On the 23rd of July 1983, irrational, hot-blooded, brutal and violent mobs that were made up of Sinhalese civilians – uncles, fathers, brothers, shop-keepers, businessmen, tailors, drivers, teachers, who knows – sought out and attacked Tamil civilians, killing them, injuring them, looting their property and burning their homes. The riots, which began in Colombo, in the aftermath of a funeral of 13 Sri Lanka Army soldiers, who were ambushed and killed by the LTTE in Jaffna, spread through the country over the next few days, affecting areas which had sizable Tamil populations. However, Colombo remains the place where the toll was largest. Though the riots went on for days, and Tamils remained unsafe not just in the following weeks, but the following decades – well, let’s just say more like ever after – it is the 23rd of July that we call the Black July Commemoration Day. It is 1983 – and this riot – that many history books and historical narratives will call the beginning of Sri Lanka’s civil war (though it was not, really). But out of this terrible ordeal, there rose enduring stories: about families who hid their friends at great personal risk, people who cared for families who had lost everything – in one hour, in one fire – people who reached out to other people. And those stories are great not because they are about inter-ethnic harmony, not because they are about Sinhalese families who helped Tamil families (as they very well should have), but because they are about human relationships and human beings – strange and complex creatures that we are. It is the 23rd of July that we remember as being a turning point, the moment in time in which faith was irrepressibly destroyed, hope shattered, and trust undone. It is the day we remember a horrific event out of which there came absolutely no good. It is the day we remember all those who were killed, assaulted, attacked, stolen from, and all the thousands of others – not just one but perhaps two generations of Sri Lankan Tamils – who then saw no choice but to leave Sri Lanka and never return. It is the day we remember that so many of our fellow Sri Lankans were made to feel unsafe in their own homes, in their own country. It is the day we remember all that we had, all that we lost, in that precise moment in time, where scales were tipped, people frightened, angered, more violence made inevitable. It is the day we remember who we are, what we’ve been through, what we’ve done to each other and to ourselves.
But, actually, we don’t remember.