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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 July, 2003, 13:40 GMT 14:40 UK
Twenty years on - riots that led to war

By Frances Harrison
BBC correspondent in Colombo

Twenty years ago, this week, saw the outbreak of anti-Tamil riots in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo that changed the course of the nation's history

The riots, triggered by the killing of a group of soldiers in the Tamil north of the island, led directly to the outbreak of civil war.
Burnt out car on a Colombo street
The riots targeted Colombo's Tamil citizens

"In the lane there were about 50 to 75 people in a mob carrying all kinds of sticks and clubs and knives," recounts Shanthi Sachithanandam.

"They were shouting; it was like the sound of an ocean, a chilling sound" she says.

Shanthi got away in the nick of time while the mob banged on the car.

"Is there a Tamil inside? " they shouted.

Her husband Manoranjan spent the beginning of the riot discussing politics in an air-conditioned coffee shop blissfully unaware of the burning outside.

He tried to get home but the road was blocked by burning cars, so he sheltered with a Sinhalese friend who saved his life.

With a knife to his throat, the friend swore to the mob that there were no Tamils in his house.

'Planned' attack

"I saw a lot of things on the way which made me aware that this was not actually a spontaneous attack on Tamils by Sinhalese mobs but much more organised," says Manoranjan Rajasingham.

Passers by look at a burnt out shop
Tamil businesses were hit especially hard

"I saw at least in three places bus loads of military personnel standing by and watching an attack on a house.

"They had come in buses, armed and not doing anything," he explained.

Indeed in many places survivors and eyewitnesses said they saw educated men in trousers directing the mob with voters lists in their hands on which Tamil houses and shops had been clearly identified in advance.

To this day nobody has ever been held accountable for what happened nor has there been a formal apology.

Indeed nobody really knows how many Tamils died in that one week in July 1983. Estimates vary from 400 to 3,000 dead.

'Erasing identity'

When they went back to their house, Shanthi and Manoranjan found everything valuable had been looted and everything else smashed.

A damaged shopping mall
The riots severely damaged Sri Lanka's commercial life

Even the toilet in the bathroom had been beaten right down to the floor so that muck was overflowing from the drains.

Food from the fridge was strewn around the house and all their family photographs destroyed.

"It is about erasing your identity, those symbols that showed your past, your history," says Shanthi.

Recently married Shanthi had to go around collecting wedding pictures from relatives.

Today those salvaged photographs - and the clothes they were standing in when they left home - are the only possessions the couple have from their pre-1983 life.

Forced exile

"I think revenge was very much there for several months," says Manoranjan.

A shuttered shop smoulders
Sri Lanka's commercial sector took years to recover

He says it took a long time not to wake up at night and not feel angry.

Shanthi's sister in England sent them airline tickets to leave Sri Lanka but they made a conscious decision to remain and fight on.

At the time 100,000 Tamils found shelter in schools in Colombo and many then left for North America, Europe and Australia.

Today there are about a million Sri Lankan Tamils abroad in the diaspora. That took the soul out of the Tamil community back home.

Manoranjan points out that of 24 cousins on his mother's side, he is the only one still living in Sri Lanka. Every family has the same story.

'Turning point'

Not all victims of what is now called "Black July" left the country.

Women Tamil Tiger fighters
Tamil Tigers are still waiting for the war to end

Thousands of young Tamil boys flocked to join the Tamil militant groups who had had a problem finding recruits until the riots changed everything.

The civil war then began in earnest in a cycle of violence that is still playing itself out with a death toll that now runs to 65,000 dead.

For the most part, the anniversaries of Black July have been marked by silence - and heightened security for fear of rebel attacks.

It was no coincidence the Tamil Tiger rebels chose 24th July 2001 as the day to launch a devastating attack on Sri Lanka's only international airport, knocking out half the airline fleet and crippling the economy.

"1983 was a turning point," says Sinhalese artist Jegath Weerasinghe.

"We like to be very silent about it. It is like this major stigma in your background," he explains, adding that as Sri Lankans they have to resolve these questions from the past.

For nearly a decade Jegath was haunted by one photograph of a naked Tamil boy about to be beaten to death by Sinhalese youths his own age.

The image came to dominate his painting, with the distinction between victim and perpetrator increasingly blurred in the haze of pain and suffering.

" There were seeds of racism within me so that I could be manipulated," he admits, having spent many years coming to terms with how a pogrom like July 1983 could happen.

Innocence lost

"I wasn't totally innocent," he says, though he never took part in any act of violence and his family protected Tamils.

"Of course most Sinhalese they don't want to talk seriously about it; nobody wants to see deep into it - why and how could it happen right in front of us," he says.

With a peace process now under way between the Sri Lankan Government and Tamil Tiger rebels, there is some frustration that all the talk of truth and reconciliation is glib and superficial.

"How many tears have they wiped off?" asks Jegath the painter.

He complains that peace is not just about stopping fighting but about looking at each other's suffering and changing social relations.

So long as the 1983 riots are a taboo subject, never discussed in detail, it is going to be hard for Sri Lankans to put the past behind them.

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