It was dark. Sleep still fogged her eyes, as she felt herself being grabbed off the bed and carried in familiar arms. She heard the laboured breathing and rapidity of movements as her baby sister was grabbed next. Her sleep-doused brother was being led by the hand. Disorientation gave way to recognition and curiosity. It was still night. Lights had not been turned on in the house. Her parents were in a hurry to get them out. They quickly but silently moved through the living room, into the kitchen and out the back door. She felt tired and rested her head on her father's shoulder.
They knocked on the door of their back neighbours, a Sinhalese family. Without a word, they were ushered in and shown into one of the rooms. Her father put her down. Her brother watched wideeyed. Her mother, still carrying her sleeping sister, grabbed her father by the arm as he moved toward the door. He shook his head and went out. The neighbour family tried to calm her mother down. They sat and waited. She felt her mother's anxiety as she kept a discreet watch out the window for her father. They suddenly heard noises: angry shouts; glass breaking; her father's name being called. Her mother trembled. She grabbed all three children, sat on the floor, and prayed.
Her father rushed in. Their house had been ransacked. Windows broken. Doors smashed. They had wanted him. But he had tripped while crossing a drain. The fall had stopped him from venturing further. Hidden by nearby bushes, he had watched their home being destroyed. Silently he had returned unnoticed and unharmed. Thank you, God.
Huddled together they waited for morning and slept restlessly. Morning came and the campus was in upheaval. Buses arrived to take the dispossessed families to temporary shelters. Decisions were made. Questions not asked. It had been inevitable. Civil tensions were rife and the country was in turmoil. Tamils in all majority Sinhalese areas were being targeted. So many were killed. Her family were simply one among a thousand. But they had been lucky. God had been with them.
She boarded a bus with her mother and sister. Her father and brother boarded another. They were driven to a crude refugee camp, a wall-less structure with a roof, filled with mats and curtains. Time elapsed--she did not know how long. They were moved to two further camps before finally making their way up north, to safety. They arrived at her grandparents' home in Jaffna. It was filled to the brim with other dispossessed family and friends, all with similar stories to her own.
The significance of that night, and the events that followed, did not dawn on her until many years later. It had been a time of confusion for her, but a time of terror for others. Many of her family had been attacked. Most had lost their homes and possessions. Some had been killed. And nearly all carried scars. The event became etched in the country's history as the infamous trigger that sparked already existing tensions into open civil warfare and the death of millions of people to follow--the 1983 Sri Lankan riots.
Today, tensions have not eased nor the war permanently ended. Relations between the minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese remain volatile. Uneasy truces are called--and often broken. Many have fled the country to seek shelter elsewhere, like her own family.
After arriving at her grandparents' home in 1983, she and her brother had been left in the care of their grandparents, while her parents and sister returned to the south. It was safer to separate. Five years she lived in Jaffna, oblivious to the war that raged around her. A sense of detachment pervaded her life. Everything took on a sense of unreality: the missiles flying overhead; the bunkers dug in the backyard; food rationed for tougher times; the clank of machine guns; and even the darkness of a kerosene lamp, for there had been no electricity.
The reality of the situation never hit her. It took five long years, a new country and God's warmth and patience in reuniting her family, for her to finally realise all that had happened and where she had actually been, and that God had been there with her all along. Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. Isaiah 65:24 (NIV). Christine Wignarajah is an assistant in the Human Resources Department of the South Pacific Division, based in Wahroonga, New South Wales. Christine's story, written in the third person, is a real-life account from her childhood.