When Sri Lanka's worst ethnic violence in 35 years erupted July 25, University of Maryland geography professor Kenneth Corey was on that troubled Asian island 40 miles from the capital and completely unaware of the curfew and the civil maelstrom around him.

Corey, 44, credits his Sinhalese driver's coolness with getting him back safely. "At one point we were stopped by a man standing in the middle of the road waving a machete. He held a knife to the driver's throat and asked him six questions," Corey said.

"The content of the answers was not important. They Sinhalese were checking his accent to see if he was Tamil or Sinhalese. When they were convinced he was one of them they would ask for his gasoline to make petrol bombs, but he would just calmly explain he had to get his foreign clients to the airport."

Corey and others from the University of Maryland returned to the United States last week from Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, with firsthand accounts of the civil strife there.

He was part of a group of 29 academicians and five guests from the University of Maryland and four other American universities who visited the country for three to six weeks to study Third World development.

The trip also was funded in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development and is part of an ongoing exchange program between the University of Maryland and Sri Lanka.

University of Maryland international affairs director Karen Rawling, who led the group, found herself in a similar predicament when the trouble broke out. It was dark and past curfew as Rawling and her driver left Matera on the island's southwest coast for the capital city of Colombo and her motel 100 miles away.

"We had no idea there was rioting or we never would have tried it," she said last week. During the trip Rawling, 41, said she saw the violent retaliation of the Sinhalese majority for the July 23rd ambush of 13 Sinhalese soldiers by members of the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group seeking independence from Sri Lanka.

"This was one case when news reports may have underestimated the seriousness of the situation," Rawling said. With the aid of her Sinhalese driver, Rawling made it back to the hotel without serious incident but on the way saw dozens of Tamils attacked and their homes destroyed by "petrol bombs."

Corey and Rawling say they marveled at the selectivity of the Sinhalese violence against Tamils. "The amazing thing," said Rawling, "if you've ever seen a block of row houses--and these were shacks--is how they could burn two in the middle without destroying the rest of the building."

Corey said, "I talked with Tamils who said that if the rioters knew the Tamils were renting their house, and it was owned by a Sinhalese, then they would only be looted. The house itself would be untouched. Whether the Tamils were very rich or very poor, everything they had was gone."

By the time he reached Colombo, Corey said, the capital was covered in a thick cloud of smoke from the dozens of Tamil-owned factories and stores that had been firebombed.

Linda Racioppi, a political science graduate student at the university, said, "People on the street kept saying don't worry about this." She was in Colombo with her husband, Michael Miller, also a political science graduate student.

"It's frightening just to be foreign to begin with," Racioppi said. "You don't know what people are talking about and you get frightened more than the situation warrants."

Corey said the violence in Sri Lanka is an unfortunate setback for the country, which has been considered a model of Third World economic growth. With one of the lowest birthrates in Asia, good public services and strong democratic traditions, Sri Lanka has been moving steadily toward what it calls an "open economy" system.

"They are just marvelous people and need our support right now. That is why we need to keep these contacts," Corey said.