By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 10 –
We now give the experience of an ordinary family in Colombo. V was then a 12-year-old girl living in a road off Allen Avenue, Dehiwela. Elder to her were two boys Arunan (24) and Ahilan (21). Her father was a registrar at the Supreme Court. Arunan was working for Suzuki Motorbike agents from where he participated in motor races held at Katukurunda and won prizes. Ahilan, who had studied at Royal College, got interested in a Left-leaning political group against his father’s wishes. But later the father too was sympathetic. On the 24th night, the atmosphere at home had been tense. Two of Ahilan’s friends came home and said that the Government is likely to unleash an attack on the Tamils the following day. They also knew about the incident in Jaffna the previous night and how UNP agents had been preparing themselves with voters’ lists. The father had possessed a shotgun from the time he had worked for the Irrigation Department in Kantalai. That night he took out the shotgun and cleaned it.
The next morning, V went to school in Wellawatte. About 9.30 AM, the Principal came to the Tamil medium classes and announced in a discreet voice that the school was being closed. She also advised the girls to remove their ‘Pottus’ and go home. The buses were still running and the Tamil shops were open for business as usual. V went home. Arunan who left for the work as usual with his father in the morning came rushing home around noon, and the father came about 1.30 PM without the motor bike on which he and Arunan used to travel to work together in the mornings. After about 5 minutes, Ahilan and two of his friends came home.
The father had been at Hulftsdorp when trouble had broken out. His colleagues had warned him not to go, but he had insisted on it. He came on his motorcycle accompanied by a police officer, and then sent the police officer back on his motorcycle. Ahilan’s friends had to return to Bambalapitya. The father asked Ahilan to go with them for a short distance.
About 2.30 PM a mob of about 50-100 arrived, mostly ruffians in shorts with long knives used to cut fish and clubs. V later learnt that they had come from Ratmalana in state- owned CTB buses. She also noticed two boys from the locality, one the nephew of a local tough and the other, the son of a bakery owner who used to sneer at her as a ‘Demali’ whenever he saw her on the road.
Soon, the mob was inside the premises and were banging on the door. Her father went out through the backdoor, climbed the back wall and fired thrice below the knees. One man was injured. The mob retreated. Some of them came around and managed to pull her father down into the adjoining compound. The last she saw of Arunan was when he was holding a small axe. She later learnt that Arunan had fought and injured one of the attackers before he was himself killed. Her father had been clubbed to death after which the mob had tried to burn him and only partially succeeded. V later recalled that her father had been rather excited, so that firing and reloading was not easy for him.
V, along with their domestic helper, a boy from Nawalapitiya, hid in the outside toilet. She had been seen. A man who appeared to be a leading person in the mob, though not as villainous looking as the others, came there, got V to come out, and told her, “I too have sisters, I will not harm you, go to Jaffna and do not come back”. Frightened and not knowing what had happened to her father and brothers, V went to the Dehiwela Police station where she knew her father used to know a police officer. She complained to them that a mob had come to attack her house and her family was in danger. The Police told her that they had just heard about it and had sent a vehicle. She then believed them, but later recalled that the policemen had been smiling.
She went back home to find nobody in the compound. The house had been broken into, but had apparently not been looted. She searched and called out for her father and brother, but to no avail. When V stepped out she saw a neighbour watching her. The Sinhalese neighbour told her that the mob had gone because they heard that she had gone to the Police, but would come back, and asked her not to be there. Just then V saw her father’s corpse with his hair partially burnt.
V decided to go back to the police station. But before she went far, a Sinhalese girl who studied in the A/Level class in the same school, with whom she had become acquainted, stopped her. Her family insisted that she stay with them until the situation improves before going to the Police. They later informed V, after visiting the site, that Arunan had also been killed and the security forces had come in the night, put the bodies into the house and burnt her house after they had completely looted it. She also learnt that Ahilan had come back, but had been stopped on the way by a few neighbours who advised him to leave for safety, as the others had done.
Since there was constant fear of the return of the mobs, V’s hosts asked her to stay inside. The lady of the house, a well-built woman, said that if the mobs step into her compound she would chop their legs off. After two days the lady noticed suspicious looking men watching the house probably after some rumour had been passed that they were hiding Tamils. That night the lady told V that if the thugs come in large numbers and forcibly enter the house she might not be able to manage, so she would take both V and the boy to her mother’s place in Kandy where they could stay until the situation returns to normal. “We might be able to find your other brother later and then see what can be done,” she said. V was unhappy about this idea because she was desperate to find her brother. She then suggested that she be taken to a Sinhalese friend of Arunan’s who lived near Thunmulla junction whom she had visited with her brother.
Early on Thursday morning, V’s host took them to the Sinhalese friend’s home in a van, where she found Ahilan who had also come in search of his family. He was accompanied by her cousin who too did not know where his family was. Ahilan was wearing frayed denim jeans and a red cotton shirt, which he had probably got at the refugee camp. Having heard about what had happened to his family, Ahilan did not cry, but bit his lower lip until it bled. The friend’s father who was a doctor in the US had come to Sri Lanka only a few days earlier on a holiday. He looked at Ahilan’s red shirt and denim trousers and asked him whether he were a Communist. He added, “You people get hammered because you go about dressed like Communists”. His son, Arunan’s friend, stood by looking embarrassed. The doctor then pressed a thousand rupee note into V’s hand, which she unsuccessfully tried to decline, and insisted on driving them to the refugee camp at the Bambalapitiya temple. By then Ahilan was actively involved in the running of the refugee camp along with his friends.
V later heard that the mob had also gone to another Tamil house down their road. But fortunately for them, their Muslim neighbours called them, and they managed to crawl through a patch of tall grass in the compound and escape to their neighbours’ unseen. But their house was looted and burnt.
Once in the refugee camp Ahilan asked their domestic help where he wanted to go – to Nawalapitiya or to Jaffna first. He chose the first and Ahilan found a family going to Nawalapitiya with whom he was sent home. The others went to Jaffna.
Subsequently Ahilan and his cousin became active members of the EPRLF. Ahilan drowned in 1986 while crossing the Palk Straits to India after an engine failure had caused the boat to overturn.
The tragedy of this family is not without its ironies which are connected with another tragedy of the Tamil people. Ahilan’s friend who also joined the EPRLF was later killed by another Tamil group – the LTTE – after it banned that group in December 1986. His younger brother was also killed by the LTTE in 1987. The only surviving member of that family is a girl who now lives in Switzerland. After a few years in Jaffna, when Eelam War II began in 1990, V and her mother came to Colombo. They renovated the house in Dehiwela and V’s mother chose to live there. However, whatever hopes there were that the Tamil people would attain freedom and dignity through this suffering were extinguished with the LTTE’s rise to totalitarian power over the Tamils.
Part four – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Cover Up
Part five – 30th July 1983: The Second Naxalite Plot
Part seven – Black July: Thondaman & Muttetuwegama
Part nine – Tamil Merchants In The Pettah – Post July 1983
*From Chapter 9 of Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To be continued..