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 Post subject: ‘Black July' - 1983
 Post Posted: Sat Jul 29, 2006 2:43 am 
‘Black July' - 1983
We cannot afford to forget; We can never let it happen again

@ LL / July 2006

The ambush and killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna on July 23, 1983, triggered unprecedented violence in Sri Lanka in the week that followed. According to the Truth Commission Report of 2001, it is estimated that upto 3000 Tamils were killed, some of them burned alive, and thousands more injured. The records show that during the week that started from July 24, 1983 more than 18 000 properties were damaged including business establishments of the Tamil people which were previously identified and strategically looted and burned by the mob. However, it would be unfair to forget that the lives of so many Tamil were saved by Sinhala neighbours and friends, who in some cases endured physical injuries and damage to property in their refusal to allow injustice to take place.

Although communal violence is not a novel experience in Sri Lanka it had never occurred to the extent of July ‘83 and it is no longer a secret that state complacence if not involvement, allowed things to go as far as it did.
This event has stuck in our minds as the pivotal incident that plunged the entire country into a full fledged war.

It was not just the human death and property damage caused during the episodes but the mass exodus of affluent Tamil professionals to the West that seriously engendered the ethnic composition and the cosmopolitan nature of the capital city. Statistically there seems to be an increase in number of Tamil residents in Colombo today, but this is mainly due to the exodus of Tamils in Jaffna to the capital city in search of refuge.

Black July is an event that has gone down in history as one of the worst episodes of human rights violations which tarnished the image of Sri Lanka as a tropical paradise among the countries of the world.
More than two decades later we are a country still trying to live down the humiliation of being involved even in some small part in torturing a community of fellow human beings. Granted, though it has been the desire of the LTTE to provoke a similar response from the south in the years that followed, to date, their ploys have been unsuccessful – proving to some degree that such mass scale violence and hate crime could not be perpetuated on another community by the Sri Lankan people unless coerced into it by people with agendas.

The ambush and killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna on July 23, 1983,triggered unprecedented violence of black July in Sri Lanka. With the intention of preventing tension in the south, the government of the day initially decided to bury the dead soldiers in the north. Due to military objection, the decision was reversed and the bodies sent to Colombo. A mass burial at Borella – another monumental mistake – the agitation of the crowds gathered to mourn grew. It is hard to say what happened next. The official version is that the disgruntled relatives of the dead soldiers went on a rampage. More believable is the argument that a well organised mob, headed by extremists, allegedly given patronage by sections of the government, systematically targeted Tamils in Colombo.

For almost a week, the people of the Dhammadvipa, known for their broad smiles and love of peace went temporarily insane. In the midst of the brutal acts against fellow citizens there were many acts of courage and compassion, where many Tamils were saved by their Sinhala neighbours. But it was the terror unleashed that would shock the world, making headlines to scar the image of Sri Lanka for decades to come. Some wish to forget Black July. Some try to deny it ever happened. Others try to move on. Many of us still wonder why it had to happen at all…

Let me confess to my sins…

By Malinda Senevirantne

I remember the hot days of that July. I was playing in a chess tournament at the Borella YMBA when the father of one of the players broke the news of 13 soldiers having been killed. He predicted there would be trouble and the games were adjourned.

I was at a friend’s place in Nawinna, going over some A/L question papers, when someone broke the news: riots.

I was dropped back at Kirulapone. At several points the vehicle was stopped by mobs. Were we Sinhalese or Tamils, that’s all they wanted to find out. I walked home to Pamankade. We lived down a lane that was quite multi-ethnic. Three Sinhalese families, of which two were Buddhist, five Tamil families (one of these were South Indian Tamil) two Hindu, two Christian, two Burgher families, one Tamil-Burgher and one Muslim.
The mobs came. They were all from the shanty line along the canal.

There was no jaathiaalaya as far as I could see, although they did mutter enough of the ‘appropriate’ rhetoric. They looted. They threatened to kill people. They set fire to a house. I did what I could to help my neighbours. I tried to reason with the mob and gave up when one drunk thug pulled a knife on me. My brother and I, along with another boy down the lane and the driver of one of the neighbours, put out the fire. There were some 15 Tamils in our house that night. I remember my parents softly pondering the question ‘what if the mobs come here?’ and I remember them agreeing that it was not a question that merited consideration. The people in our house were our neighbours. That is all.

Years later I learnt that I was ‘guilty’. Years later people started confessing to theft, arson, assault and battery, torture, rape and murder, on my behalf! Years later, people started pleading for forgiveness for these crimes, again on my behalf! Years later, my children, both born in the 21st century, are thus accused, are required to confess, repent and ask for forgiveness.

July ’83 may mean all kinds of things to all kinds of people. Let them speak for themselves. To me, the killing of 13 soldiers caused much unease among Sinhala people and JRJ’s party thugs manipulated this unease and turned it into an anti-Tamil backlash. I have no moral objection to self-defence even when it involves using force to subdue an enemy who would not think twice of killing you and your family. Revenge, on the other hand, is something else altogether. Misplaced revenge, needless to say, is the worst kind of response and the option taken by the worst kind of coward. July ’83 saw much barbarity and barbarians, much cowards and cowardice. It was as much a ‘Green July’ as a ‘Black July,’ if you know what I mean.

I do know that Sinhalese were killed in predominantly Tamil areas. I do know that no one mourns those deaths. I do know that some 600 policemen were shot in cold blood by the LTTE, in the name of Tamil Liberation and that few Tamils would stand up and say ‘that was done by Tamils and I am ashamed, I confess the guilt of a community and I ask in the name of a community for forgiveness.’ I know that Tamils who are thus silent would not utter a word to dispute the claim that they are represented by the very same killers.

It does not matter. What matters is that Sinhala people, i.e. a community I identify with, killed a certain number of Tamils. If I claim to be a Sinhalese, if I am proud of the heritage, the culture, the civilisation, and other things associated with the collective identity ‘Sinhala,’ then I should also shudder at the things done in that name. I shudder.

I can’t ask Tamils to suffer an identity-conscious, shudder for the atrocities committed against the nation, the community, the history, etc., that I identify with. I shudder. I can ask people like Chandragupta Thenuwara and Jagath Weerasinghe (both artists, who are still suffering from a July ’83 angst and happily up their portfolios and profiles on account of this) how come they missed ’71 and ’88-’89, but I would be wasting my time. People made careers out of July ’83 and its commemoration; it has been read, misread, misrepresented, mourned, denied, apologised for, blown out of proportion, employed to justify all kinds of horrors which make the particular horrors of that year, that month, seem like a schoolyard quarrel. Yes, people made careers and that’s good. I still shudder.

I want to say sorry, I want to ask for forgiveness. I ask for forgiveness from academics, foreign experts, humanitarian agencies, and most of all Tamil people, for my inability to understand why they do not ask how the thousands of Tamils who did not die, did not in fact die in that fateful July, and why they’ve literally chosen to run away from a war no one wants and taken up residence among Sinhala people outside of the so-called traditional homelands.

I ask for forgiveness from the families of those 600 plus policemen who are never remembered, whose butchering did not warrant the butchers being conferred the kind of labelling that the Sinhala people were conferred with, not because such labelling is good (it is not!) but because July ’83 and its politicisation and aggrandisement has made it possible for other kinds of butchery to happen and slip into the wayside as irrelevant, incompetent or irresponsible. Please forgive me: I forgot to remember that day and that tragedy. Perhaps I’ve been made to forget, but that’s no excuse.

And the families of those who were killed, I must ask for their forgiveness. No, I am not guilty of your loved one’s death. I am guilty of something else: the fact that I did not intervene, did not prevent that unnecessary death. I am sorry, yes, but not because so many people were killed. I am sorry, simply, because I could not save each and every one of them. There is no shuddering here. Just guilt, for a crime of omission, not for want of will but for want of capacity.

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