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Black July,grey dawn.

July 21, 2011

I am always jittery in July. There was a July in 1983, that has been given the slightly mawkish title “black July” by my community. It was the July where Sinhalese mobs, possibly aided by the army – who knows?, lynched and murdered any Tamils they could find. I was in Jaffna. At the time, Jaffna was a haven – the place Tamils could flee to when they were hunted down in the rest of the country. So I was safe. I just heard the stories of the people who arrived newly homeless and terrified from the south.

My great-grandmother didn’t tell me her story, but others did. A gang surrounded the house she lived in with her daughter, son-in-law and their children. The man of the house was away – only the women and children were there to face the mob who arrived. My great-grandmother decided to tie up as much of the family gold she could in her sari and hide in the bathroom. The rest of the family  _ a deaf woman and her young children, faced the gunmen.

They would have died that day, if a Sinhala neighbour had not come in and asked his compatriots if they weren’t ashamed of themselves to attack a family when the man of the house was away.  His words hit home. The mob _ I still have no idea how many there were or who they were _ put their guns down. But they still demanded that everyone hand over whatever gold they were wearing and run, so they could torch the house. The children obeyed, but began crying, pleaded that they let their grandmother (my great-grandmother) escape. This faceless mob, trying hard to be both human and brutal, asked where she was then carried her, and all the hidden jewels, out of the house before setting it alight.

I saw them  later, when they arrived in Jaffna, after a few bewildering nights at a refugee camp. The youngest girl – who was seven _ kept speaking about how she took ages to take off her earrings as her hands were shaking so much.

The story that cheered us all then was that of my tiny, indomitable great-grandmother, being carried out of her own home with the hidden jewels still wrapped around her.


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