How the 1981 riots shaped my future

“This was my father’s lorry that he used for his business, he actually owned two of them and would deliver goods across Sabaragamuwa Province in Sri Lanka. He also owned two shops in Ratnapura. He was doing well in life. 

My father’s success in business allowed me to go to boarding school in the capital, Colombo, close to where he worked. Being at the school was something I didn’t take lightly especially being from the north, Pungudutivu to be exact – one of the islands west of Jaffna. There were a few of us who were at my school from the Tivus (islands) whose families had businesses in the south. As I was an ‘islander’ I had a pet name of Tivan at school. I loved it.

I had heard of communal anti Tamil riots taking place in Sri Lanka before. My school had a mix of all ethnicities and we got along really well, so I never thought much of it. You could say I was quite shielded, studying in the south.

In 1981, the anti Tamil violence by Sinhala mobs reached Ratnapura and my father’s lorries and shops were looted and burnt to the ground. People were killed, businesses destroyed and women raped. Fortunately my parents were safe. 

The news of the riots hadn’t hit me yet as I was still at school but I remember being called to the principal office that night. ‘Ahhh what am I in trouble for now?’ I thought something didn’t feel right. As I walked into the office I saw my parents sitting there, I was shocked. My principal told me they had to stay the night with me but didn’t go into any details. My mum burst into tears at this point. It was late and I could see my parents were incredibly tired, I didn’t question it and they stayed the night. My hostel was small, barely enough room for myself let alone both my parents. We didn’t talk much and went to sleep.

The next morning, my father explained to me what had happened. Again, they kept things brief. I had exams after all, and my progression mattered most. They didn’t hang around and caught the first bus back up to Jaffna telling me not to go back to Ratnapura and only to come to Jaffna to see them.

I still worried, I pictured my dad as invincible, a hero, a high flying businessman – I’d never seen him like this. The following night, after they left, I cried myself to sleep. I didn’t truly realise at the time but my entire future was about to change.     

My father struggled after that, he tried to get a business started in Jaffna but it didn’t pan out. I was planning to finish my exams and get a place at university but my father had other plans. He thought it would best for me to go abroad for my safety and to get an education there. I moved to London, UK the year after in 1982 to start a new life. I was only 20 years old.”