“What was our crime?”

  Published : 12:40 am  June 19, 2014  |  8,221 views  |  18 comments  |  Print This Post   |  E-mail to friend
By Dharisha Bastians in Beruwala and Aluthgama
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Thousands of displaced people in the riot-rocked towns of Beruwala and Aluthgama are too afraid to go home again – and many of them have no homes to return to

 

 

The watcher at the Al Humeisara Central College in China Fort is compulsive about keeping the tall gates padlocked at all times. He ushers authorised vehicles in and hurriedly shuts the gates behind them, casting furtive looks on the road outside.
Inside the closely-guarded gates, schoolroom desks and chairs are stacked in corners. All the signs of mass displacement abound – large water tanks, truckloads of relief items and make-shift first aid centres. Infants and toddlers snooze in the stifling noon day heat on the floors of fly-infested classrooms. Some of them are only a few weeks old.
The children seem to be the only ones removed from the anger and sorrow that is pervasive in the schoolyard. Thrilled to be skipping school and surrounded by dozens of playmates, they put the Al Humeisara swing sets and climbing frames to good use.
It could be Vavuniya or Batticaloa five or six years ago. Except that the camp lies barely 60 kilometres from the capital Colombo and this is not a war zone.
Displaced by deadly riots
But for a thousand people, all of them Muslims from the area, home has been behind the careful watcher’s latchkey ever since deadly sectarian riots on Sunday night.
When the riots in Aluthgama spilled over into adjoining Beruwala on 15 June, Muslim residents in Ambepitiya and the China Fort area fled to the Jamiya Nalimiya University. The next morning, realising that security there was poor, the crowds of people, who had fled the looting and burning of their shops and homes, flooded into the Central College. Three days later, 267 families or 1,016 people are sheltered in the school, many of them either too scared to go home or with no place to call home any longer.
Al Humeisara Principal M.R.M. Rizki told the Daily FT that he had informed the Zonal educational authorities that the school would be shut because over 1,000 people were occupying the premises after the riots.
“We face the usual problems, with water and sanitation,” he told the Daily FT. Mid-year exams scheduled for next week may have to be postponed, Rizki says, since the school is now home to 17 pregnant women and 56 feeding babies, and over 100 children with no place to go.
“Those who can manage have found relatives to move in with. It is those with no options who have gathered here,” the Principal explains.
Since Monday, there have been regular VIP visits to the area. Yesterday, Minister Rishard Bathiudeen visited the Al Humeisara camp, sitting in the school auditorium, opened by President J.R. Jayewardene and listening to the complaints of the displaced.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s helicopter landed at Beruwala at 3:30 p.m. yesterday, for discussions with Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders. The President promised compensation for the destroyed houses and inquiries against the perpetrators of the violence. But the Muslims of Beruwala have heard those promises before.
Not the first time
For the residents of Badalwatte, Ambepitiya, this is not their first brush with displacement. In 1991, communal violence left many of them homeless or impoverished. Gem polisher N.M. Najeem rebuilt his home from scratch with no help or compensation after it was flattened in the 1991 riots. Sixty-five houses were burned in 1991, and nobody got compensation, complains Najeem. Thirteen years later, he is back to square one.
Not far from the school where the tradesman now lives with his wife and son, his shop lies in ruin, parts of its roof torn off, its glass cabinets filled with hundreds of uncut precious stones shattered and looted. “They left the fish tank intact though,” the 67-year-old says with a wry smile.
The despair of the men at Al Humeisara pales in comparison to the anger and indignation of their women. Clutching infants and elderly neighbourly relatives, the women folk congregate inside the school buildings and classrooms, away from the men, fighting to tell their stories.  Outspoken Fathima Fasral, a 26-year-old with two children, says she was only a child herself when her home was razed in 1991. She says her children are now experiencing the same destitution.
“Is this supposed to be our fate for generations? To be rebuilding our homes from scratch every 20 years?” Fasral rages.
Nothing to go back to
As the displacement camp garners attention, Government officials are urging people to return to their homes. On Tuesday, Law and Order Ministry Secretary Maj. Gen Nanda Mallawaarachchi visited the school and appealed to people to vacate the premises.
“The DIG for the area also arrived here and asked the people to move out. But they are afraid to go back. And in some cases their homes are completely destroyed. So there is no point asking them to go back. There is nothing to go back to,” says one official in charge at the shelter, who declined to be named.
When some of them returned to their homes on Monday (16), Fasral said there were people there who told them they were never supposed to return. “They stood there and told us we were to pack up and leave within a day. The Government wants us to leave the school. Are we supposed to sleep on the streets now?” she charged.
“Did we fall from the sky?”
Among the women, resentment is building against the Bodu Bala Sena and ruling politicians. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was often claiming that Sri Lankans were the children of one mother, part of one family of people, scoffs Sarken Sitthi, a woman at the school who said her family lost everything in Sunday’s riots, even her children’s birth certificates.  “They call us ‘thambiyas’ and ‘marakkalayas’. They are telling us this is their country. Are we not Sri Lankans too? Did we fall from the sky?” she storms, her voice raised and arms flailing, making almost political speeches in the schoolroom corridors.  The hardline monks were criticising Muslims for killing animals for food, says Fasral. “But killing people is okay? Destroying homes and livelihoods – that’s not a sin?” she questions.
If one Muslim had committed some crime, Siththi rationalises, the Government should punish that person. “What did we all do? What was our crime?” she cried.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa finished one war, says Siththi. The time has come for him to end the war against Muslims too. “Get rid of the Bodu Bala Sena. Why can’t he do that?” rages Fathima Hasna, fighting her way through the loud mob of women.
Sense of betrayal runs deep
A few kilometres away at the Meera Jummah Mosque in Dharga Town, Aluthgama, we wash our feet at the ablution pools and walk up to the top floor to hear angry women echo the same call.
“If the President could get rid of the Tigers, why is he having so much trouble with the Bodu Bala Sena?” storms Yasmina Farook, a resident of Seenawatte, an area that suffered massive damage in the violence.
The sense of betrayal among the Beruwala and Aluthgama residents also runs deep, as they raise quieter questions about why their Sinhalese neighbours did not do more to save them. The communities in the town have lived side by side peacefully for years, the women explain.
“During the perahera, the Muslim people provide water and drinks. If the tables had been turned, we would have protected them,” says Fathima Safina, whose husband was badly injured in Sunday’s rioting.
Sinhalese shop owners and residents insist that the violent mobs were mostly outsiders. They acknowledge that some villagers were sympathetic to the Bodu Bala Sena cause, but this was a minority.
“There are a few people here who won’t listen to reason. But most people here live peacefully. We need the Muslims as much as they need us. We do business with them daily,” says Premasiri Saputhanthri who runs a small grocery shop in the Ambepitiya village.
But the Muslim villagers say someone had to point out Muslim-owned homes and businesses to the mobs.
Twenty-one-year-old Faizana from Seenawatte, Aluthgama, says the mobs had burnt her house, where she lives with 13 others, and hoisted a Buddhist flag on the property. Hers was the only Muslim house in the entire block, says Faizana. “Someone told them that it was a Muslim home,” she says. About 2,000 people take shelter at this Dharga Town mosque, many of them spending the day with relatives or salvaging their belongings from partially-destroyed homes to sleep there every night.
“There is nothing left,” says Fasmiyah, a resident of Marikkar Road, Adhikarigoda, another Muslim settlement in Dharga Town. “Only ashes.”


Harrowing and sinister stories
The residents of the Seenawatte and Adhikarigoda villages tell harrowing and sinister stories about their flight on Sunday night, from the advancing mobs.
The crowds that laid siege to the settlements wore black helmets and boots, says Fasmiyah. “They broke gates and used them as shields. No harm could come to them. How did they have uniforms if this was not already planned?” she asks.
When the mob headed towards her home that night, 65-year-old A.R.F. Kareemah fled to a paddy field nearby to hide. “It was pitch dark and the leeches bit me all the way up to my knees,” she recounts.
Kareemah sobs out her story, clutching my arm. “I built my house with ‘seettuwas’ after my husband died eight years ago,” she says, explaining a traditional lot draw system of pooling cash. “It was pretty, my house,” Kareemah sobs, “but only I know the hardship behind it.”
All over Ambepitiya and Aluthgama, the vandalism has targeted Muslim businesses and homes. A few Sinhalese-owned shops, including one cushion works business, have been attacked, but most of them have been left unscathed. Many of the displaced in Beruwala and Dharga Town Aluthgama were fairly prosperous Muslim tradespeople only four days ago.
A few metres from Al Humeisara, stray dogs are lapping at several kilos of lard, where a Muslim-owned bakery store’s stocks have been dragged out into the street and set ablaze. The attackers have been careful not to set the entire building on fire because two Sinhalese-owned shops adjoin the bakery store.
Other businesses have been less fortunate, some of them, like Najeem’s gem polishing shop, entirely destroyed. While many houses have been destroyed in the riots, the mob has specifically targeted places of business – garages, garment factories, gem stores and fridge repairs hops, striking at the beating heart of a people who live by trade.
“It is as if we had to be punished for prosperity,” says Yasmina Farook of Aluthgama. The women claim the Bodu Bala Sena and its supporters are filled with frustrated, unemployed people. They do not believe this war against the Muslims has anything to do with race or religion. Sunday night’s rioting had a far more sinister aim – to cripple the Muslim community economically.
“We must pay for their poverty,” Farook says scornfully. “Are they happy now we are destitute?”
Simmering anger
Simmering anger about the violence directed at Muslims for no apparent reason threatens to taint life in the aftermath of the religious unrest that has gripped the region. Relations between the Sinhalese and Muslim communities that must again live side by side, once life returns to normal, could be altered forever, unless steps are taken to resolve the conflicts and rebuild trust between the communities.
“They did this with the Tamils too,” says Sharmila, an elderly resident of the Al Humeinsara camp. “They pushed and pushed them until they retaliated. Then they called them terrorists and that is what they became,” the woman says.
Positions are hardening in Aluthgama too. One displaced woman at the Dharga Town Mosque says all they ever wanted was to live in peace, to work and earn a living. They had never asked for special treatment or a carved-out section of the country. “Now our hearts are filling with hurt,” she says, “how much more are they going to push us?”
Pix by Ishara S. Kodikara (AFP) and Shilpa Samaratunge

 

 

 Besieged towns limp back to normalcy; 32 arrested

 

The towns of Aluthgama and Beruwala that were rocked by violence for nearly two days limped back to normalcy yesterday, with Police finally lifting a curfew that has been in place since Sunday night.
Security remained tight in both towns, with Army tanks patrolling the streets and Police and STF personnel guarding key restive settlements.
Police Spokesman SSP Ajith Rohana said 32 persons had been arrested in connection with the clashes so far, 25 of them Sinhalese and seven Muslims.
Most shops remained closed in Dharga Town, Aluthgama, which saw the worst of the clashes and attacks on Muslim-owned shops and houses.
Thousands are still displaced by the widespread rioting. (DB)

 

 

Comments

18 Responses to ““What was our crime?””

  1. Ashen on June 19th, 2014 8:16 am

    Lot insight from Dharisha’s news coverage. You have proved us how the role of a responsible media person should be.. Keep the flag flying..

  2. sarcre blieu on June 19th, 2014 9:17 am

    Is this country about to fall apart.Mans’ biggest achievement is mans’ inhumanity to mankind.Where we should hang our heads in shame we have massive celebrations,virtually deifying the leaders.Privileges are been tailored to benefit the top end of society through strange methods of patronage,followed by pummeling the rest into submission by indirect threats

  3. Renu on June 19th, 2014 1:23 pm

    On top of all this President Wins Peace award in Boluvia.from the vice President there/ Do they know bwhat peace is???

  4. Rishard on June 19th, 2014 6:18 pm

    My heart cries after reading this article .. Well done Dharisha!

  5. Ameen on June 19th, 2014 7:48 pm

    Hi Darsha, Hats off to you. You give us the best coverage of the incident. You deserve the people’s award for it.

  6. Vijitha on June 20th, 2014 7:05 am

    Government should unreservedly apologized Muslim community and take immediate action to compensate for the damages. Ban BBS and arrest the leaders and prosecute. Must make sure that justice is served to every citizen.
    If they think Buddhism is threatened the govt should take action to safeguard it in a proper way not by thuggish groups. I don’t think Rajapaksha govt is able to do it. Majority Sinhalese feel severely shamed and frustrated on what is going on in the country. This is surely the beginning of the end of the regime. Be ready to go home now.

  7. Dahl on June 20th, 2014 8:34 am

    …this is not a shame on Buddhaism,rather this is a shame on the sinhala race,and SriLankas 1st.family for aiding and abbeting the Sinhala Fachists in their midst…who target a community solely on the basis of ehnicity…

  8. ruban on June 20th, 2014 11:10 am

    Muslims were 1st victims of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy early as 1919 in Sri Lanka. Then 60 years of terror over Tamils since independence still continues. Muslim leaders supported all previous governments pogroms against Tamils for political & economic favour. Allowed to damage unity between both communities for own political goals. Now Tamils lost their political power and now Muslim & Christians are at the receiving end. Muslim congress and UNP were abstain from parliament on voting on UN investigation on war crimes
    Now Muslims leaders align with UNP to bargain more for Muslims. But Buddhist supremacy will grow pogroms will continue over non Sinhala Buddhist. History is clear in Sri Lanka
    Unless Muslims reject their exclusiveness to gain political advantage over other minorities and collectively fight for equal rights for everybody

  9. Fathima on June 20th, 2014 11:16 am

    Now well undestood who is creating terrorist? And finally who is blamed for it . Muslims are Part and Parcel and have same rights like other Majorities. We born here and die here in Sri Lanka. This is our mothernation.
    BBS should not think this is only their country. Tamil, Muslim and Crstian all have equal rights, to live in this country. BBs should remember they sheding part of their blood. We dont have problems with Good sinhalese who understand us. President should take actions against these terrosist and extermist BBs Bana like Wedi Bana, they dont know what is their religious concepts, utter diabolical liers. However GOD is looking all the injustice and we belive GODS punshiment will come to them which they can not escpe and cheat.

  10. Friend on June 20th, 2014 6:17 pm

    Its very hurting my dear Sri Lankans when i read this. I have sinhala friends with whom i share many of my things on life than others. But when people do like these it creates a lot of hatred. I do even really feel very uncomfortable to see my sinhalese friend’s faces in office. i obviously know its not their or the religions fault, but, what did any of these or rather the government having all the authority to do, did to stop these BBS. Its really hurting all my dear Sri lankans. I enjoyed a whole lot when we won the T20 World Cup, when our Sanga got the Man of the Match. Screamed all night and suffered with my Voice for a Week. Now i don’t tend to see or rather enjoy anything that brings fame to this country.

    Now all what I see and hear is the sufferings of these poor people. It takes years to build a home or rather establish a business and when all that is just gone by one night because of these Mobs and Buddhist Priest’s racist activities and speeches, doesn’t it create a Hatred dear friends???

    But I love my country, because I am born, bred, educated to be a Professional by this Motherland. Please don’t create hatred in our hearts friends.

  11. Antany Peter on June 20th, 2014 6:27 pm

    The Sinhalese leaders should know how to treat their own citizens. We all know what have happened to the Muslims lately. Stop blaming India or others, but find your own solution. If you don’t do your part then you will allow others to step in and take advantage of the situation. Rajapaksas know how to push the buttons to get out of difficult situation, or to get votes. This is not a new concept, it has been going since the independence. People hate other races in Sri Lanka bit more than other countries. Because the politicians have trained the people this way to get votes to keep their power. The Rajapaksas didn’t want to push the Tamil button this time, because diaspora and the UN are watching closely. Therefore, they have pushed the Muslin button ;-)

  12. Mohamed Marikar on June 21st, 2014 3:08 pm

    As a Sri Lankan muslim, I am disappointed that an extremist organization like BBS is allowed to spew their hatred and create violence in the country with impunity. Why is this organization allowed to violate the law? Where was the police when the law was broken and why did they not arrest these law breakers and charge them.
    Why are BBS leader allowed to preach hatred and violence? Isn’t there a law against that? It is time the government enforce the law of the land and not give preferential treatment to anyone. Under the law all citizens are equal, we as muslims appeal to the law enforcement authority to apply the law equally and not to discriminate against us because of our religion.

  13. Malini on June 22nd, 2014 8:36 am

    What a sad story. The faces of innocent people who have done no harm, did not provoke, and minded their business. What have these terrorists done to these people, and why are the terrorists supporters, like the rajapaksa’s not doing anything to stop the bloodshed, looting, and burning? The rajapaksa’s should be ashamed that they have insulted their own religion, and going astray. The violence inflicted on these poor people by sinhala mobs, goes against the teachings of the Lord Buddha, and they bring shame to Buddhism. Let them not call themselves Buddhists, but servants of the Devil.

  14. AnandLeo on June 22nd, 2014 5:54 pm

    Sorry to hear this ethnic violence now targeted at Muslim community of Sri Lanka. May peace be with you.

  15. Dushantha Yatawara on June 22nd, 2014 9:39 pm

    All nationalities Have connections with all political parties even srilankas freedom was won by the sinhalese tamil and muslim leaders participation it is really pathetic

  16. AnandLeo on June 23rd, 2014 8:05 pm

    Having read about the current wave of attacks on Muslim communities up and down the island by a minority extremist Sinhalese organisation, I was musing that a natural way of defeating this terror is to assimilate the targeted individuals to become a cohesive element of the local community. It is true that many Muslim individuals of Sri Lanka are playing that role. What I am suggesting is for resourceful members of the local Muslim communities to participate in the activities of social responsibility and local community activities so that they make enough friends and supporters among the local Sinhalese population who will form a shield against the terror of a minority extremist groups. Integration into the local community in a way to defuse misunderstanding and resentment towards Muslims in the local community. I don’t suggest unfair exploitation of Muslims and their resources, but voluntary contribution and participation for the common good of the society that might secure security, safety, wellbeing and peace of mind for the Muslim communities under stress.

  17. Zainudeen on June 25th, 2014 12:05 pm

    The the army that defeated the tiger could not defeat a small group of thugs. Is that the truth? Or were they under an order. The majority of Sri lankans are good thinking and the minority has to be educated. It is said no one can take law in to their hands and again again it was taken for no reason but just to loot Muslims. The right thinking people should react and throw this rulers out. This culture will spoil the future generation as when they hear the same hatred again and again. May one they will turn on their own people as this will evolve that mentality. No reasoning of good or bad is diminishing.One monk think thinks that all Sri Lankans are stupid as he says something and next the right opposite.

  18. Rana on June 30th, 2014 2:55 pm

    Every accusation has another side of it (like the 2 sides of a coin) so please also reveal the other side of what has happened. i.e. how this so called terror was unleashed after attacking an innocent monk and how innocent Muslims have burnet down Sinhala business places and houses in retaliation (or for god sake tell that nothing has happened to Buddhists and it’s all orchestrated by Sinhala Buddhist extremists)… being one sided won’t merge communities and I feel like this is just client media which writes what they are paid for…. pls correct me I f I am wrong….

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