July 83 riots Sri Lanka – childhood memories


Mob barged in through the front gate just before lunch. Most of them armed with metal bars. I was too young to understand what was going on. I remember clinging to my father’s trouser leg asking what was going on. His calm “don’t worry putha its going to be all right” wasn’t very satisfying. A few minutes earlier he had told me to hide our guests’ things in the storeroom while he took the young couple with the baby to another room. I distinctly remember hiding the baby’s lidded cup among the paint tins.

Now was confronting the mob with a large jug of water. The mod overflowed from our drive way into the street. The stragglers shouting and beating the neighbours’ gates with sticks. I can’t remember what they were shouting about.

Their leader had messy hair and a big moustache. He demanded very roughly if there were Tamils in the house. My father rather casually told him there were none. Without missing a beat he offered the mob leader the water in the jug. Cold water on a hot day. The man looked surprised but accepted, washing his face in the process. Leaving a big puddle on the cement. I can’t remember anything else my father said to him. I think I must have been crying pretty badly at that point.

The week had started out well. My parents had miraculously decided not to send me to school. One unexpected holiday followed the next. I heard someone say they saw a body in the street which I thought was strange. A new word called “ker-few” was used a lot and it was important to get passes for it.

We had lots of people visiting for sleep overs. Quite a bit of excitement trying to organise spare bedding. I learnt to set-up my father’s old blue camping bed so that it won’t collapse several hours later. It seemed that most of our visitors were going to interesting places like England. But they didn’t seem excited about seeing snow.Most of our guest left in the morning but new people came nearly everyday. Usually one of my uncles dropped them off.

During the daytime my mother did a lot of shopping and went around delivering things we bought to some of her friends and our old neighbours at Summit Flats. She was out on one of her rounds when the mob came to our house.

One of the mob was sent to circle the house. I didn’t know where the couple and the baby were. Miraculously, the intruder didn’t go into the house and came back quite quickly. Perhaps it was all those Buddha statues in the house. I have no recollection of what my father did or said while the house was being inspected.

Suddenly the mob was gone and there was a lot of shouting coming from further down the lane. From the front gate I could see the mob throwing stones at an empty neighbours’ house. They beat down the front gate and charged inside. Over the yells I could hear things crashing and glass shattering.

Someone started shouting “Police! Police!”. The mob sprinted out of the house and down the road. A green Police jeep with a canvas top stop whizzed by a few moments later. Everyone was on the street running towards the house. I could see thick black smoke pouring out of the upstairs windows.

I remember rushing into the darkened siting room through broken front door with the rest of the crowd. Utterly curious. A lot of things had been smashed to pieces on the floor. A sofa was glowing red in the corner of the room. Someone poured a bucket of water over it followed by another. Somebody was telling the kids to get outside.

The whole neighbourhood seemed to be in the front garden. Buckets of water were being passed from the next door houses. We helped pass metal pails, plastic tubs, children’s beach buckets. I saw the neighbour who always drove his VW Beetle sedately climbing the on the roof top water tank with the agility of a monkey. I later heard that he managed to do something to the water supply that finally helped put out the fire.

I was not there to see it. The adults didn’t want kids around. I went home. Any fear I had washed away by the fire fighting. I expected to get a talking to about running barefoot in a place with a lot of broken glass. Instead I found my father was too busy on phone talking about “ker-few” passes. A car was on the way and I had to get our guest’s things.

I found the couple huddled in my parent’s bath room. The man was holding the sleeping baby. I just had enough time to dig out their suitcase and the baby’s bag by the time my uncle drove up with a foreign lady in the front. She had puffy red hair and her arms were very pink. We closed the front gates so no one could see our guests get in the back and crouch behind the front seat. My uncle drove off very fast – something he was good at and liked to do.

When my mother arrived I heard them having a frantic conversation. Something about our place and not being safe. They made more phone calls. We didn’t get any more visitor staying over. Of course they never explained any of it to me. Then or in the quarter century that passed. The only exception was an angry mutter from my father about someone down the road giving a tip off to the mob. I have not speculated what would have happened if the mob had searched the house.

The lasting image I have of that day is the sight of the baby’s lidded drinking cup hidden behind a paint tin and a cobweb draped Lion Larger bottle. Its happy reds and yellows with its care free cartoon characters utterly out of place. When ever I hear a festering asshole droning on claiming to justify ethnic/religious dominance/exclusivity, I see that cup in the dust. And feel I am having a personal encounter with a very human evil. It doesn’t matter if its a terrorist mouth piece or a democratically elected skin head – Hitler after all was elected. If that’s hard to swallow, choke on it.

Anyway I’ve written enough for one blog post. The writing was draining than I ever thought. David Blacker has a more readable and coherent piece on the 83 riots. At least the words are out of my head now. Which is a fantastic relief. Perhaps that will get met me out of this low point. Thank you for reading if you’ve bothered to make it this far.

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17 thoughts on “July 83 riots Sri Lanka – childhood memories

  1. I am happy for you and your family Cerno. It is good confirm that there are humans living among us beasts. I am sure that baby must have been told about you and your family as well. Your post and Davids gave me enough information so that I could feel it in my guts. Your parents are brave people!

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  2. Thank you Cerno.
    We need to be reminded and to remember. I was away from Sri Lanka when the riots began but flew back as soon as I could. The Air Lanka flight I joined in Paris to return to Colombo was nearly empty. The airline flight crew told us what to expect – but – the reality was horrendous. Check out Anoma Rajakaruna’s excellent exhibition that is on right now at the Alliance Francaise – it is superb.

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  3. Azrael: Totally with you on that. I think I got lucky not to see the violence in the streets or stuff like dead bodies.

    kalusudda: Thank you ๐Ÿ™‚ I never found out who that couple was or what became of them. I think by that time there were friends of friends of friends going through out place. Not sure how well my parents know of them either ๐Ÿ™‚ Not like my parents are any help digging up those stories. They know how to change the subject.

    Scrumpulicious: Didn’t know that my humble keyboard pecks had that effect ๐Ÿ˜ Thank you ๐Ÿ˜€

    Dominic: I never thought how it might be to see that violence as an adult ๐Ÿ˜ May be I should finally get around to asking my parents. Tends to drive my father into a rather depressing rant about the state of the country etc etc… I bet that ride from the airport must have been hell.

    Writing this and reading that comments has been oddly therapeutic. I have to admit a pride in what my parents did, and their calm under fire. Seems both David’ father and mine had to confront mobs with very little other than strengths of the their character. I just hope I don’t have to find out who I’ll do in their shoes. There weirdest part is how the memories have sort of coalesced around seemingly mundane details. I guess that’s how childhood memories inevitably fade till only the photographs are left.

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  4. Nice Post brother… I wasnt in Lanka during the sad and ugly side of our History.But, My parents were harassed for a while because, they hid most of the Jewelry of Tamil neigbhours under my former bed and some tamil friends also. I believe many good folks saved the day in Colombo that July ’83 while our so called politicians sat on there sorry behinds. Man, we used to go to Mullaitivu beaches, Palaly & Elephant Pass during the Summers in the late 70’s wow. People were nice, food was great but, pols & Govt. workers corrupt. But, it’s always some jerk of a politician, who for self interest and election crap, ruined it for all of us ! I really never forgave some of those baboons from the early 80’s who, totally blew it for all of us Lankans,. Now… that sucks, for all their self interest and ego.

    I while after Ananda while working in Downtown, was an officer in an Youth NGO. We brought these poor guys from far away to Colombo for conferences and events, so they can get a feel for a better life, carrier or educational opportunities ! After I left for College in the states, around 1990m,My parents told me the JVP came looking for me cuz, my former organisation were helping these poor guys get a better life ! So much for Charity HUH !

    Cerno mate, thanks man.. ya a good man ! May god bless ya !

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  5. chaarmax & Jack Point: Thank you ๐Ÿ™‚ good to hear that the writing is readable. Spent too much time tinkering with it to think it was any good. But had to get it out of my head.

    Rajarata: So true. Heard my father say something to that effect about pre 83 Sri Lanka. I can’t imagine what pre war Sri Lanka must have been like. I was too young to remember much of it. Thank you for the long comment. Sorry it about the delay for it to appear – got stuck in the spam filter.

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  6. Great post. I have similar memories of ’83. I distinctly remember, though I was also very small , how the so called” chandi” came shouting ,burnt the neighbor’s house and looted. Thank God the nice neighbor and the family had already left and are now doing very well in SL.

    I remember how we used to sleep in one room b’cos we were scared. My father was abroad and my mother was quite courageous I must say and said we were not hiding anyone though everyone knew we had a girl whom we hid in another neighbor’s toilet.

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  7. Because my mom was a Tamil, she and her family were forced out of their house while all of their books and pictures were burning in front of their eyes. They resorted in moving next door to a Sinhalese family’s house. They were nice and my mother recalls them housing many other Tamil families. She said that one day, the army was looking for her family and they went to their now burnt down house and had no clue that they were right next door. A baby was in the house and began to cry and they heard it and decided to check up on the house. When the Sinhalese family opened the door, they questioned them for about 10 minutes and had no idea that they were hiding Tamils in the back. To their fortune though, they had left and moved on. A week later, my mom’s family left Jaffna and went to a refugee camp. That was last time she and her family were ever near their childhood house. To this day, we have visual presentation of my mom’s and even my dad”s childhood because it is now all just ash laying on the floors of a burnt country.
    Thank you for writig something that I can really relate to.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your story. Very sorry, saddened (and at a loss for words) about what you went through. Glad you found what I wrote meaningful.

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