“What was our crime?”
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 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
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