could hear them shouting, "Jaya wewa, jaya wewa!" and carrying weapons in their hands.

Staying close to the floor, we could hear the shouting coming closer to us. An officer went to the front and fired above. As we peaked up, we could see the officier walking up to them and telling them they must not come in. On the other side, we heard a shot. Everyone turned around to look. On the right side of the school, coming from the junction, a dump truck had turned over because a soldier shot the tire. After that, things calmed down, but we felt very tense.

We were there in Rajagiriya for five days. The school was built on open grounds, and people couldn't do much to guard it. We were told it wasn't safe, so they transferred us to a Sinhala school in Colombo 5. We were there for another three days. We heard stories from others that people were taking cars, covering them in petrol, and setting fire to them. These stories that we heard brought terror to our minds and hearts.

On the ninth day, I went back to my boss’ house. I don't know what happened in those nine days, and I did not ask them. Although all of the surrounding houses had been burned, his house was untouched. It was located right in front of an International Buddhist temple where they went daily to pray. I think this is why it was spared.

On the 15th day, I started my work at the harbour, as soon as the situation began to normalize. I did not get a chance to leave the country immediately after the riots, but I knew it was not safe to remain in Colombo. I could not stay there.

I first went to Saudi in 1984. After nine years of working, I got married in Sri Lanka, but we knew we could not stay in Jaffna. So we returned to Colombo, and I took a job in my field. But things were difficult. At the harbour, every officer would ask to see my identity card. When they saw that it was from Jaffna, I was treated differently. I couldn't accept this. At checkpoints they would search us carefully; go through our belongings; open the petrol tank to look inside; look under the car. We were treated differently every day.

One day, after arriving at my friend’s house late in the night, they arrested me and took me without any charges. They also took my friend. We were then taken to his friend's house and arrested him as well. They took all three of us to the station. The case went on for almost a year and half. In the end, they closed the case. The documents told us, in Sinhala, that we had to pay the government a fine. However, I still do not know the charges. The case had affected my work, and my status-- it became clear that there would not be any stability in my work and life. I finally decided to leave.

My brother had already come here to Canada. I told him that I couldn't stay here anymore and he helped get out. I came to Canada in April 2000. I chose to come to Canada because it is a safe and peaceful country. That was the main reason. Having been affected by the war and communal troubles, I was looking for a country without such problems.

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