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24 July 1983

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Anti-Tamil riots break out in parts of Colombo, and later spread to other areas, lasting one week. The riots are in response to the killing of 13 soldiers by the Tamil Tigers in Jaffna. The event is later remembered as ‘Black July’. Estimates of Tamil deaths vary from 387 (official figures) to 3,000 Tamils; 18,000 Tamil homes and 5,000 shops were destroyed. Over 100,000 Tamils fled to India. A state of emergency is imposed.

Sources and quotations

“Eye witnesses and victims reported that on the streets cars were stopped by gangs and the people inside were asked whether they were Sinhalese or Tamil. Some Sinhalese words are extremely difficult for people who do not speak the language fluently to pronounce, people were tested by being made to pronounce these words. The mobs were also demanding to see identity cards to establish whether or not people were Tamils… People identified as Tamils as a result of the questioning were told to get out of their cars and their cars were set alight… In cases where any resistance was offered, killings were likely to take place… It was reported by many people that in some instances students from Buddhist schools followed on behind the first rioters and that some Buddhist monks were seen amongst the gangs.” Patricia Hyndman, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of New South Wales and Secretary, Lawasia Human Rights Standing Committee Report – Democracy in Peril, June 1985.

“A tourist told yesterday how she watched in horror as a Sinhala mob deliberately burned alive a bus load of Tamils… Mrs. Eli Skarstein, back home in Stavanger, Norway, told how she and her 15 year old daughter, Kristin, witnessed one massacre. “A mini bus full of Tamils were forced to stop in front of us in Colombo” she said. A Sinhalese mob poured petrol over the bus and set it on fire. They blocked the car door and prevented the Tamils from leaving the vehicle. “Hundreds of spectators watched as about 20 Tamils were burned to death”. Mrs. Skarstein added: “We cannot believe the official casualty figures. Hundreds may be thousands must have been killed already.” London Daily Express, 29th August 1983.

“Considerably more people died during the recent violence in Sri Lanka than the 380 deaths the government there has admitted to, according to an aid organisation. Dr. Sjef Teuns, General Secretary of Novib, the leading private development aid organisation in the Netherlands, said between 1000 and 2000 people lost their lives. He returned to Netherland on Saturday. He accused the Sri Lanka government of serious human rights violations against the Tamil population and called the Dutch government to reconsider its development aid policy towards the country.” The Times of London, 22 August 1983.

“Our view is that the July holocaust was a pre-planned, well-orchestrated genocidal pogrom against the Tamils, carried out by the racial elements of the ruling party. Initially, these racist elements did attempt to put the whole blame on the LTTE. Then, suddenly, they blamed the left parties for the riots. But in fact, it is the racist leaders of the present government who should take responsibility for this tragic loss of life.” Velupillai Pirapaharan, Leader of Tamil Eelam in an interview with Anita Pratap, March 1984.

“It is relevant to mention the gruesome massacre of 53 Tamil prisoners in the Welikade jail in Colombo on July 25 and 27 last year. Many of them were only detainees on suspicion and not convicted prisoners. After they were brutally murdered, their wives, sisters, children and parents came to know about their death only through the radio. Much more terrible was the fact that the bodies of these detainees were buried or cremated without any member of the families knowing or being present. They were not even given the chance of having a last look at the body. No amount of sanctimonious expressions of sorrow or statements made before the Commission that the Sri Lankan Government was not proud of what happened at the Colombo jail would be acceptable to the civilised world, when up to date, the government has failed or neglected or refused to order an independent judicial inquiry into this unprecedented slaughter of those who were in the custody of the Government.” Statement by All India Womens Conference at UN Sub Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, 24 August 1984.

“Three weeks ago, the people of Sri Lanka passed through experiences which they have rarely had in this country since Independence. Hundreds of people lost their lives, thousands lost their jobs, houses were burned, factories destroyed. These events applied equally to all citizens of Sri Lanka – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims…. I had been advised that I should say this or something else, but I thought that I should speak from the depth of my conscience…” President Jayawardene, 22nd of August 1983.

“This was part of an international conspiracy to destabilise us. We know who are behind it at all. I have even told the nation this… These people are jealous of the success of our experiments with a free economy. That is why they are trying their best to set us in flames. Behind all this is the foreign hand: the KGB, to be precise. I am not afraid of saying this openly.” Anandatissa de Alwis, Minister of State, Interview by Pritish Nandy, Illustrated Weekly of India, 18 December 1983.

Interview by Anita Pratap with Velupillai Pirabakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam, March 1984, Sunday Magazine, India 11-17 March 1984:
Q: “The Liberation Tiger for Tamil Eelam (LTTE) staged the 23 July 1983 ambush in which 13 Sinhalese soldiers were killed. The ambush was allegedly the reason for the Sinhalese retaliation on innocent Tamils. Did you expect such a massive retaliation?”

A:”The July violence should not be assessed simply as a Sinhala retaliation for the guerrilla ambush. This view is a gross oversimplification of the event. The island has been plagued with anti-Tamil racial violence which erupts periodically over the years. There were violent racial holocausts even before the emergence of our movement. Violent riots erupted in Trincomalee a couple of weeks before the ambush. Therefore, the phenomenon of anti-Tamil racial violence cannot be traced to a single event. We are engaged in a protracted guerrilla warfare. There has been several guerrilla raids, several ambushes,, and we have killed several Sinhala soldiers and policemen The July ambush was only a part of the warfare we are engaged in. It is incorrect to assume that one particular military operation has precipitated the entire violence. The July riots, you would have certainly observed, was not aimed at the physical extermination of our people but it was also aimed the destruction of the economic power base of the Tamils in Colombo. Our view is that the July holocaust was a pre-planned, well- orchestrated genocidal pogrom against the Tamils, carried out by the racial elements of the ruling party. Initially, these racist elements did attempt to put the whole blame on the Tiger. Then, suddenly they blamed the left parties for the riots. But in actual fact, it is the racist leaders of the present government who should be the responsibility for this tragic loss of life and property of our people.”

Related events
Tigers kill 13 soldiers in armed ambush
Anti-Tamil violence spreads around the country
Anti-Tamil riots causes civilian deaths and displacement
31 May 1981
Tigers attack international airport

Other features
Feature: Historical roots of conflict in Sri Lanka
Feature: Assassination of an activist
Feature: LTTE expels northern Muslims, 1990

13 comments for “24 July 1983”

  • kannan said,

    In 1958, following similar but less severe communal violence, the journalist Tarzie Vittachi (Emergency ’58) wrote that “a race cannot be held responsible for the bestiality of some of its members”. Despite Vittachi’s caution, the inexcusable acts of those responsible for the savagery of ‘Black July’, including the Sinhalese state that allegedly masterminded the pogrom, have perhaps inevitably been projected by many Tamils (particularly amongst the Diaspora) onto the entire Sinhala race.

    When reading about that week-long mayhem, descriptions such as ‘heroism’, ‘selflessness’ and ‘sacrifice’ rarely surface amidst the terror. What is less known and to date not given due public acknowledgement – only talked about in private circles – are the stories of the families, both Sinhalese and Muslims, who risked their own lives during that terrible week to shelter and protect those they considered their fellow Sri Lankans.

    One story has received much attention: that of the mob attack on the Welikada prison, where Tamil political prisoners were massacred. A lone Sinhala prison guard hid the keys to the cells, saving the lives of Tamil prisoners in one wing as a manhunt raged around them.

    There must be many other stories of courage. When your government fails to act and allegedly fuelling the frenzy, when your own president fails to condemn the atrocities and proclaims that “if the Tamils are starved out, the Sinhala people will be happy” (Daily Telegraph, 11 July 1983), and you still risk your life at the hands of an angry mob, maybe it is time to hear more of these stories.

  • prashan said,

    It is important to remember that not everyone was part of a mob that day or in the days that followed. People who lived around us saved our lives. As Wellawatte burned, and many houses around ours were gutted, people we knew took shifts to stand by our house, to tell anyone who asked that the house was Sinhala owned.

    It was enough for the mobs to move on and to leave our house standing. We owe these people more than our lives. We owe them for the continuity of a sense of belonging to more than just an ethnic group but also to a diverse country, a mixed community, a multiplicity of religions, beliefs and values.

    Many people lost all this, on those terrible days, and a few didn’t because of other ordinary people, who refused to bow to the political hysteria or to the madness of the mob.

  • chandrika said,

    I fully agree with Prashan. At the time, I lived in Kotahena and while Tamiles were the majority, my neighbours included the Sinhalese and Burgher communities. The picture is still vivid in my mind. I was preparing for my 2nd year exams at the law faculty of the University of Colombo. Our non-Tamil neighbours kept our valuables safe, gave us shelter and brought the daily provisions. The principal of the Good Shepherd Convent – Sr. Agnes De Sampayo – offered to keep me and my sister at the convent, although we refused to leave my brothers and parents alone. Our friends, including the editor of a leading newspaper in Sri Lanka today, would visit us and bring friends along and help us pass the time by playing cricket at the nearby playground with my two brothers. We managed to escape. It was God’s grace, but the fear that it instilled in me cannot be erased easily. My parents’ life savings – a house we rented out to Tamils – was burned to the ground and sold for a song by my dad without our knowledge, probably due to the pain it caused him. Before those events, I did not think that being a Tamil was any different because we mixed with all and studied in English or Sinhala. …

    I am now married to a non-Tamil and we lived out of the country for about 11 years. We returned when the ceasefire was signed, but with what is happening now, the fear has engulfed me again. I have two sons 17 and 15 for whom the only language in which they feel at ease is English. I feel so anxious for them, as they do not speak Sinhala, and worry for them at check points or that they will have to witness what I witnessed when I was 20 years old. … Still I am thankful for this country for the values it instilled in me, the education it gave me and to my teachers. Despite what we have been through and still go through emotionally, I don’t feel any hate against my Sinhala brothers: my heart will always be at home in Sri Lanka. I long for those days. I fear for my kids. We are only human and it is our experiences that mould us. I wish to thank those who protected us during ’83; some are dead and gone. Aunty Mona died in USA, Mrs. Silva and her family are now in Australia, Hiran is in USA, Lasantha is in Sri Lanka, the late Shivanka. …

    I believe in the God above to be honest to some of those involved in the riots. … I don’t know why they did it, but I forgive them. But it is hard to forget the emotional scars it has created and my hope is that if we all look, we will find a way to settle this conflict and help Sri Lanka get back on its feet. To be an example to other conflict-ridden nations. These are my personal thoughts and beliefs – please do not take it as political.

  • Ravindra Ranasinha said,

    I find the data very important and impressive. The stories of those who experienced Black July are really valuable as they are first-hand data for anyone who is interested in gaining knowledge on the history of violence in Sri Lanka. I suggest you also include possible Conflict Transformational processes so that one could use them as tools to rebuild the lives of the people.

  • kannan said,

    I caught up with my cousin Anjali, now living in Britain, to speak to her about her experiences of Black July, events that forced her family to leave Sri Lanka for good. Anjali was just 13 years old, but she remembers the events vividly. Her family lived in the hill country town of Kandy, some 70 miles from the capital Colombo.

    She remembers how the 24th of July started and continued like any other: her journey on the school bus and the usual day’s lessons. But towards the end of the day something strange happened. Her teachers asked the girls to remove their pottu, the mark worn by Tamil women and girls on their forehead. As Anjali rubbed the pottu mark off her forehead, she knew something was not quite right.

    Her suspicions increased when an uncle from Colombo called up that evening, urging the family not to stay in the house, especially since Anjali’s father was in London at the time. While Anjali’s mother was busy packing, she and her brother were more concerned with hiding things around the house. It became a game for them. Anjali hid her violin under her bed thinking it was the safest place.

    Riots and killings

    As they were packing, Padma, a Sinhalese family friend arrived at the house. She suggested that they stay with her family until things calm down. Padma’s family was large, so the prospect of spending time with children her own age was exciting for Anjali. They left the house with three suitcases packed with clothes, thinking they would be away for only couple of days.

    That evening, Anjali remembers how the adults sat around the dining table trying to tune the radio so that they could catch the BBC World Service, the only reliable link to news of the emerging chaos around the country. But with so many people under the same roof, Anjali felt safe. The children were pleased that they were allowed to stay up so late.

    The fear first struck Anjali when she heard the noise of the mob talking and marching outside the house. She overheard the adults saying that they were some thirty or forty of them. She started to listen to the news. People were calling the house. The riots had spread across the island; Tamils were being killed and their homes destroyed.

    Refugees

    A few days later Anjali’s family learned that their own house had been burnt down. But it was only after two weeks that they felt safe enough to leave Padma’s house. During the journey, Anjali remembers thinking whether her violin would still be there. When they arrived, they were shocked to see the charred remains of their former home. Each room had a single heap of burnt remains, as if their belongings had been emptied from their cupboards and piled up to ensure that nothing remained.

    In late August, Anjali and her family left the country as refugees to join their father in England. Like thousands of others, they started new lives there. Anjali’s family is of course deeply aware that Padma’s family risked their lives to protect them. She wonders now how they must have felt, putting their own family at risk. But whenever they have met since, the families never talk about Black July. Not because it is a taboo subject, but because they feel that what they did was only normal, what any human being would have done in their position. Source:
    Sri Lanka: 25th anniversary of Black July
    , The State We’re In, Radio Netherlands, 18 July 2008.

  • Vino Wijeratne said,

    My parents would have been victims of this terrible, ghastly massacre if not for kind and compassionate Sinhala neighbours who took them into their home, almost seconds before the mob came round, looted and damaged their house. Another family stepped out onto the street and prevented my parents home being burnt by saying: “What have these innocent people done to you?”

    As cowardly and cruel the mob was, the kindness of the Sinhalese people cannot go unmentioned and that was why my parents rebuilt their home and were determined to live amongst their ‘countrymen’ rather than move and live amongst their ‘race’.

    But surely, Black July will cry shame in the annals of Sri Lankan history.

  • Vinod Moonesinghe said,

    I was in Jaffna on 4 February 1983 when the rebels set fire to the CTB buses. The working class Tamil people I was staying with at the time were dismissive of the separatists. When I returned to Colombo, things seemed fairly normal, insofar as anything could be considered normal under the J.R. Jayawardene regime!

    But around the beginning of July, things started to change. There were reports of anti-Tamil ‘incidents’ in towns outside Colombo. On the 23rd, we heard the news that 13 soldiers had been killed in Jaffna by the Tigers and that their bodies were to be brought to the Kanatte burial ground in Borella. Later that evening an aunt who lived in Borella telephoned, saying that there was rioting on the streets and Tamil shops and businesses were being torched. She phoned again early the next morning asking whether she and her daughter could come and stay with us until things calmed down.

    The next morning I went to work as usual. I worked as a trainee engineer at the firm of Brown and Co. in Slave Island. That morning, I saw the houses on Fountain House Lane, just behind our workshop, go up in flames. One of my co-workers who went to look from the top of the building told us that people were being butchered with swords.

    I decided to go home and walked down Darley Road towards Union Place. At Hyde Park Corner, I saw a group of people setting fire to Tamil owned shops. A remember a jeep packed with soldiers passed me. They waved to the mob encouraging them to throw more tyres onto the burning buildings.

    I then went to visit my friend Mevan at his workplace. Several of us piled into a car and we drove back to Welikadawatte, where we lived. During our journey, at Nugegoda, we were stopped by a gang of youths who wanted some petrol, presumably to make Molotov cocktails. They told us that it was our ‘patriotic duty’ to help them. Despite telling them we had run out, they still tried to siphon petrol from the tank, but unsuccessfully. They let us go on our way.

    When we got home we found that a group of people, carrying lists that identified Tamil residencies, had visited Welikadawatte to attack Tamil houses. My mother had taken in an Indian lady who had been visiting one of our Tamil neighbours. The rioting mob had assaulted the man of that house and stolen his wife’s jewellery. TV sets, other electronic equipment and furniture had been destroyed. The Indian lady had tried to conceal her own jewellery under her blouse, but one of the men had taken it from her. She was in a state of complete shock.

    Later that day we managed to send the Indian lady off safely. I heard that Mevan’s family had taken some of our Tamil neighbours in for safety, so together with some friends, we went to his house, to keep guard. Later that evening, when we heard the mob approaching, we walked towards them. They threatened us, waving their swords. We were only ‘armed’ with lengths of PVC pipe, but they decided to pass.

    During the next few days we received several menacing calls, but opportunist looters were scared away by a few firm words. The days were spent playing scrabble and smoking whatever we could find. We had a haphazard shift system – we would go back to our own houses to sleep and eat, but someone kept guard 24 hours a day.

    All this time there was not a hum from J.R. Jayawardene. I distinctly recall the front page headline of the Daily News : ‘Preserving our forest cover’. Surely a more urgent priority when the country was going up in flames!

    As I recall, it was on Wednesday the 26th of July, that JR finally came on TV, blaming the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the Communist Party and Vasudeva Nanayakkara’s Nava Sama Samaja Party for the pogrom. We couldn’t believe the audacity of these claims. I knew Vasudeva personally and there was no way of him ever being involved. Similarly, the CP leaders had risked their lives in protest of the language issue in 1958 and would never have taken part in any race riot. I did not know about the JVP, but suspected they had no hand in this. For me, it was clear. It was a government run operation. The three parties were later proscribed and their leaders arrested.

    On the 28th I went to Colombo by bus to get some foreign exchange from the Bank of Ceylon in Fort. As we went down Union Place, I heard an elderly working class woman remarking in Sinhala how shameful the riots were. I felt heartened that in the midst of whipped up racist sentiment, an ordinary person could still think like this.

    In the Fort, I went to the bank on York Street. As I got there, a group of policemen started firing their rifles towards Pettah. A rumour had circulated that the Tigers had come to Pettah. There were scenes of utter panic and people fled the area. I managed to get a lift to Union Place. When I came to the Galle Face Hotel, a well=built soldier carrying a pistol was stopping vehicles shouting, “Have you got any Thalayas?” Thalaya means ‘sesames’, Sinhala slang for ‘Tamils’.

    At Union Place, I walked a short distance, but then managed to get a taxi. The Taxi was stopped at various points, and some elderly people and others from out of town fleeing Colombo, piled in. The road was busy with people, seemingly getting ready to fight the Tigers, armed with knives! I noticed many identical plastic-handled daggers and cudgels. One boy I saw was even armed with a coconut scraper. Two Buddhist nuns were running along the road waving cudgels, something which I – as a Buddhist- found deeply disturbing.

    After I got home, houses on the opposite side of the marsh started going up in flames, one after the other. My father went to Nawala to rescue one family, but their house was gutted. That night we managed to get the Air Force to come in a lorry and take away the families we had been helping. We felt no longer able to protect them by ourselves.

    I learned later that the myth that the Tigers had come to Colombo had spread like wildfire around the city. According to some people, the police at Talangama had handed over their rifles to local thugs and crime syndicates and fled the police station dressed in mufti.

    Later that year, a senior government minister, Ananda Tissa de Alwis, would blame the Soviet Union’s KGB for responsibility for the pogrom.

  • kannan said,

    In its statement on Black July, the National Peace Council (NPC), remembers not only the victims of the terrible events of Black July, but also recognises those that came to the assistance of others, who saw beyond ethnic and cultural lines:

    “On the 25th Anniversary of what has been termed Black July, the National Peace Council also seeks to honour the memory of those who were victims of ethnic violence. But most importantly, we pay homage to those who, in times of heightened danger, risked their own security and well being to provide assistance to these victims, without any regard to ethnic differences or cultural identity. It is in moments like these that we have observed that the courage and empathy of humanity grows stronger.” Full statement of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka

  • [...] 24 July 1983 on PACT: A very good starting point for research on Black July. Peace and Conflict Timeline (PACT) itself is a great initiative that I have reviewed in detail.  [...]

  • P. Selvaratnam said,

    Many people/websites keep saying the following utterly false statement:

    “The riots are in response to the killing of 13 soldiers by the Tamil Tigers in Jaffna”

    We all know very well what J.R. Jayawardene and his ministers were saying and doing from 1977 onwards and ’13 soldiers’ brought forward their plan by a few hours. When we make this clear to a critical mass of Sinhalese our problem will be mostly solved. We need to avoid losing precious time and energy.

    As our conflict is one of the most vicious of intrastate conflicts of our times, solving it will enhance solving others which is becoming more and more crucial to the survival of the planet.

  • Vinod Moonesinghe said,

    What P. Selvaratnam says has more than a grain of truth, although the immediate raison d’etre for the pogrom was the killing of the 13 soldiers. In the weeks prior to Black July there were several reports of anti-Tamil riots in the out-stations.

    There had been no major ethnic riots between 1958 and 1977. When J.R. Jayawardena was elected Prime Minister in 1977, he launched a campaign to suppress all opposition. He immediately unleashed his goons in an assault on the Left, beating leftists on the streets and chasing them from their homes – several thousand people in N.M. Perera’s constituency of Yatiyantota alone were made homeless. Within weeks he turned his machine on the Tamil population in Colombo and on the estates.

    The period between 1977 and 1983 was punctuated by acts of violence against the Left and the Tamil opposition. However, the acts of gross illegality against the Left – such as the breaking of the 1980 general strike with bicycle chains and swords and the arrest of union leaders, the assault on Vivienne Goonewardena and the stoning of the judges’ houses, the imprisonment of Wijeya Kumaratunga, T.B. Ilangaratne and the so-called ‘Naxalites’ – were complemented by JR’s assault on the Tamil people.

    This took the overt form of treating the North as an occupied territory, burning the Jaffna library, arbitrarily arresting and torturing youth. There was a more insidious covert campaign carried out at the same time, targeting the Tamil people. Anti-tamil propaganda was carried out by the government machine – it was no accident that the textile factory of Gnanam was burnt down in the 1983 riot.

    The current war is more a creation of J.R. Jayawardena than of Prabhakaran. He exacerbated ethnic differences as a ruse to increase his power and we are reaping the whirlwind that he sowed.

  • [...] on the Vikalpa YouTube Channel on the reactions of citizens today to the events of July 1983, the Special Edition of Groundviews on 1983 and the race riots of 1958 and other initiatives such as PACT’s featured event on 24 July [...]

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by appandai, itbcd and ?????(Deepak R), eramurukan. eramurukan said: ??? ?????????????? 1983-?? ???????.http://tinyurl.com/6dmq7nf ????? ????? ???????? ???????????? ????????? ?????? ????..????? #tnfisherman [...]

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