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Vanessa Nanthakumaran

My escape from the events of Black July and incidents in the subsequent days, months and years were dreadful; I am very fortunate to live to tell this ordeal.

One sunny Sunday, July the 24th 1983, our Sinhala landlord was speaking to his relatives about the tension in Colombo after an attack on SLA by Tamil militants. But when I asked the facts, they vacillated to tell me because of their safety. The ambience was very quiet and eerie in and around the house. I sensed something very bad was going to happen and didn’t covet to turn the radio on or get out of the house. The following day, the 25th of July 1983, I got ready and went to catch the bus as usual. After I got on, Tamil passengers and I were confronted by a group of Sinhala passengers. They were calling us Kottiya(tiger) and terrorist. As they tried to attack us with an iron bar and other sharp metal objects, Sinhalese girls, who regularly travelled with me, quickly shoved me under the seat. I didn’t want to come out as condition got most unpleasant. I was crying and the bus began moving slowly albeit the attacks in and around the bus. I could see some more thugs got in the bus from one diminutive gap. They removed a gold ring, chain and a wrist watch from a Tamil man and ripped his clothes off. I could hear some Tamils were begging for their life by giving away money. In return, they were kicked out of the bus however I do not know what had happened to them.

The mob was asking if any more Tamils were on the bus, then girls said, “No!” As they got off, I came out of hiding only to witness appalling scenes outside where people were being beaten; houses being burnt; petrol being poured onto Tamil men before being burnt alive. I was completely numb. I was shivering at the thought of what would happen to me. I decided to ask the Sinhalese girls to aid me to get to my work place. They rubbed off my pottu (small red or black round dot worn by Hindu women on their forehead), advised me to take the jewels off and keep them in the bag. We started on foot and got there three hours later. There, it was the same situation and some Sinhalese staff was petrifying us. We couldn’t get out because of continuous attacks. A few of us locked ourselves in the lunch room. We had no time to waste. We decided to pretend as Muslims by putting the headpiece of our sarees over our heads and leap out of the window to the main street.

We set out on foot again. We went passed all the mobs. They were preventing the vehicles from moving which they stole fuel from the cars to raze the commercial establishments, schools and temples. We toddled the distance of three miles with mass crowd of predominantly Sinhalese and Muslims. Nearly everyone in the mob had iron rods, swards and broken glasses. Some were asking moving people to show their identity cards so that they can find out who were disguising their identity. In that mix-up, I got separated from my aids and without showing any swing or faint-hearted feeling I started walking towards my uncle’s house which was the nearest to reach. I was so faintish and stopped to take the weight off my feet merely to glimpse at a truck full of Army cheering up all the thugs and assisting them with looting the shops. It was with great difficulty that I began walking again. In the end I got to my uncle’s house. I was really dump struck to see two or three people were set on fire live using petrol and old rubber tires.

I felt some relieve that I survived but for how long ? Two of my cousins and I were hiding in the kitchen but couldn’t guzzle anything. No respite, and no sleep. We listened to the BBC world service in the night and sobbed to hear that some Tamil prisoners eyes were stabbed and had their eyeballs were pulled out. Also their limbs were severed. As well, we heard that arrangements for the Tamils to gather in refugee camps. So we went to Kathiresan Temple in Bambalapitiya two miles from my uncle’s house. Much of the people had similar stories to share. Meantime, my family in Jaffna didn’t have a clue where I was. They came to conclusion that something dreadful had happened to me. I managed to send a message through ICRC in Colombo. After that I had to vacate the camp and went to my uncle’s work place in Kotmale where a ministerial level security prevailed. I stayed there till November 1983 and applied for a passport to escape the teardrop island as tension prevailed within the city.

Since that genocide, I faced many setbacks in my college life and work life. The worst situation was when my home town, Jaffna, was declared a security zone. My family lost their properties to the government security forces and was forced to leave the town to live in the nearby suburban area. In 1984 and 1985, the government assembled vigilant groups and they were responsible for some of the worst atrocities during the violence. Although Colombo remained calm, there was widespread tension in nearby towns. On the 22nd of May 1985, my bro-in-law left his business and went to Jaffna taking the Trincomale route. Later that night, I was informed by my sister that he has been taken into custody between Vavuniya and Habarane and was warned that government forces were looking for people linked with him. Continuously, I was terrified and thus made my mind up to leave the country. I didn’t have sufficient time to plan a proper journey and had no time to worry about my dignified job. I terminated my studies and left the country to escape the arbitrary arrests, unacknowledged detentions, disappearances, rape of women and extra judicial killings.

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