Anti-Tamil riots of August 1977

"It was a struggle to keep the services going. Bodies were getting stacked almost to roof level and I had to get magisterial permission to dispose of them without inquest. Meantime the wife of the dead MLT was crying over the telephone from Vauniya to release her husband's body. Since the JMO also had run away I did the post mortem myself and released the body. It was while I was doing this that an administrative colleague dropped in to see me. He was going from Jaffna to Colombo."

by Dr. K. N. K. Wijayawardana

(February 25, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The press recently highlighted the events of Black July '83. The public may have forgotten that there was a similar pogrom against Tamil people at Anuradhapura in August '77. I was witness to this from start to finish and also did my bit to help and rescue Tamil officers.

I was Medical Superintendent at the Anuradhapura hospital, my first administrative appointment. Nobody had an inkling of what was going to happen on that calm August morning. Not even the police. In fact my family were due to come from Colombo on that day for a vacation. The trouble started at the A’pura railway station. When the Colombo bound Jaffna train pulled in at the A’pura station the Tamil passengers were pulled out by mobs and assaulted. Soon rioting spread to the town and I made a frantic call to my wife asking them not to come as I knew we were heading for big trouble. Casualties were being brought in a steady stream to hospital and mobs were looting Tamil shops and houses. I went to the A’pura police station to request for an immediate curfew. I found two cabinet ministers seated there and leant that they had been sent by helicopter on a "fact finding mission". I introduced myself and told them that I had information that the hospital would be attacked and requested for an immediate curfew. They appeared quite unmoved and I remember getting angry and threatening to close down the hospital if it was attacked. This seemed to galvanise them and they ordered a mobile patrol for the hospital. I came back to the hospital to find that the female house officers' quarters had been set on fire. The irony of this attack was that it was a Sinhalese female doctor who got the worst of it. Except for the saree she was wearing she lost everything she had. I rushed back to the police station. The two Cabinet ministers had disappeared. Their "fact finding mission" had been confined to sitting in the police station. I repeated my threat to close the hospital and was given an armed escort to patrol the hospital. When I returned to hospital I found that almost all the doctors including the Sinhalese ones had run away due to fear and some taking advantage of the situation. I was left with one or two consultants and two Sinhalese female interns. Somehow we kept a skelton service going.

In the afternoon the violence and looting continued. I saw whole houses being dismantled and building material taken away in bullock carts. I was informed that the MOH who was a Tamil officer was isolated. I immediately went in a vehicle and brought him, his family and household goods to my quarters. I must mention here the name of a Sinhalese doctor who encouraged and helped me in this rescue work. He is Dr. Abeysiri Gunawardena who was V.O.G and who lived with me in my quarters. In the evening the Tamil clerical staff and lab technicians requested my permission to occupy the room next to my office upstairs for the night as they felt unsafe in their boarding. I granted permission and nearly thirty officers were huddled in that room. Later the Tamil doctors informed me that they also felt unsafe in their homes and Abeysiri and I transported them and their families to my spacious quarters. There were sixty odd men, women and children given accommodation in my quarters. While I was going about these tasks I realised that hateful glances were directed at me. I was spat upon by an unidentified person and as I left the hospital a chair was thrown at me which fortunately missed me. I simply carried on ignoring these threats. Shortly after dusk I was in my quarters which is not far from the hospital when I heard a big commotion in the hospital. My immediate reaction was to go and investigate when two overseers came running and restrained me, begging me not to go. Later it transpired that a mob of about hundred people armed with iron rods and other weapons had broken the door of the room where the Tamil clerks had taken refuge and attacked them. Most had saved their lives by jumping from the windows, except for a lab technologist (MLT) who was handicapped. He was simply bludgeoned to death. I was told later that the modus operandi of the mob was to first knock off the main switch and using the darkness to prevent identification and attack everybody who they thought were Tamils. Later I learnt also that the mob after their foul murder at the hospital had planned to march to my quarters and attack the Tamil doctors and their families there. If that had happened there would have been mass murder and Abey and I certainly would not have been spared. I was public enemy number one for using my position to safeguard and help Tamil officers. To our luck and being destined to live an army truck had appeared from somewhere and parked in our compound. The mob had seen this truck, got cold feet and retreated. The next morning all the Tamil doctors and their families were transported to the Kachcheri premises and thence by convoy to Jaffna.

It was a struggle to keep the services going. Bodies were getting stacked almost to roof level and I had to get magisterial permission to dispose of them without inquest. Meantime the wife of the dead MLT was crying over the telephone from Vauniya to release her husband's body. Since the JMO also had run away I did the post mortem myself and released the body. It was while I was doing this that an administrative colleague dropped in to see me. He was going from Jaffna to Colombo. When he saw me he was shocked at the situation in the hospital and my state. Later I learnt that he had gone to the Health Ministry and advised them to pull me out from there. However I was certainly not going to run away and thought working almost round the clock felt that I should be there and somehow keep the hospital going. The next day too the violence continued. Abey had also left by now and I began to feel uneasy and isolated. I tried to contact police officers whom I knew to find nobody available. Usually we depend upon the police for our protection and without even this I remember I had the fear of death in me. What can you do with the prospect of facing a murderous mob except pray? My instinct for self preservation told me to shift gears and using all my wits and tact I gradually got on to the good side of the minor staff and other assorted characters. In my job I was very strict with the minor staff and even punished some severely.

However when they had problems with outsiders I invariably took their side and also helped in their personal matters. They remembered this and I think this fact and my religious beliefs probably saved me.

Gradually the situation improved and the army made its presence felt. The local army commander was made the competent authority and no public servant could leave his post without his successor coming. After some days a new Superintendent of Health Services (SHS) was appointed to A’pura and I was allowed to leave. When I got to Colombo I went to the ministry and met the secretary who was known to my brother. He looked very worried and anxious and obviously had been told about the terrible situation at Aand the dangers I faced. He asked me if I was feeling alright. I immediately sensed an opportunity here for a transfer and told him that I could not sleep and was having nightmares although in fact I had neither. I was immediately given a sympathetic transfer to Colombo where my family was. In point of fact even without white lies I very much deserved it.

When I assumed duties as Medical Superintendent Eye Hospital Colombo a female Tamil eye surgeon who was also my batchmate told me that she had heard of what I had done at A’pura and that if I went to Jaffna I would be considered a hero. I did what I did not with any thoughts of any heroism but simply because I had a sense of responsibility and felt it my duty to safeguard my officers whatever their race. It was as simple as that. However it never occurred to me that in doing so I was flirting with danger.

Later when I looked back on these incidents what puzzled me was how seemingly normal and decent people could when they get into a mob become sadistic enough to attack people and even kill. This may be due to what is called ‘herd instinct’ where the mob is mentally conditioned to do whatever the ‘leader’ suggests. This also happens during ragging by university students. Also at that time in A’pura there was a heavy preponderance of Tamil officers in the health sector. In fact I was pulled put of my original station of Mulleriyawa and sent to A’pura to ‘balance’ the equation. I think that there was some antagonism over this. Also during the '77 general elections at the postal voting most of the Tamil clerks openly showed their ballot papers, showing everybody how they voted which was en bloc to the TULF. I remember there was some bad blood over this among the Sinhalese officers.

Anyhow whatever the reasons or provocations are, there is absolutely no justification to attack and kill helpless and defenceless human beings. We have to learn to live together as fellow citizens and I firmly believe that the sordid events that I have described will never happen again.