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27 July 2004
|As the month of July 2004 draws to a close, it is
obvious that the memory of
what happened in Sri Lanka twenty-one years ago has not
faded. The postings in the Sangam website and in other
websites and in the newspapers offer testimony to this.
The events of 9/11 touched every American, regardless of whether or not one was directly affected. The grief was not limited to those who lost their loved ones or possessions. Three years on, every American, in the far corners of the country, has vivid memories of that cloudless Tuesday morning, and still grieves. The events of the final weeks of July 1983 are similarly etched in the memory of every Sri Lankan Tamil.
Living in New York in 1983, I was far removed from that theater of mayhem where people were doused with petrol and set on fire, hacked with machetes, beaten with clubs, stoned or simply stabbed to death. Tamil girls were raped in front of their families, some mercifully killed afterwards – mercifully, because they didn’t have to live with those memories. I was far away from all this.
However, I too was affected. For two long weeks I couldn’t get news of my parents and sisters who lived in Colombo at that time. The only information I got was the pictures and news stories in The Hindu, the Guardian and the (London) Times. The pictures were gruesome – a charred body in the middle of Galle Road, a scorched van with bodies inside it, armed mobs roaming the city, burnt out houses and buildings, etc. The news stories were painful – tens of thousands of refugees, the lucky ones to escape death, cramped into temples and airport hangers with little food, no change of clothing and scarce toilet facilities. News had trickled in, of the stabbing death of the father of a friend who lives in New York. But, there was no news of my parents and sisters.
My sisters, who luckily escaped, but with only their clothes on their backs and now in New York, still recount their experience with tears and fear in their eyes. How they hid in the bathroom when the Sinhalese came the first time, looted and left. How they then ran to the temple, just in time to escape the second arrival of the Sinhalese to burn down their house. Of course, they will never forget.
9/11 was the work of a few individuals and not an elected government, out to get America and it was their second attempt. But July ‘83, where an equal number died, was the fourth attempt by a whole nation, starting from 1958. The excuse that a few hooligans did it doesn’t wash. The President of the country had challenged the Tamils to war and threatened to starve them just a few days earlier. Cabinet ministers were out in the streets with the marauding thugs. The police and the armed forces were out in full force egging-on the looters and murderers. Buddhist monks too were out there with voter manifests to identify Tamil homes. Government vehicles were transporting the hooligans. The citizens, except for few who saved their Tamil friends, didn’t protest. No surprise here. After all, it is they who elected the government!
Tamils who were attacked, robbed or killed had committed no crime other than being born Tamil. Most didn’t even have a political opinion, let alone being activist. The Tamil activists were already in prison – 52 of whom were murdered inside the maximum security prison.
The most irksome aspect of July 1983 is that there is no guilt or repentance – then or now. No official inquiry, no compensation and no genuine apology. The then president Jayewardene blamed it on the communists and left it at that. The current president Kumaratunga is using it as a cudgel to beat her opponents with. Those in between didn’t behave any differently.
Al Qaeda, which is steadfast in its mission against the US, is not elected by anyone and is not answerable to any mass of people. The government of Sri Lanka, which is persistent in their goal of enslaving the Tamils, is democratically elected by the Sinhala people. The Germans, who once democratically elected the Third Reich, have jettisoned Nazism in favor of a civilized government. In Sri Lanka the goals are still the same – only the methods have changed.
Tamils will never forget July 1983.