Stories of Sinhalese families sheltering their Tamil neighbours during the terrible violence abound, but walls that had never existed between neighbours and residential communities in the past were built after the 1983 communal riots, forever altering a country and a capital that marked its darkest day 35 years ago
With the wave of anti Tamil violence spreading in the Colombo City in July 1983, many Sinhalese secretly sheltered their Tamil friends in their houses, as means of offering them protection from the mobs.
Parliamentarian and son of late Minister Gamini Dissanayake, Mayantha Dissanayake recalls his 10-year-old childhood memory of Black July, when his parents gave shelter to Dr. Sundarampillai and family. “They were a very honourable family that we managed to save. However, they lost their beautiful ancestral home, which was burnt, down by the mobs,” he says. Mayantha recalls his family having called the Police in an attempt to save the house, but failed.
Mayantha says although it was a tough and challenging time for Dr. Sundarampillai’s family, it was nice and pleasant time for the children since they loved the doctor who too was fond of their family.
“We don’t see any difference between Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims or Burghers.
We should live as one nation. However, this incident in 1983 made me I learn what racial discrimination is,” he says.
Journalist and activist Malinda Seneviratne recalls that he was taking part in a chess tournament at the YMBA when the bodies of the thirteen soldiers were brought back to Colombo. The tournament had to be stopped after rumours spread that trouble was brewing in Colombo, he remembers.
The next day,Seneviratne, studying in Navinna, with a friend when the news of the riots in the City reached them. On his way, he saw vehicles being smashed or set alight by the mobs.
At the time Seneviratne resided at Gomes Drive in Pamankada, which was a mixed neighbourhood with one Indian Tamil family, three Ceylon Tamil families, a couple of burgher families and Sinhala families.
“As soon as the violence broke out, people who lived in the shanties in the area looted Tamil people’s houses for jewellery and money. This included men, women and children from these low income neighbourhoods,” he says. Seneviratne clearly recalls mobs cutting through the hedges into the houses in broad daylight. The houses mainly had children and the elderly at daytime, since most adults were at work.
“Mobs ransacked one Tamil house and set fire to anther. When they were going for the house one after that, I attempted to stop them as a very elderly couple lived in that house with their unmarried daughter, who was not home. I was almost knifed by the mob,” he recalls.
However, the mobs left that house intact, where the unmarried daughter still lives. “Prior to this incident, nobody had walls around their houses. Everybody had hedges. Post Black July, everybody erected high walls around the houses and this marked the end of community,” he says.
Seneviratne family has then sheltered their next door neighbours in the house along with some other Tamil people. He recalls his entire family living in one room, while the Tamil family lived in the next. After the riots, there was a curfew, so they were confined within the house, with newspapers as the only source of outside news, he says. “For those few days, ‘our world was our neighbors”!
Seneviratne also recalls the second wave of violence that spread on Tiger Friday, with rumors that Sinhalese hiding Tamils in their houses will also be attacked.
“I remember my mother saying this to my father, who replied that the question was non negotiable – they were our neighbours.”
Seneviratne, along with his brother, another Sinhalese boy and the driver of a Burgher- Tamil neighbor doused the fires in the neighbourhood. He recalled Wellawatte area was burnt down and devastated in the immediate aftermath.
To Seneviratne, it was a recollection of a terrible moment, which amplified as people exploited the situation. “Recent riots in Digana, was of a comparatively much smaller scale.
However, both 1983 and Digana indicated instances of delayed action and bad communication by the Government,” he says.