It was on a day in July 1983, weeks after we’d moved to Colombo from Indonesia that violence broke out in the Sri Lankan capital. Black July is the common name used to refer to the anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka during July 1983 in which about 400 to 3000 lost their lives. Tamils were being attacked by Sinhalese and their houses, vehicles etc were set on fire.
The intervening night of 23 and 24 July 1983, when 13 Sri Lankan soldiers were killed, is said to have set off the civil war in Sri Lanka. It was the fiercest communal riots in Sri Lankan history. Most of the violence occurred in Colombo, where we lived during those days. The Sinhalese mobs looked for Tamil shops and Tamil people to destroy them. More than any previous ethnic riot on the island, the 1983 riots was marked by the highly organized mob violence. Sinhalese rioters in Colombo used voter lists containing home addresses to make precise attacks on the Tamil community.
We being Tamils and new entrants to that country were at our wits’ end. We had admitted our daughters Sushma and Soumya in two different schools. My husband, the general manager of a textile mill, was at work. The phones were dead and, worried about their safety, I ran out towards the main road to see how bad things were. The city was a burning inferno! Just then, I saw the van that ferried my children to and from their schools entering our lane. It halted near me but only Sushma alighted.
“Where’s Soumya?” I asked the person who was driving. “The gates of her school were shut,” he said, and drove off.
I stood there, confused and upset. From a group of some neighbours who stood nearby watching it all, a tall well-built man stepped forward. “I’m Dr Wickramasinghe, I live at the end of the lane,” he said. “Let me fetch your daughter from school—I’m Sinhalese. No one will attack me—it’s Tamils they’re after.”
I’d never seen Dr Wickramasinghe before but the few neighbours I had befriended confirmed his identity. Helpless, I gave him a letter authorizing him to pick up Soumya from her school.
As he set off, I took a sobbing Sushma back into the house and prayed for the safety of my little girl and my husband. Time seemed to drag along and after a couple of hours, I saw my daughter walking towards home, dragging her feet along while holding the doctor’s hand tightly. The doctor told me that she initially refused to come with him as she did not know him. But her teacher explained the situation to her and only then she walked her way home (a distance of four kilometers) without battling her eyelid.
Hours later, my husband too arrived. Two men, a Muslim and a Sinhalese, both colleagues at the mill, escorted him. Later on, we got to know Dr Wickramasinghe and his family much better. But it heartens me to recall that terrible day, as it never mattered to him that he didn’t know us at all.
Later on Dr. Wickramasinghe doctor became my daughter’s ‘favourite uncle’ and both our families became very close. I never will forget Dr. Wickramasinghe’s initiative and kind gesture and am ever indebted to him.