For the past week the international community has been trying to grapple with a number of questions revolving Sri Lanka’s civil war. Namely, how were they so unaware of the scale of civilian casualties in the final months of the war?
It is estimated that 40,000 civilians died in the five months leading up to the surrender of the L.T.T.E. in May of 2009. The United Nations abandoned its mission in the Tamil-controlled areas on the eve of the Government’s final blitz. In an effort to reconcile this humanitarian catastrophe, the UN published their Internal Review on the fifteenth of November.
In my own efforts to understand Sri Lanka’s turbulent past, I spent a lot of time reading old news articles and watching documentaries. During our orientation we heard from an astonishing woman who told us the horrors her family, as Tamils, suffered during the 1983 riots. More recently I’ve finished reading Funny Boy, a novel written by a member of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora community, Shyam Selvadurai.
The story recounts life in a wealthy Tamil family in Colombo. It is a story of coming to age, as a boy grapples with his hidden homosexuality in a complex and divided society. It is incredibly well written, and makes for a quick read. One of the most striking parts of the book is the epilogue, which recounts some of the horrors of Black July.
The 1983 riots began when the Tamil Tigers killed a group of 13 soldiers, and the government brought them back to Colombo to be buried. At the funeral alcohol was provided, along with the names and addresses of many Tamil families in the capital. Chaos quickly ensued.
Now, some excerpts from Funny Boy:
“The radio news is beginning again. We have listened to the broadcast at 6:00, 7:30, and 8:45, but there is still no mention of the trouble. If not for the phone call … we would think that nothing was going on in Colombo” Page 288-89.
“As he cycled towards Galle Road he saw that all the Tamil shops had been set on fire and the mobs were looting everything. The police and army just stood by, watching, and some of them even cheered as the mobs joined in the looting and burning” Page 289.
“7:00 P.M. Curfew was lifted for a few hours so people could buy food. Yet there was nothing to buy. A lot of the grocery stores are owned by Tamils, and they have all been destroyed” Page 301.
“…I long to be out of this country. I don’t feel at home in Sri Lanka any longer, will never feel safe again” Page 304.
“The mob had set the car on fire with Ammachi [Grandmother] and Appachi [Grandfather] inside it… ‘We’ll have to wait until the ambulance comes and takes the bodies away… Until then, I’ll go and keep watch over the car. Someone has to look out for . . .’ he moved uncomfortably in his chair ‘stray dogs and crows’” Page 306-7.
Reading this book has given me a new lens with which to view the streets of Colombo I have leisurely strolled down countless times before.
The shocking events of the July 1983 riots were not the start of the Sinhalese-Tamil conflicts, but they marked the official start of the war. They also sparked Sri Lanka’s brain drain, when the Tamil elites fled the country. Recently it has been this diaspora community that is being courted to invest in Sri Lanka, and their hesitancy to do so is understandable.
There have been a number of projects to reconcile the atrocities of this war. Recently, a Kickstarter project was launched. Check it out.