Lanka's darkest hours
Exactly 29 years ago on 23 July 1983, Sri Lanka recorded its darkest hours of communal shame.
It began when violence was unleashed upon Tamils living in Colombo and elsewhere following the killing of 13 soldiers in Tirunelvely, Jaffna by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Estimates vary about the deaths and destruction, but it is believed, around 3,000 Tamil civilians were killed within a span of just 10 days. Tens of thousands of houses were destroyed, along with it, some of the prime Tamil-owned businesses ranging from jewellery to textile shops, to cinemas.
It was the ‘Black July’ of 1983 that set the tone for Sri Lankan Tamils to flee the country and drove the point home that their original homeland was no longer a safe place to live in. It rendered thousands of Sri Lankans refugees, caused the relocation of Tamil-owned businesses and relegated the Tamil political identity to a lower status.
‘Black July’ 1983 also fuelled the beginning of full-scale armed violence that also saw the proliferation of Tamil militancy.
In these pages we recall the horrors of yesteryear and record our lessons learnt, presented through the eyes of survivors, military officers, former Tamil militants and our staff writers.
Surviving murder in prison
By Gagani Weerakoon
Kathiravelu Nithyananda Devananda, was in the cell facing the gallows of Welikada Prison when he heard the commotion outside the prison walls on 25 July 1983, just two days after the infamous Black July began.
“We did not know what was happening at the time, and I was watching the commotion taking place on the road outside the prison premises. That was before they actually came in. I do not want to go into the details of harassment unleashed on the Tamil prisoners by Sinhalese extremist prisoners with the complete blessings of prison officials,” Nithyananda who is now known as Douglas Devananda recalled.
He took the name Douglas during his affiliation with the group, Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS). While recalling dark memories, Devananda was a bit hesitant to relate all the details of what happened during the two or three days that made life behind bars a near encounter with death.
“What was done was done, and we should let bygones be bygones. If I go into detail as to what exactly happened it will cause some unrest. Whatever calm that prevails in the country at the moment should not be disturbed. What we should do is to learn from the past and move on,” he said.
Devananda was arrested twice in the 1980s under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and was held in various prisons in the country. At the time of Black July 1983, he was imprisoned again after a bank robbery at Thirukkovil.
“On 25 and 27 July 1983, around 53 Tamil prisoners were massacred by Sinhalese prisoners. Some of the prominent figures among the rioting Sinhalese prisoners included Sepala Ekanayaka who was involved in the infamous aircraft hijack incident. I along with 27 other Tamil prisoners survived the riots,” Devananda said, while noting he was transferred to the Batticaloa Prison along with other survivors later on.
He said, as he remembers, Kuttimani Yogachandran, N. Thangathurai, Muthukumar Srikumar, Gnanamuttu Navaratnasingham , Philip Amirthanayagam and Kandiah Rajendran (Robert) were some of the Tamil prisoners who were massacred during the prison riots. Some 41 Tamil political prisoners including Devananda escaped from the Batticaloa Prison on 27 September 1983. He fled to Tamil Nadu in India.
The rest is history.
God's own paddy field where it all began
Many Tamils who recall horror stories of the July 1983 riots lived in Colombo at the time. This was where the worst atrocities were committed. In Jaffna, however, where Tamils were the majority, not much violence is related. I, being a native of Thirunelvely, Jaffna where it all started, come from one of the very few families who do relate it.
Thirunelvely is a little town in the Jaffna District and some believe, the name translates to ‘God's-paddy-field.’ It was in Thirunelvely, just about half a kilometre from my home where the LTTE killed an Army Patrol, setting off the subsequent violence. When the soldiers’ bodies were brought to Colombo, it set off the riots.
I was just a two-year-old at that time, and have no memory of those events. But my mother, who was in an advanced state of pregnancy with my sister then, often recalls it with horror. As such, it is an event that is part of my psyche; something I often heard while growing up in the country my parents had relocated to, post riots.
Both my parents had grown up in Sri Lanka and dearly loved their home country. But 1983 convinced them that the country, even the mainland of Jaffna, was not a safe place for Tamils.
Here in her own words is my mother’s recollection of events, that fateful night and subsequently, in Thirunelvely, Jaffna:
That fateful night
“I was eight months pregnant in July 1983. It was my third child and a difficult pregnancy; doctors had warned me not to do anything strenuous or worry unnecessarily. The worry part of it came because my husband had recently gone abroad to work. He was a local school teacher and his salary simply wasn’t enough to support our growing family.
So, five months earlier when I was just three months pregnant, he had gone to the Maldives as the pay was slightly better there. I lived with my old parents and unmarried sister, along with my two young children.
My worries then were simply that of any ordinary housewife; taking care of two very young rambunctious children; raising them more or less alone because my husband was away; worries about money.
The Jaffna I had grown up in was quite peaceful and idyllic. Tensions had officially started with the growth of militancy in 1977, and as at 1983 we were still having regular problems like the rest of the country.
I was deeply asleep that fateful night of 23 July, when I was woken up by my sister at midnight. Then I heard it. Explosive sounds like firecrackers going on and on! It carried on for quite some time. We didn’t know what was happening, but we were very frightened as we knew of the escalating tension between the militants and the army.
Subsequently, all those sounds – shells, bombs, gunfire – became very familiar to our ears, but this was in the beginning when such noises weren’t the norm, and it was terrifying.
There were not many telephones in the area – we didn’t have one. Each house stood on quite a few perches of land, so the neighbours were not within calling distance. We didn’t have the comfort of coming out of our houses and grouping together to know what to do.
The militants had a habit of doing something to the army such as lobbying grenades at them and then running away, usually through the back winding lanes and over house walls. Residents of those houses would have had nothing to do with it, but the army in hot pursuit was known to fire indiscriminately. Quite a few home owners had been fired at, when the army pursued the ‘boys’ by jumping over private property walls.
As such, people thought it was dangerous to be in the house when firing was heard and generally ran out, usually into some back lanes, which our Jaffna villages are full of. It was the general belief that the army was familiar only with the main roads and so people – and the militants – used the minor dirt lanes to escape trouble.
On that night, my family too decided to follow the same policy. But I was terrified. The night was pitch-black. The electricity had suddenly gone out and it was months before power was restored. We didn’t have torches or candles (we learnt to equip ourselves with these essentials only later).
My daughter was a two-year-old kid, and whimpering. Her brother, an inquisitive four-year-old, was as usual demanding in his characteristic squeaky breathless voice to know what was happening. “What is that noise? Why is it not stopping? Why has the electricity gone? Why are the dogs howling?”
As if the racket from the grenades and gunfire were not enough, all the neighbourhood dogs were howling fearfully. To this day, I don’t like to spend nights in Jaffna, because if some dog takes it into its head to start howling, I wake up with the same panic I felt that day. Those are the memories I’d rather forget.
My 73-year-old father and I were so frightened that we didn’t run out to the back lanes immediately. Much to the anxious dismay of my mother and sister, we kept going to the bathroom again and again, sometimes knocking at the door, yelling at the other to come out soon. The fear had loosened our bowels. We were unable to run, much less walk anywhere.
The thoughts going on in our heads were, “We might be gunned down at any minute now” and it didn’t help that my father and I were holding all the others up as well. Eventually, however, we did sneak out the back door into a lane and walked nearly a mile into the interior to get to a relative’s house.
We stayed there the next few days, because it was over those days that the violence occurred. We were one of the lucky ones to escape unscathed. Quite a few people we knew were killed.
In revenge, the army came, firing into homes in Thirunelvely. Families at home as well as people escaping in the lanes were shot. I still remember a wealthy old gentleman, going around begging people for money, dressed in spotless white veshti and shirt. He became a regular feature in the neighbourhood after that incident. His only child’s death caused him to lose his senses. I knew of many tragedies, but this was something that never failed to hurt me – the sight of that wealthy and venerable – looking man going begging from house to house – 25 cents, that was all he ever asked for. “Give me 25 cents. My only son is dead.”
Apparently, the parents had told the son, a good-looking and intelligent young man of whom they were very proud, to run for dear life, choosing to stay back themselves as they were too old. The boy was shot down, round the corner from his house, while the parents back home stayed safe.
In the Maldives meanwhile, my husband, just 42 years old, had to be hospitalized when he heard of the riots. He had wanted to take the next plane out to Colombo but his friends had hidden all his money and passport to prevent it. “Of what use is your going into that mayhem? If anything has happened/is happening to your family, you are not going to prevent it by going there, so stay safe here.”
Unable to reach us as we didn’t have a telephone and unable to come to us he developed high blood pressure, fainted and had to be hospitalized. He has had to take medication for blood pressure ever since.
It was nearly two weeks before we managed to contact him to tell him we were all right. He returned home in December and the following year, the entire family went to stay with him in the Maldives. The Sri Lanka we have grown up in had changed beyond recognition. It was time to go.”
– An eyewitness from Tirunelvely
Setting the stage in Palaly
With a remarkable increase in subversive activities in the Northern Peninsula, commencing with the killing of the Mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappa on 14 May 1976, the then government introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act on 15 July 1979.
With this, the President appointed Gen. T.I. Weeratunga, then Brigadier, as the Commander of the Security Forces deployed in the North. He was assigned to clear Jaffna of terrorism by 31 December 1979. His Operations HQ was established at Gurunagar and Maj. Gen. D.L. Kobbekaduwa, then Lt. Col, was the Director Operations.
Towards the latter part of 1981, there were nine major Tamil terrorist organizations in the country. Ironically, the LTTE wasn’t included in the list. Prior to the July 1983 riots, killing incidents were few and far between.
On 15 October 1981, the day Brig. Weeratunge was promoted to the rank of Major General and became Commander of the Sri Lanka Army; two soldiers, Pioneer Tissera and Pte. Hewawasam of work service were killed in Jaffna.
And on 22 October 1981, Sgt. Wijeweera was killed in the infamous Kilinochchi bank robbery.
13 February 1982, Corp. Abeyrathne Bandara from Armoured Company was killed.
By 1983, the LTTE had gained recognition as the most active separatist terrorist group in the North. The government declared the Local Government elections in the North to be held on 18 May 1983 and the LTTE ordered the political groups to boycott the elections. Three candidates, K.V. Rathnasingham, S.J. Muththaiah, and V.Rajarthnam, who did submit their nomination papers, were murdered by the LTTE on 23 April 1983. This situation compelled the government to provide army protection to the polling booths.
On 1 June 1983, an Air Force jeep was ambushed in Vavuniya, killing five Airmen.
This was all done by the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and orchestrated by Uma Maheswaran. None of the killings received much publicity and there was no reason for civilians to be provoked.
These events led to the decision to deploy a full battalion at a time, on rotation basis in Jaffna for operational duties for a term of six months instead of deploying Rifle Coys (companies) from different units.
Enter SL Light Infantry
On 17 July 1983, the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (1/SLLI) took over Operational duties in the North from 1/SR, SR standing for the well-known Sinha Regiment.
The SLLI deployed Alpha company (A. Coy) in Mannar, with Maj. S.H. Kottegoda, Bravo company (B.Coy) in Palaly with Capt. D. Rathnasabapathy, Charlie company (C. Coy) in Madagal with Maj. R.M.R.B. Rathnayaka and Delta company (D. Coy) at Elephant Pass with Maj. C.L. Wijayarathna.
The Battalion HQ, HQ Coy and the Support Coy were deployed at Palaly. Battalion Commander was Lt. Col. Upali Karunarathne. Narada Wickramathne was the Second-in-Command and I took over duties as the Adjutant of 1/SLLI from Capt. C.K.G. Punchihewa on 22 July 1983, in addition to my appointment as the Intelligence Officer of the Battalion.
On 23 July 1983, the routine patrol was assigned to the Charlie company, based in Madagal. The patrol was sent to Gurunagar to be briefed by the intelligence officer on patrol duties and the route assigned to them for the night. It comprised of 2nd Lt. A.P.N.C. de Vass Gunawardena and 14 soldiers. The route they were to take was Gurunagar to Madagal via Jaffna city, Nallur, Koppay, Urumpirai, Tirunelvely, Kondavil, and back to Madagal.
Call sign of patrol was Four Four Bravo. They were specifically advised by the briefing officer at Gurunagar SF HQ to return to base by 12 midnight because there was intelligence to say that the LTTE was planning for an ambush on an army patrol during this time.
I was monitoring the progress of the patrols sent out by all the companies of the Battalion, from the Palaly Operations Room. It was 11:30 p.m. when I last conversed with patrol commander 2nd Lt. Vass Gunawardena who was near the Kondavil bus depot at the time.
By half-past midnight, the patrol had not returned to company in Madagal. When I informed this to my Commanding Officer, I was instructed to send out a search patrol. I briefed 2nd Lt. Rajiva Weerasinghe and asked him to go in search of the patrol. At the same time, my Commanding Officer ordered me to take out a patrol and search along the same route as Weerasinghe—Palaly-Vasavilan-Kondavil-Tirunelvely-Urumpirai and Gurunagar.
I was planning to return from Jaffna and go to Madagal when I was informed by 2nd Lt. Weerasinghe that Lance Corporal Perera R.A.U. was found with gunshot injuries to both his legs at the Kondavil bus depot.
I immediately proceeded to that place and with 2nd Lt. Weerasinghe, Lance Corporal Perera R.A.U. told us of being ambushed at the Kondavil bus depot.
The power lines at the Tirunelvely junction were cut down and dead bodies were on either side of the road.
Vass Gunewardena’s jeep was found near a by road, and inside the lane I saw a dead body. I flashed the torch light and discovered it was Vass Gunewardena. The truck having caught to a land mine was about 30-40 metres behind the jeep. A leader of the LTTE, Sellakkili, lay killed by a bullet he had received while staying on top of the bus halt.
Of the original patrol, only two survived, Lance Corporals Perera R.A.U. and L/Cpl Sumathipala I.H.
The following day, 24 July, about 63 soldiers from B coy, who were emotionally moved by the incident ran out of camp from Palaly and went berserk and started setting fire to houses in front of the location of the ambush site. However, the army has come a long way since then in military discipline.
My Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Upali Karunaratne and I immediately went to the location and brought the situation under control. In the mean time, Jaffna Commander Brigadier L. Balthazaar visited the location.
Detained and sacked
Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, General T.I. Weeratunge who was in Diyathalawa at that time, flew to the scene and ordered all the soldiers who ran amok to be taken into custody and be detained at Anuradhapura Prison. I took them in a truck with Sgt. Nugawela of Corps Ceylon Military Police (CCMP). Later, all the soldiers who were involved in this act were sacked.
By the same evening, the bodies of the 13 slain soldiers were flown to Colombo for a discreet burial. Initially, the government had pressured for a mass burial in Palaly, but General Weeratunge insisted that the bodies must be handed over to the next of kin.
The earlier killing incidents were few and nobody was talking about the Tamil Police officers including Inspector Bastianpillai, who had been killed. Thirteen killings however was a big number.
They were to be buried in a mass grave at the Borella Cemetery and their relatives who were informed through respective police stations had arrived in busloads. Had the bodies been sent separately to each village, it would have prevented crowds from gathering at one single location, fuelling their emotions, further. However, in Colombo, the local police couldn’t handle the situation of the instigations of the politically motivated gatherings.
I would say the biggest mistake the government did was to bury the bodies in Colombo. To date we regret the decision and the black mark Sri Lanka earned following the mass burials, the infamous and regrettable July 1983 riots.
They set ablaze our houses
By Gagani Weerakoon
Leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), Veerasingham Anandasangaree is known for his denouncement of violence committed by any party. Sangaree, who is a staunch supporter of federalism, was awarded the 2006 UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence, for being an indefatigable advocate of democracy and a promoter of a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
When the July 1983 riots were burning the country, Sangaree was serving as an elected Member of Parliament representing Kilinochchi. He shared his experiences as a Tamil politician, who was based in the North at that time, with Ceylon Today.
“It all began as a result of an LTTE attack on an army convoy where 13 soldiers died. At that time, we were having our annual convention. If I am not mistaken, it was a Friday and all of us were in Mannar making preparations to hold the convention, which was scheduled for Saturday and Sunday,” he said recalling the events that led to the July Riots.
Riots after the cremation
Blaming the authorities for mishandling the situation and letting it spiral out of control, Sangaree said the black mark on Sri Lanka history could have definitely been avoided: “Normally, when such an incident takes place, the burial or the cremation takes place in silence, without much fuss. They dispatch the bodies quietly to the parents. However, what happened in July ‘83 was done deliberately to provoke people to retaliation. Instead of the usual quiet funeral, the government made arrangements to bring the 13 bodies to Colombo. The cremation was the signal – they had set up goondas to start the riots soon after the cremation,” he recalled.
Many business establishments as well as hundreds of private residences were set ablaze: “If my memory is correct, the first place the goons went to was the house of M. Sivasithamparam, who was the President of the TULF and the ex-MP for Nallur. That was the first house to be set on fire. He, as a leading lawyer at the time, had a nice library with a great collection of books. His only daughter and wife had to jump over the parapet wall to the other premises to save their lives. After that, it was simply a rampage of killing.”
He noted the Tamils who were able to save their lives and flee the country at the time had a high regard for the Sinhalese, and added, only a handful, including groups of paid goons, turned to violence at that time.
“If I am honest, the violence was perpetrated by a handful of government-sponsored Sinhalese civilians. About 99% of the rest despised such behaviour. Most of those, who lived in Colombo and the suburbs put the blame on President J.R. Jayewardene for the mass destruction that took place. It is a pity that the two communities, who lived in harmony for decades and centuries were separated. It is only during this generation and the last that the Sinhalese and Tamils fought. Even though there were a few communal riots here and there, the Sinhalese and Tamils lived in harmony right throughout. The Tamils were living amidst the Sinhalese in the South and the Sinhalese had business establishments in the North. Though only a small portion of the civil society, instigated by vested parties, engaged in the riots and killings blindly, I must say that if not for the Sinhalese civil society that rose to the occasion, the number of casualties could have been much more. They protected women and children by keeping them hidden under beds and in attics,” he added.
Sangaree also said, before the July ‘83 events unfolded, the plan was to pass a resolution asking for a separate state, as a tactical measure to awaken the rulers.
“By doing so, we wanted to bring it to their notice that things have come to a point, where people ask for a separation and that they must wake up and find a solution. In fact, J.R. Jayewardene took it up when he came to power with a five sixths majority that created history. You know what he told the people; that Tamils have arisen and were asking for a separate state and the time has come for us to wake up and find a solution. He never did, and even the Round Table Discussions he promised did not take place. Instead, he made things worse. When the stage was set for Jayewardene’s government to run for a second term, he resorted to a referendum seeking the incumbent Parliament to continue for further six years. An extremely unwanted, unwarranted and unnecessary move, whereas he could have amended the Constitution, had he wanted it. We could not agree with the referendum or the way it was conducted,” he added.
Sangaree considers the biggest mistake committed by the Jayewardene Government was introducing the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits any person from advocating the establishment of a separate State within the territory of Sri Lanka.
All 18 Tamil MPs resigned
He said all 18 Tamil MPs from the North resigned in protest of JR’s referendum, as they could not agree to stay in Parliament without being elected by the people in a proper manner.
“The government was compelled to call for fresh elections to fill the vacated seats. Unlike today, none of the resigned members, or any other person for that matter, came forward to contest, despite perks and privileges they could have enjoyed by being elected as parliamentarians. That was the beauty of it,” he added.
Sangaree said the most important lesson to be learnt from the events that unfolded in that era is that the people cannot be fooled. “There are so many new buildings coming up in the North. Roads are beautifully done. But, what is the use of all these materials, if the people are still deprived of their lands and properties? They do not have access to proper employment. What about those thousands of widows there? I am very happy that the government is doing something for the widows of soldiers, but, what about the rest? No matter whether you are from the North or South, if you are a widow, you should get the same treatment or consideration,” he said.
Referring to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s remark that there are no minorities in this country, Sangaree said, those words would have more value if they came from the minorities: “If at all, it is us minorities who should come forward and say that. To do that, they should make us feel genuinely accepted."
An industry burnt to cinders
By Dilrukshi Handunnetti
The late Yasapalitha Nanayakkara was a trendsetter in the Sinhala cinema with his penchant for commercially successful film-making. Often he cast the late Vijaya Kumaratunga as his chosen hero. In the late sixties, it was becoming trendy to produce Tamil twins to the Sinhala movies. Often, the Tamil hero was Vaithilingam Palanisamy Ganesan, also known as Sri Lanka's M.G.R.
A commercially successful film producer and Tamil film idol, V. P. Ganesan dreamt big and was determined to take Sri Lanka’s Tamil film industry to new heights. There had been many pioneers before him, but it was Ganesan who introduced the formula for commercial success to the Tamil film industry here.
Three decades ago, the Sinhala and Tamil film makers, casts and technicians worked together. Except for the hero and comedian, often the same cast acted in both the Sinhala and Tamil versions.
“Not only were there these collective cinematic efforts, artistes worked together, influencing and nurturing the language -specific cinema. Master Rocksamy and Master Muttusamy were giants as was Vamadevan and K. Gunaratnam. But with the 1983 riots, their collective efforts as well as dreams were burnt to cinders together with their studios worth millions,” recalls Mano Ganesan, son of V. P. Ganesan. V. P. Ganesan is the founder of the Democratic Workers' Congress. Many believe Ganesan was the Sri Lankan equivalent of M.G. Ramachandran of Tamil Nadu. Ganesan produced and acted in three commercially successful Tamil films, Puthiya Kattru, Naan Ungal Thozhan and Naadu Pottra Vaazhgha.
Ganesan Jr. himself was a child artiste and often accompanied his father to the movie sets and premieres, absorbing the ‘essence of cinematic expression’. He portrayed the childhood of the villain in the film Puthiya Katru (new wind) produced by his father wayback in 1973.
“There was a film-going culture then. The Plaza, Eros and Sapphire were popular Tamil theatres. They were well-known landmarks of yesteryear. There is a supermarket where the Plaza was situated and Sapphire was burnt to ashes. Eros is reconstructed, but the movies shown are from Kollywood,” Ganesan says.
Following his father’s success in Tamil commercial movie-making, other commercial successes followed. Some had popular actresses, Sonia Dissanayake and Jenita Samaraweera playing the lead. One film was converted into a Sinhala commercial hit, Anjaana, starring Vijaya Kumaratunga. Tamil film producers also began investing in the Sinhala film industry and vice versa.
Many pioneering spirits
There were many pioneering spirits in the Tamil film industry at that time. Most dabbled in cinema for the love of art. But V. P. Ganesan injected commercial success to the local Tamil film industry, inspiring others to take on the challenge of producing local Tamil films. After 1974, four Tamil films were produced by others, in quick succession, as the market began to grow.
“Colombo was a prime market. There were many Tamil filmgoers. The North and the East were two big hubs. The other block was Nuwara Eliya”, recalls Ganesan.
As a kid, he once accompanied his father to Jaffna for a film premiere. Outside the Ranee theatre was a massive cutout of V. P. Ganesan. “I hadn’t been to Jaffna until then. I felt so proud. But today we only find billboards of Kollywood artistes announcing Kollywood films. Little wonder my father died a sad man, his dreams of a Sri Lankan Tamil film industry burnt along with the Vijaya Studio in Hendala,” says Mano Ganesan with a pensive smile.
In retrospect, he identifies the ‘70s as ‘an era of creativity’ when efforts were made to develop the Tamil commercial film industry. The heroes and heroines were Sri Lankan. The films had a plural identity. Sinhala and Tamil artistes found an opportunity to cater to the ‘other’ audience. They worked together in front of the camera as well as from behind. “If fostered, that would have been the foundation of a Tamil national identity. This dependence on Kollywood wouldn’t have been there,” Ganesan opines.
Had Sri Lanka’s Tamil film industry flourished then, it would have strongly reflected a Sri Lankan Tamil identity. Kollywood reflects Tamil Nadu’s cultural expression. Though similar, it is also very different. “There wouldn’t have been a need to hinge our cultural and political identity to Tamil Nadu via Kollywood, if we had our own industry. So it is not just the destruction of an industry we mourn but also a cultural and political identity lost,” says Ganesan.
A common platform
As a politician, Mano Ganesan feels that both communities no longer have creative avenues of communication, open. For that, there needs to be an art form, a common platform.
The Tamil diaspora, he feels, is often blamed for the clamour for an identity of its own and for promoting extremism. But, there had been no effort made to attract the dollars and pounds they pour into various activities towards the fostering of a Tamil film industry which they can be proud of. “The industry is badly in need of financial assistance for it to revive,” he notes.
“Let them not be the voice of Tamil extremism. The Tamil diaspora funds Kollywood movies and Kollywood is increasingly includes Sri Lankan Tamil characters in their productions to cater to this growing market. There are Sri Lankan Tamils all over the world and they fund the film industry in Tamil Nadu”, says Ganesan, adding that those in the industry must take advantage of this existing market and the availability of funds that otherwise nurture Kollywood.
As the son of a successful Tamil film producer, Mano Ganesan understands the need for a market. The market exists, but there are no takers here. “We have artistes without livelihood support. I am proud of the fact that they did not relocate post 1983. Somebody should look into their welfare as well”.
Role of ‘cultural unifier'
Instead of divisive politics, Mano Ganesan still pins much hope on the Tamil film industry to play the role of ‘cultural unifier’. There is continuous blaming for ‘Indian cultural flooding’. “There is no need to view Kollywood with suspicion or hate simply due to their international outreach.
“But there lies a golden opportunity to redevelop the Tamil film industry devastated in July 1983, to foster amity between communities and to promote a plural Sri Lankan identity through cinema. This would require political leadership and artistes of vision and courage.
“I am also sad that the Tamil film industry made no representations before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) about the impact on the industry, and what it holds for the future. Art forms foster reconciliation and we have overlooked this aspect,” he notes.
“A step in the right direction would be to subsidize the Tamil film industry. Design methods to attract the Tamil Diaspora funds to develop the film industry and use this opportunity post-war to promote through cinema, a plural identity. “Take care of the artistes of yesteryear who, despite the violence experienced and properties lost, still live in Sri Lanka with the hope that the Tamil cinema would revive itself. My father’s soul will find peace then, knowing that the industry he loved and lived for finally has a second chance,” says a hopeful Ganesan.
Reliving ‘Black July’ through the eyes of a prisoner
By Asif Fuard
Two days after Sri Lankan Tamils suffered a brutal massacre, sounds of pandemonium were still heard outside the impenetrable walls of the Welikada Prison, while the stench of burnt rubber mixed with the odour of blood and corpses filled the air.
Several Tamil inmates, who had been imprisoned within the confines of the Welikada Prison, considered themselves fortunate as they believed they were safer inside than being Tamils living outside. They feared if they were living outside the walls of the Welikada Prison, many of them would have been targets of the mob that ran riot during the previous days referred to as Black July.
Cornered and massacred
However, their notion of being safer inside turned out to be quite the opposite of what happend. The aftermath of the 23 July riots did not stop with a lull. The massacre of Tamils eventually spread to the Welikada Prison resulting in 35 Tamil political prisoners, detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), being massacred on 25 July 1983. Two days later, on 27 July, 18 more Tamil political prisoners were killed within the confines of the same walls of the Welikada High Security Prison.
A total of 53 Tamil prisoners were butchered while the government at the time turned a blind eye. Very little steps were taken to bring the culprits before justice. Detailed accounts of what happened within the walls of the prison have been recorded. Few of the fortunate Tamil prisoners managed to escape. Some of those who escaped the Welikada Prison carnage still live – to tell the tale from behind closed doors.
If, for whatever reason, one has the desire to relive the horror of the massacre, which took place 29 years ago, a former Tamil political prisoner known as Ram is the man to talk to.
He is one of the few who were fortunate to survive the prison bloodbath during a period of anarchy that led to the killing of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils. “We lost several of our brothers and sisters during that time. This was clearly genocide and no one was there to help us at the time,” he said recalling the bloody scenes of July 1983.
“On the evening of 24 July, we heard screams outside the prison walls. The screams emanated from men and women who were crying and appealing to God and pleading for their lives in Tamil, amidst a hum of voices that mercilessly berated them in Sinhalese. Those of us who heard it knew that something was going on outside the prison. However, we were not sure as to what,” he said.
At that time, Ram, who was held under suspicion, said, when he was taken outside his cell to the courtyard, with the rest of the prisoners, which was the routine, they had discussed what was occurring outside the walls of the prison.
“Are they rounding up and killing all the Tamils? If that’s the case, we are better off being locked up in here than being out there,” one prisoner who was with Ram told the other Tamil prisoners in rage. “They will never do that. The consequences would be much worse than what they would think. This is not Nazi Germany. True, we are fighting against the oppression of Tamils, but they will never go to the extent of exterminating us like what Hitler did in Germany. That era ended a long time ago,” another prisoner replied, commenting on the screams heard outside.
'Dark Mark' tattoo in the sky
However, nearly an hour later, the prisoners who were with Ram, could see smoke reaching the clouds and obliterating the skyline, and smelt the stench of burnt rubber and gasoline.
“By afternoon, we heard loud screams inside the prison, the guards were hardly there to be seen. They took axes and iron rods to hack and butcher the Tamil prisoners. You could see blood dripping all over the prison,” he said.
It was eight in the morning on 25 July, when the death-row prisoners were taken to the ground floor to go through the morning newspapers, as usual.
The headlines declared that ‘thirteen Sri Lanka Army soldiers attached to the Four-Four Bravo team had been killed in Jaffna in an ambush during the night.’ “We have great challenges ahead of us. It is only now that our struggle has begun,” Ram said, quoting the Founder and Leader of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), Selvarajah Yogachandran, better-known by his nom de guerre, Kuttimani.
Kuttimani, who was the main suspect in the bank heist at Neerveli, and a man behind the killings of several police officers, was arrested and sentenced to death. When the death sentence had been passed, Kuttimani had said he would donate his eyes to see the birth of Eelam.
When the massacre in the prison broke out, the Sinhala extremist prisoners had gouged his eyes out and hacked him to death.
Leading the mob in prison was prominent convict, Sepala Ekanayake, who had been involved in the hijacking of a commercial aircraft in 1982.
“The massacre broke out once again on the second day. Many who were with us were then transferred to the Batticaloa Prison,” Ram said.
Sri Lanka, which boasts of having one of the oldest civilizations in Asia, went back to the dark ages in 1983. Sinhala extremists ran riot while the democratically-elected government remained mum over the situation.
Mob justice was the order of the day on that fateful Black July. Twenty-nine years later, the haunting screams yet echo within the walls of the Welikada Prison – a grim reminder that nothing much has changed.
The '83 riots, a turning point
By a Jaffna scribe
The communal riots against the Tamils in post-independent Sri Lanka first took place in 1958. The second unrest was experienced in 1977 and the worst was, as history recorded, in 1983 not only claiming the lives of hundreds of Tamils in the island but also destroying assets running into several million rupees in Colombo.
A large number of Jaffna Tamils who had established themselves in Colombo and only visited the Peninsula once in a while returned to Jaffna with only a suitcase containing whatever was left behind after mobs attacked their houses located in Wellawatte, Bampalapitiya and the areas where the Tamils were domiciled.
The Jaffna-based newspapers, particularly the ‘Eela Nadu,’ which was popularly known as the ‘Madras Hindu of Jaffna’ came out daily with special editions on the riots in the South and on the displaced Tamils camping at various places in Colombo.
Manikka Vinayagar temple
The camp that was set up at the Manikka Vinayagar temple in Bampalapitiya was packed with Tamils of Jaffna origin, who generally define themselves according to their caste and social standing. With the riots in Colombo, large groups of Jaffna people gathered at the Bampalapitiya temple, shedding their cast differences, often supported by their friends from outside with food and clothes.
With the increase in the number of internally displaced Tamils in Colombo, the J.R. Jayewardene Government which was in power at the time made arrangements for special trains between Colombo Fort and Kankesanthurai to transport Tamils who were at welfare centres setup in Colombo.
Apart from the Tamils living in Colombo who were directly affected by the riots, Tamils who arrived in Colombo from abroad, those who came from Jaffna on brief visits to attend to official matters and students staying for educational purposes were also badly affected.
K. Thirunavukkarasu who hailed from Kokkuvil, Jaffna had returned to Colombo on a holiday from his workplace in Malaysia and left with a parcel, given to him by a colleague to be handed over at a house in Pamankada.
The innocent Thirunavukkarasu, a pious Hindu who regularly wore holy ash on his forehead went in search of his Sinhalese friend’s house in Pamankada. But the holy ash on his forehead revealing his ethnic identity as a Tamil Hindu resulted in the innocent man being hammered to death by a group of rioters at the Pamankada junction. The innocent Thirunavukkarasu who didn’t realize the gravity of the riot, returned from Malaysia with the intention of travelling to Jaffna. Instead, he died at the hands of drunken hooligans.
The obituary pages of the Eela Nadu began to fill with the brutal murders of Colombo-based Tamils.
As the Government couldn’t deal with the internally-displaced Tamils in Colombo, planes and cargo ships were also arranged to transport the Tamil refugees from the capital.
On the instructions of the late Editor of Eela Nadu N.Sabaratnam, a young journalist had reached the shores of Kankesanthurai to get the exclusive interview from the very first Tamil displaced person from Colombo who reached Jaffna on a cargo vessel. It was anchored at the KKS harbour . The cub reporter eagerly reached a Tamil displaced person (IDP) who was among the first batch of IDPs to return on a cargo vessel to KKS. The reporter asked the IDP about his experience of the riots in Colombo. The IDP who was only carrying a shoulder bag along with him was infuriated by the reporter’s query and thundered, “What is there to describe? The bastards who put us through this will pay for this someday”.
An exodus to Jaffna
The railway stations from Vavuniya to Kankesanthurai were packed with relatives and friends who assembled on the already packed platforms to receive the grieving returnees from Colombo. The scenes at the railway stations within the Jaffna Peninsula were moving as the Tamil IDPs from Colombo began arriving in Jaffna. with tears streaming down their faces, it was like a mass funeral.
The Tamils who were victims of the ‘83 July Riots arrived in special trains to Jaffna, a reminder of the scenes which were similar to the Jews being transported to various detention camps in Germany during World War II.
The Jaffna homes were packed with friends and relatives who had arrived from Colombo as destitute persons. As it was also the Nallur festival season, the returnees from Colombo were seen in sombre mood, worshiping the deities in Nallur.
The schools in Jaffna were full of students who came from Colombo and Kandy schools. Certain Colombo boys even introduced rugby to the Jaffna boys, despite the tension that prevailed.
Not only the schools but even the Jaffna University, a premier university in Sri Lanka, had a good number of academics from Colombo and Peradeniya taking up residence there. The Medical Faculty of Jaffna also benefited immensely with the presence of a significant number of Tamil dons from Colombo and Peradeniya.
Following this forced return, there were even moves by the Tamil business persons who returned from Colombo to set up their enterprises in the peninsula.
A significant number of youngsters who were from the families victimized during the riots joined various Tamil militant movements and went crossing the Palk Straits to South India to be trained at various camps for Tamil militants.
The feeling of relief and the consolation of the ’83 July victims from Colombo were short-lived. Jaffna gradually turned into a killing field with the escalation of militancy in the region.
The ‘83 July Riots were the beginning of three decades of internal strife and marked the commencement of a politically dark period. Significant changes began to emerge in the orthodox life-styles of the Jaffna folks as they began taking wing to countries they have not even heard of before. In every sense, it was a turning point.