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“Black July” was a time of great horror in Sri Lankan history. The pogrom of 1983 devastated families, homes and communities, and its after effects haunt us to this day. But in the midst of that horror, there were moments of humanity, bravery and compassion. This is the story of that week, as told by those who bore witness to it.


“The 24th evening, we knew there was a lot going on up North and we also heard that there was some killing of 13 soldiers and that evening they were going to bring the bodies and it was being done at the cemetery at Borella.”


“ I had gone to Borella kanatta to officiate a funeral. I think that was the previous evening before the riots broke. When I went to the cemetery there were a lot of army personnel, [and] people gathering on the roads, and a kind of eerie feeling and tension prevailing. Then I was told you have to do the funeral as quickly as possible and rush back, and the story was told to me that soldiers had been trapped in a bomb blast and they were killed and their bodies are being brought to kanatta so there could be trouble. So I had to rush through the funeral.”


“I had gone out to do some marketing and then all of a sudden I remember seeing shops being attacked and burnt and also vehicles being attacked, and all I did was at the time ran home and met up with Dad and Mom and I told them what I witnessed. Then we knew that the riots had broken out and before things could get really heated up or more aggressive, [Dad] with [my brother] and a few other neighbors, he went to the top and he identified himself, he being in the army, and he made sure that none of these mobs were able to come down our road and he basically managed to disperse them from the top.”


From Community –  full quote starts at 2:36; the exact bit in the caption starts at 2:51

“When we went to school [there was] not much attendance, and students and teachers were worried. After some time our neighbor came to pick us up and then in school itself she said ‘ok now we’re going to walk back, don’t open your mouth’. Even then it seems such a distance from HFC to Kinross to walk because you know things are going on, what can happen.

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From Protection 1:45

“I was working in Chatham street, in Fort, I was at the bank there, and there were Tamils and Sinhalese who were working with me. Then there were riots and people were running up the streets with cloth from this shop and that shop, real pandemonium there.”


From Protection 4:09

Then my neighbours, about 3 or 4 houses down the road, they were Fernandos. They came and said ‘look if you’ll are worried about staying in the house, please come over. We will keep you in the house’. We could hear the noise you know, the shouting. And a train passed full of people shouting and waving, like as if they were on a picnic. Then we said ‘ok we can’t stay in the house.’”


From Protection 6:57

“Just opposite, by the church, was a lane where my assistant priest was staying. He’s also a Tamil from Batticaloa, so we decided to go over there. The front shop was still burning and hardly anybody on [was] the road so it was panic, but still we crossed the road and went to my assistant’s place, to see that he was not there. So while we were just standing and wondering what to do there was a nearby gate, and that house owner is also a parishioner of mine. He peeped out and he said ‘Father, what are you doing here? Come, come, don’t stand like that.’”


From Community 3:48

“My bank friend and this boy, the boy from Pottuvil, they got into my car and went to look for bread. By that time pandemonium in Fort. Luckily there were some religious books in my car, the boy from Pottuvil was waving that and saying ‘we are Muslims. We are Muslims.’”


From Community 4:12

“They took a long time to come here. In the meantime, his mother who was here with us, she was rolling on the ground here, I can still remember, thinking, ‘my son is lost, my son is lost’. I said, ‘don’t worry he went in my car, he will come’. It was eternity before they arrived.


“The maid didn’t want to cook for these boys. She said mata baa weda karanna mey kunu kasala minissunta (I can’t work for these filthy people). And then I thought what happens if she goes outside and talks to the neighbors? Because she knew the neighbors, we didn’t. So I didn’t really know what to do so I locked her up in her room. And I fed her and the others for about 2 or 3 days. We found out later, my neighbors, they were hiding a Tamil couple. I didn’t know they had Tamils, they didn’t know I had Tamils.”


From Protection 4:45

“We had gone to my neighbours place and they kept us in the house, actually we were in the toilet. It was a room about this big and we, that is myself, my three children, my youngest daughter was 1 year old then, my sister, her 3 children, the neighbour opposite and her two children, plus a dog. We were all in that little toilet at the back of the house.”


From Protection 9:54

“Our place was a small two-bed roomed house so basically we shared our rooms, our dining area, hall area. And dad was well connected in getting things like food and dry rations and all that, so they used to basically have their meals, have their washes at our place.”


From Community 1:58

“There was another family, they used to bring food. They knew we couldn’t get out. They used to take the risk and used to bring that food. They had to pass the refugee camp at Sarasvathi Hall on Lorenz road. Then the soldiers saw her car loaded with food and scolded her, ‘you people, you Sinhalese people, you’re taking that to Tamil families no?’”


From Community 6:22

“Some of our neighbors were in refugee camps in Sarasvathi Hall, and they would tell me about this Royal Bakery person. I have never seen so much compassion. This old man’s workers had all run away, because of the riots and curfew, they had all gone to their gama. Only the old man and [his] sons, they used to bake the bread, load the van and take it to Sarasvathi Hall and distribute it for free. The old man used to say, ‘I am like this because of the Tamil population in Wellawatte who bought only my bread. So now they are starving, I can’t just stay at home no?’ One day I’d like to say to him, the good things you all did we will never forget.”


“Within 5 minutes of us going, which was barely like 5 seconds, we heard all this shouting and looting. It was a free for all with everyone going in different directions, picking up whatever they could. And there was this lady who was down our road, who pretended to be a looter and went and picked up [some of our] things and came.”


From Protection 9:23

“At that time things were really at its peak, where we saw people being attacked and shops being looted and burnt. And I remember Kinross Avenue at the time was more Tamils than Sinhalese at the time, so a lot of our neighbors, they all came home, some of them with their jewelry and expensive belongings and they gave it to mum and dad for safe keeping.”


From Protection 3:35

“Then the mob came, about 200 people, and we saw, with our own eyes we witnessed it, with big poles they started breaking their chandeliers, it was terrible. And they had a piano, that girl used to play the piano very well, they smashed the piano, [and] broke the windows. So these children were just holding their faces and watching, and they were like why are they doing this?”


From Community 4:57

“In this house there were my husband’s books. After he died we moved to Colombo and in one room, a thousand volumes of really valuable academic books, research on South East Asian history and literature. I had two British council friends [who] had driven around and they saw the house burning. So they came and took all the books, loaded in the van and stored it for me in their house. The following January only I was able to come and collect the books and take it to Jaffna; until then it was there.”


From Community 0:00

“For me to get over the trauma, the only thing I could do is always think of the good deeds people did. I think soon after the riots and later also that never came out. I used to always feel why didn’t people talk about the good people?”


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