This is a video and transcript of Brigadier (Retd) L.C. Perera speaking on his experience of the 1983 riots. This was recorded at a Heal Lanka forum, and you can see other recordings by clicking that link. Brigadier was there for everything and he has a gift for story-telling. It is important to hear these stories in such a human way, devoid of politics. This is the story of a soldier maturing, and seeing the scale of the tragedy to come.
Attached is a rough transcript below. It includes an intro not shown in the video:
“I will be basically talking to you about some human events, human stories, and not of concepts and roadmaps. My mind goes back to 1983, when I was in charge of an IDP center during the height of the riots, in July 1983. When I took over there were 3,500 inmates. When I handed over 24 hours later, there were 6,000. Now, when I looked in, we were providing the security, I looked in, I saw a lot of known children from my old school.
So when I saw these children in that center, I felt very uncomfortable, I went in, and I started talking. There was a table, I sat on it. They were all in a state of shock. Colombo was burning, and the sky was black with smoke; lives, hopes, sense of belonging, all were going up in flames. And the inmates, they were in absolute shock.
So I just started talking to them and they said this was the first time they’re speaking to an Army office, I was trying to carry on with some conversation. When one young man asked me, “How, excuse me sir, how do I get to the British High Commission. So I asked him, why do you want to go to the British High Commission? He said, “I’m a British citizen, I was born there.” Now I was so happy that I was having a conversation so I asked what are you doing there. He said, “I am studying for my Geography degree.”
Just to carry on a light conversation, I thought, I asked him, “Why Geography, are you planning to draw the line?” I didn’t realize what a foolish question that was. I realized I had put my boot in my mouth. He just looked up over the roof and this whole sky was black with smoke. And he said, “Sir, is there anything else left for me to do?”
That day I matured. Up to that point, all these operations were happy go jolly, cops and robbers sort of thing. But that day, I realized, this is serious. Lives are being lost, hopes are being lost, identities are being lost, and now this boy is getting into trouble by my asking a foolish question. So I said, “Son don’t talk like that, you’ll get shot.
When I said that, his eyes were still there. He looked at me and said, “Sir, for you to take me out and shoot me in this situation is nothing. I mean, it’s so easy.” He was very polite. He said, “Sir, but will that change the line?”
When he said that, that’s the time I really matured in this operation. I realized that the fire that we are seeing will not be doused easily unless we as a nation have a hard inward look.”