The date was 25 July, 1983.
Antony* reached Luckyland biscuit factory at Kundasale, a suburb in Kandy, his place of work for 10 years, in the morning as usual. On that fateful day, his manager warned him. “They can come to get you any moment. You must leave now.”
Only two days earlier, an ambush by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had claimed the lives of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers in Jaffna. The incident sparked riots across Sri Lanka, in which mobs of Sinhala goons targeted the Tamil minority community with government support. For the first time, Tamils started leaving the island nation in large numbers.
Those who could afford it took the flight to India, while others braved the seas.
“I may not have survived to tell you this tale, had my Sinhala friends not rescued me that day,” says Antony, looking back at the dark days of the anti-Tamil pogrom from July 24 to 29, 1983, remembered as ‘Black July’.
Antony’s brother Solomon* saw his brand new house in the Raddoluwa Housing Scheme, near the Katunayake airport, being burnt down on July 29 after a rumour that the LTTE had poisoned the water tank.
He continues to preserve the half-burnt wedding photo, found hanging from the sooty black wall of his home, when he went there a year later.
He lives with his family at Tuticorin now, and is apprehensive of going back.
Mary*, a resident of Muttuwal, Colombo, escaped to India at the age of 16, with her mother and four sisters.
“We lost everything,” she recalls. “After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, surviving as a refugee in Tamil Nadu has not been easy either.” Her eyes well up as she recalls the stigma of having to show up at the police station every week to sign the register.
Such stories abound, and though it is five years since the civil war ended, 69,000 Sri Lankan Tamils continue to live as refugees in 110 camps in 25 districts of Tamil Nadu.
They live in 10x10 feet homes, which have basic amenities; but, livelihood concerns run deep. Desperate for a better life, people in these camps often make futile attempts to escape to other countries. Referring to the recent attempt at trafficking Sri Lankan refugees to Australia, Antony says: “These incidents are quite common. The younger generation of the refugees faces a bleak future.”
S.C. Chandrahasan, founder of the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), started the NGO in Chennai in 1984 to work among the displaced Sri Lankan community.
“One good thing is that owing to our intervention, the refugee children have attained 100 per cent literacy,” he says.
“The governments of India and Sri Lanka must expedite efforts to rehabilitate the refugee families,” says Mr. Chandrahasan, who, too, escaped to India in 1983.
Quoting from Kani Nilam Vendum , a poem by Subramanya Bharathi, he sums up the aspirations of his community:
“All I need is a small piece of land, oh divine mother, A small piece of land, and there,
In the midst of that small piece of land, build me a house with four pretty pillars and several floors near the small pond…”
(*Names of refugees have been changed in order to protect their identities.)