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Sinnathamby Markandu

My name is Sinnathamby Markandu. At the time, I was working as an Assistant Manager at the Indian Overseas Bank situated on Main Street Colombo. The incidents happened during those fateful days of July 1983 are still fresh in my memories. In hindsight, I was lucky because my family was in Jaffna at that time. I was staying at Slave-Island in the Saiva Munnetta Kazhagam building. Since I served as the Assistant Secretary of the Kazhagam, I had the privilege to stay there – a safer place located in a convenient and conducive environment with a Hindu temple, Ratna book stores, police station, bus stop, railway station all close by.

As usual, on Monday July 25th, I left for the bank. When traveling in the bus, I heard people talking about looting, burning and killings around the Colombo city. I also noticed that there was unusually few passengers on the bus and less traffic on the road. Since I heard the attack on the military convoy in Jaffna, I became restless and troubled. Since I also had experienced firsthand the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1958 and 1977, fear started to strike me. When I reached the bank, I heard the same story from the staff and customers who had come to the bank. Our bank was an Indian state owned and one of the leading banks in Sri Lanka at that time.

Around 11.30 am, there were rumours among the staff and customers that the violence erupted at Borella had spread to Maradana as well. By around 12 noon, we were able to see the smoke and fumes over the buildings in the Pettah area and along Norris Road. We realized what we heard in the morning was true. All the staff and the customers who were there in the bank were scared and got panicked. We were told that an angry mob was marching along the Gaswork Street and Main Street with sticks and bricks in their hands. We were horrified to see some shops in the Main Street were being attacked. Suddenly a mob of about 10 – 15 thugs entered our bank and ordered all the staff to leave the premises immediately. We were all in panic, running around to escape through the stairs. Finally the entire staff, except the 3 or 4 high ranking officials, managed to leave the bank. I remember that some Sinhalese staff gave protection to the high ranking officials who were still in the Bank. I saw people running screaming along the Main Street towards Sea Street and its surroundings. I, along with another good friend of mine who is in Canada now, walked towards St. Anthony's Church with the idea of taking shelter in the Church for a while. Suddenly it struck in my mind of our Deputy Manager, who is a Sri Lankan national of Indian origin. He is fluent in all three languages and lived near the Gintupitiya Hindu Temple. My friend and I decided to go to his house and stay there until his return from the bank. By the time we reached his house already, there were already 10 to 15 people from the Pettah area who had come there to take shelter. Later in the evening people known the Deputy Manager, started to come in. The Deputy Manager was gracious enough to accommodate all of them. Nearly 30 – 35 people stayed in that house for nearly two weeks.

On Tuesday, July 26th morning, we heard that our bank had been burnt down completely. Our deputy Manager rushed to see what had happened and the rest was shockingly sad news. There were several Indian establishments including the giant textile mills Hidramani were looted and burnt down. My friend and I stayed at the Deputy Manager’s house for 20 days as we were scared and reluctant to move out to a refugee camp. We witnessed and heard numerous horrific incidents during these days. We were looked after well. Pettah businesses people started providing food items to those who stayed in the house. The Bank Office being completely burnt down, the entire staff was left on the street. While we stayed there we heard that the riot was spreading in and around Colombo. Luckily not a single of our staff had lost his/her life in this riot.

As the Indian Overseas Bank was an (Indian) State owned, our security of service was guaranteed. The Management rented a new building in the Fort area and started functioning within 2 or 3 months. In Jaffna, my family continued to stay until the later part of 1983. In the following months after the riots subsided, the town of Jaffna started seeing the presence of security forces in large numbers and several security posts in and around the town. The people including young students also have started experiencing harassments and random arrests. The situation in the north, especially in Jaffna was very unstable and hence I decided to take my family to India during the latter part in 1983 mainly for my children's safety and education. It was blessing in disguise that I had worked for the Indian Financial Institution. I was able to get school admissions as well as housing accommodation through the Indian Overseas Bank Head Office in Chennai. I was lucky enough to get tremendous support from those people. After putting 38 years of service, I retired in 1990 and I am in the United Kingdom now.

For the third time in my life (the first during 1958, second during 1977 anti-Tamil pogrom), I had to face a horrifying experience. I recall all those terrible incidents that happened 25 years ago. The riots had left a deep wound in me. I still remember the protection our Sinhalese staff rendered to us during the difficult time. There are still many Sinhalese who feel that Tamils are being discriminated in their own country. Although I am far away from my country, my thoughts and heart are always with the unfortunate people who are leading a miserable life there.

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