It was July 23, 1983 and madness erupted in Sri Lanka. An anti-Tamil pogrom was underway. It was an all out witch hunt as Sinhalese mobs stopped cars looking for Tamils, burnt Tamil businesses and houses to the ground. Remarkably the Tamils and Sinhalese in these rioting communities had been living together peaceful as friends and neighbours hours before.
“Every Tamil family who lived in Colombo during what is know as Black July has a story of survival. Many Sinhalese took terrible risks to hide Tamil friends or neighbours, while gangs roamed around burning shops and houses, dragging Tamils from their cars and murdering them in their gardens or in the streets. Plumes of smoke pitted the blue skies above the city and mob violence broke out across the island. The capital’s main thoroughfare was gap-toothed, with Tamil shops in flames. Gangs at roadblocks, including members of the security forces, checked identification cards, or tested the occupants of vehicles with difficult Sinhalese words.” – The Cage by Gordon Weiss pg. 52
One of my co-workers at the Overseas School vividly remembers being hidden at the school for a full week with kind Sinhalese friends bringing him food and water. He believes he was lucky not to have been found because he had just recently started the job and no one would have known there was a Tamil working at the school.
The events were fueled by outrage when the Tamil Tigers killed 13 Sinhalese Sri Lankan army members who were in the North.
By the time Black July (as it is commonly referred to) ended between 300 and 3,000 Tamils were killed (reports vary).
These events are believed by many to be the start of the full scale conflict between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers or LTTE). Official numbers are hard to come by but over 300,000 people were displace during the war and thousands killed.
Like any conflict, there are many different versions of the story. Below are links to stories with opposing views.
The Sunday Observer: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2011/11/06/new30.asp
During the Independence Day long weekend, Shaun and I had the opportunity to travel to Jaffna which was in the heart of the conflict and under LTTE control for many years. The visit was fascinating. It didn’t provide us with answers about the war, but the warmth and friendliness of the people was evident. It was a quiet escape from the hustle and bustle of Colombo. Here are some pictures (some of which were taken by fellow volunteer Lieve L. because our camera was having issues).