The uneasy relationship between Tamils and Sinhala has persisted for centuries, with cyclical exchanges of political power effected by means including war, economic dependence and turning-a-blind-eye coexistence. Periodically, the opposition explodes in frenzied violence – at which both sides have considerable practice – without any warning.
In 1990 there was just such an explosion at Batticaloa, cm Sri Lanka’s east coast – considered by the whole country to be a Tamil region not often involved with outright military confrontation. Episodes of violence there have generally consisted of ambushes, bombings and ‘guerrilla actions’. Severe incidents (any of which would be international headlines in most countries) in which 20 or 30 people might be made to ‘disappear’ or be found dead and mutilated, increased in number until August 3 when armed Tamil Tiger personnel butchered 103 Muslims from the mosque at Kattankudy. The next day they killed over 300 men and boys from the Meera Jumma mosque on the Kandy-Batticaloa road, and about 40 more from the nearby Hussainya mosque.
Retaliation came in the shape of the SLA (Sri Lanka Army) and Muslim guards, who on September 9 (known as Black September Day) took 158 Tamil civilians sheltering in the East University (Refugee) Campus plus 184 Tamil villagers from Sathurukondan village and caused all 342 to ‘disappear’.
The Tamil attacks of August had included single-shot executions of men with their hands bound and horrific, very public mutilations by machetes, grenades and machine guns. SLA/Muslim attacks left less bloody evidence but many mass graves. Neither side achieved anything except more dates to be remembered with further violence. In the 20 years since, peace declarations have been made and refuted and actual war has flared repeatedly. The Batticaloa massacres serve only as a terrible example of pointless tit-for-tat violence executed on the civilians who have least to gain from either side winning power.
When: August to September 1990
Where: Kattankudy and Sathurukondan, Batticaloa District, Sri Lanka
Death toll: About 450 Muslim men and boys, and about 350 Tamil men, women and children.
You should know: Sri Lanka is one of the few places on earth where massacres are endemic. In 1990, in the Batticaloa district alone, about 1,100 Tamils were killed by known SLA officers: there have been no prosecutions.