Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Remembering "Black July": When Serendip meant hell!

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Sri Lanka.  Not merely because it was a place that my grandfather almost got to, but did not. There were other family stories, too, of people from immediate and extended families having worked and lived in Ceylon.  A wonderful cousin, who is my brother's age, was even born in in that country and earned the nickname of "Ravanan."

BBC's newsfeed reminds me that it was exactly thirty years ago that the paradise became hell.  The island, which was referred to as "Serendip" by the Arab merchants for the enchanting beauty that it was, and which then gave the word "serendipity" to the English language, transformed into a hell on earth.
Thirty years ago, Tamil separatists stepping up militant attacks in northern Sri Lanka killed 13 soldiers who reported for duty only a day earlier. Over the next few days, mobs of the Sinhalese majority took revenge, killing between 400 and 3,000 Tamils around the country and triggering a civil war that lasted 26 years and sent hundreds of thousands of Tamils into exile. 
I was an undergraduate student in Coimbatore when newspapers carried reports and photos on the front pages.  Those were some chaotic undergraduate years, in my mind and in the world outside.  A year later, Indira Gandhi was shot dead, which then unleashed a killing frenzy in India too.  Conversations at tea-stalls near the college were all about Lanka.  India being a country of argumentative males with strong opinions, there were discussions in plenty over watery and sugary tea.

Within a matter of days, our college and most colleges throughout the state were closed down because of student protests.  The youth in Tamil Nadu wanted the Indian government to step in and help the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Black July was a recruiting agent for Tamil militants and catapulted the country into full-blown war, which would last 26 years and kill 100,000 or more people.
It had a drastic demographic effect as hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled abroad, said CV Wigneswaran, a retired Supreme Court judge who has just become a politician for the largest Tamil party.
"With that started the brain drain. A lot of intellectuals, lawyers, doctors, architects, engineers all went away from Sri Lanka. They thought there was no way out," he said.
"The diaspora today still cannot forget the death, damage, destruction that took place in 1983 because of which they had to leave Sri Lanka and go abroad."
I became familiar with this war-displaced Sri Lankan diaspora.  In 1987, when I came to Los Angeles for graduate schooling, my apartment-mates included two Sri Lankan Tamils.  Kugan was an emotional wreck, and even one criticism of the terror tactics that the LTTE employed would send him over the cliff and he would remind us of the horrors of that fateful July.  His sweetheart lived in Sri Lanka, and he could barely wait for her to join him in the US.  I think it was in 1989 that she finally was able to join him and their wedding was soon after at the temple in the canyons off Malibu.

Meanwhile, one of Kugan's close friends also came over for graduate school.  Ravi had more firsthand horror stories to narrate. One was absolutely cinematic.  It is one thing to watch a horror scene unfold on the screen.  But, when one realizes that this was no movie, it is bone-chilling and depressing, to say the least.  I remember his story of being chased by a Sinhalese mob, jumping over compound walls, hiding wherever he could, in order to save his life.  And, he exited the country when the opportunity came.

It was a tragic irony to study about Sri Lanka in the economic development literature in the graduate courses.  Sri Lanka and Costa Rica were some of the favorite textbook examples of how a society can have social indicators comparable to developed economies even without material prosperity.  Social indicators such as high literacy rates, long life expectancy, low infant mortality, relatively equal income distribution.  All these in an island with which Arab merchants fell in love on first sight.  Yet, it was a living hell. A hell from which a few escaped. A hell where sometimes men and women were burnt alive, or raped, or ...

An unfortunate reminder it is that not all that glitters is gold.  That an enchanting paradise is not always a paradise.  It is not the fault of the paradise though--it is all because we humans are no angels.


Ramesh said...

If humans were not just angels, that would still be OK. But some humans are monsters. What the LTTE did to its own people and to the others, is nothing short of Hitleresque proportions. The inventor of the suicide bomber, the leader of conscription of children into war, the unbelievable brutality they unleashed, largely on the Tamils themselves .....

The Sinhalese reaction to the terror attack was horrible and genocidal. The LTTE action for the next decades was , the most brutal happening after the Holocaust. The Sri Lankan Army's finishing off of the LTTE was no less terrible. Who suffered really were the innocent , ordinary Tamil and Sinhalese, and caught in the crossfire, some Indians, including alas, Rajiv Gandhi.

What monsters men can become :(

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, the LTTE was no saint either.

Yes, to your note on the suicide-bombing. In one of my columns for the paper here, back when Iraq and Afghanistan were experiencing suicide combing, I wrote about how the LTTE was the one that perfected this technique. Their atrocious "gift" to humanity that continues to this day.

The government and the LTTE ... difficult to figure out who was any less evil. Together, they managed to destroy a paradise.

Yes, some of us humans are monsters. Terrible, terrible monsters.

Anonymous said...

Although I try to avoid politics like a plague, I did receive some firsthand information from relatives living there. My mom and sister were visiting and left the morning that the fights broke out. The irony of it is that I am a Ceylon Tamil and they were driven to the airport by a Sinhalese friend who was a colonel in the army. From stories from relatives, the Tamil Tigers were actually terrifying the Tamils in Sri Lanka and forcing them to donate to the cause...sounded like my relatives had more problems with the Tamil Tigers than the Sinhalese. Unfortunately, a handful of individuals with a motive can turn an entire nation against each other. :-(

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