Afghan refugees face Jaffna’s hostility: These Sri Lankans are crazy

Wednesday, 22 May 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Hakkima (30), Fathima (12) and Abbas Ahmadi (33) with Author and Daughter Elilini in their new home in Nallur with floor pockmarked by Sri Lankan shells. Their sons Murtaza (13) Ali Riza (11) and Amir (10) were already in bedafter their long journey to Jaffna


Abbas Ahmadi, an IT specialist, was rather high in the Afghan provincial civil service. He is of Hazara ethnicity and persecuted by the majority Pashtuns who ironically dominate the ruling faction as well as the rebelling Taliban.The Hazaras are inpartthe descendants of Genghis Khan andtherefore are regarded as Asiatic. Abbas says that they, the Hazaras, have suffered a lot more than the Tamils of Sri Lanka, having lost 80% of their fertile lands.

Ruki Fernando 
The Ven Fr. Sam Ponniah

Abbas was asked three times by the Taliban to resign his position. When an assassination looked imminent, he flew to New Delhi some five years ago with his wife and four children and from there applied for an online visa to Colombo where he applied for asylum upon landing. Sri Lanka does not give refugee status. He and his family were given a residence visa because the UNHCR had determined them to be eligible for asylum but this visa was an interim relief while the UNHCR found a third country willing to accept them as refugees. The Sri Lankan visa did not give them the right to work.

Abbas says that at longlast he wastold that the US would accept themas refugees, and they should get the requiredmedical tests done. He did that. But then, in a sudden reversal, he was told that the US wouldnot acceptthem. This was immediately after Donald Trump’s election. He then appealed and that appeal is ongoing, and the family waited for a response from the US.

Then the Easter Bombings happened on 21 April. Several refugees likehim were attacked by Sinhalese mobs. The frenzied mood of Sri Lankan mobs is best captured by TarzieVittachi in his book “Emergency ‘58”. The relevant passage explains to us why the army is unable to stop the mobs today but was able to in 1958:

“The Bren gun was mounted near the gate. At 3.20 p.m. the first wave of goondas advanced towards the police station, with sarongs lifted, shouting obscenities and coarse defiance. They were still confident that ApeyAanduwa would not shoot them down.

“As they came nearer, the Bren fired a burst over their heads to warn them. This had just the opposite effect. They took it as confirmation that the army was only bluffing. The roar of the crowd became louder and the obscenities more defiant. The entire 3,000 now began to swarm towards the barricade. At this point the army unit commander said that he needed authority to open fire. Aluwihare signed the order. The officer put the paper in his pocket and walked out. On came the mob. They were only a few yards away now. One man in front raised his sarong, displaying his genitals in foul defiance of the army. The Bren opened fire and the passionate exhibitionist fell dead. Two of his comrades shared his fate.”

Fortunately, renting in Moratuwa, Abbas did not face such ‘Saronged Johnnies’ who raised their sarongs. But like-minded others threatened his landlord into ejecting him.Several refugees like him were endangered bymobs led by Buddhist priests betraying BuddhismasHarvard’s S.J. Tambiah put it inhisbook ‘Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka’ (University of Chicago Press 1992),abook that was promptly banned in Sri Lanka because it seemed so incontrovertible in the normative traditions of academe. Today’s refugees were mainly forced into campsand police stations. The irony was that the police who should have opened fire on the mods and rioting monks took the refugees into their police stations where some 700 refugees in oneinstance are said to have shared two toilets and were being thanked for the help thepolicehadrenderedthem. Such is the upside down world in which we Sri Lankans admire ourselves for our greatness that we see in our failures. 

Abbas says he was rattled by President MaithripalaSirisenasaying he cannot defend the refugees and pleading with outside counties to take them away quickly. The UNHCRwhich had been helpful till then did nothing.Even Christian institutions did notcome forward to help after the hostility to the refugees which the President seemed to harbour and National Christian Council’s efforts to settle them in one of their buildings faced mobs led by a monk after the first nightand the refugees had to be returned to their camp. 

Efforts by the Southern Province and Northern Province Governors to settle refugees in their provinces met with opposition partly because the governors’ authority had been, albeit meaning well, usurped from the expired Provincial Councils to which elections were unlawfully delayed through parliamentary intrigue and inefficiency.

Tamils could not see the parallels to 2007

Sadly manyTamils saw it as an effort to bring Muslims to Jaffna because the Sinhalese did not want ‘suchdangerouspeople’ in their midst. Tamils could not see the parallels to 2007 when GotabayaRajapaksa as defence secretary declared Tamils as dangerous terrorists who had to be shipped out of Colombo to save Colombo from bombs. At the time the courts declared such racial profiling to be discriminatory and violative of rights. The Government was forced to return to Colombo the Tamils involuntarily taken to the North. 

Today there are some meagre signs of hope against similar racial profiling of Muslims. The Human Rights Commission has come out against the banning of the abaya. After the Sri Lanka InstituteforDevelopment Administrationbanned administratorscomingtotheircourses in the abaya, theElectionCommissiondeclaredits protest and said we would permit our officers who so choose to go for SLIDA courses wearing the abaya, and take it up legally if they were obstructed. 

At that point Ruki Fernando (a Colombo-based rights activist) and lawyer ErmizaTegal,and the Ven Fr. Sam Ponniah (the Anglican Archdeacon of Jaffna) joined forces to bring willing refugees to Jaffna. Theirs were individual efforts with no institutional support. Father Ponniah privately asked some Jaffna Anglicans if they would host some refugee families in their homes. A few agreedand the numberof families moving to Jaffna became four and then five and then six and so on says Father Ponniah.

Newspapers like the Uthayan had positive comments but not the Valampuri. It is a newspaperwhose editor in a University of Jaffna speech declared that all Christians must become Hindu. That communalist newspaper is now threatening those helping the refugees find safety in Jaffna by writing that if any harm befell the refugees in Jaffna, then those bringing them to Jaffna must take the responsibility. Other churches that failed to offer even verbal support for the refugees cautioned Father Ponniah.Neighbours warned those who had volunteered to host the refugees, “The Muslims will come, produce fast and take over Jaffna. That is what the Sinhalese want. Do not give in to that.”

On 19 May, Ruki Fernando arrived with othervolunteers and the Abbas Ahmadis at 3 p.m. As chief householder I had to go with them to the Police who seemed worried by Muslims coming to Jaffna but finally took my request to register the Ahmadis in my home, promising to send my application to Colombo for approval. The HQI’s worry was that this was the first refugee family settling in Jaffna. Apparently all the other volunteer hosts had backed out for some reason.

There are many ironiesin theexperienceof theAhmadis. They fled their home inBamien which Ivisitedandenjoyed during the lastelections there. TheBuddha statues of Bamien, a world heritage, were destroyed by the Taliban which chased off the Ahmadis. Buddhistmonks in Sri Lanka are turningon the Ahmadis and others like him,telling them they cannot live in the Sinhalese areas of Sri Lanka.

The secondperhaps greater irony is that on 23 July 2016, two Islamic State suicide bombers blew themselves up during a peaceful protest in Kabul killing 160 and wounding over 200 people as reported by Reuters. The attackers were reportedly from the local affiliate of the so-called Islamic State, known as the ‘Khurasan Province’ (IS-Khurasan). Thetarget was the Ahmadis’Hazara folk who had been demonstrating against the route of a planned multi-million-dollar power line. And weSri Lankans think the Abbases are ISIS!

And worse, Tamils think that racial profiling is wrong only if it is applied to Tamils but not when they applyit to Muslims.

To paraphrase Asterix’s inseparable buddyObelix, “These Sri Lankans are crazy!”

Post Script

On 20 May,Jaffna’s Headquarters Inspector Prasad Fernando (who on the 19th had asked us detailedquestionsonthereligionofeverymemberofthe Ahmadi family)asked ustoreturn to the Police Station. Forms I had filledup toregister the Ahmadis were returned to us and we were told they cannot stay because according to their intelligence reports Hindunationalists were planningto attack them and they wanted no Muslim refugees in Jaffna. 

He saidhe hadbeen ordered byhissuperiors to ask the Ahmadis to leave Jaffna.He let it slip that he wants no trouble byhaving Muslim refugees in Jaffna. I protested and told him that I have a right to host any family at my home and asked who had told him to deny us registration. “I do not know about that,” he said and stood up signalling us thereby to leave. I appealed to persons in Colombo. The Speaker spoke to DIG/Jaffna andtoldmeto call DIG/Jaffna. When I did, he told us thatthe Governor wants no refugee in Jaffna and wanted the Ahmadis to report at Poonthoddam Campin Vavuniya. Inquiries revealed that some 35 refugees were there,allmen. It was strange indeed that the DIG was overridden by the Governor on security matters.

Father Ponniah and I were called to meet the Governor at 4 p.m. It was clear to me that the Governor was all out to please the President by showing his Poonthoddam solution was a great achievement. To this end I believe that he is cooking up this threat from Hindu nationalists using the Valampuri Editor’s writings.He was visibly angry that I contacted the Speaker. He said thisconfirms reports he has that I fight everywhere. Iresponded that I fightonlywhenpeoplebreakthelaw as heis doing,and that he is takingusback to Gotabaya’s evictionofTamils fromColomboin2007. After he raisedthe fact Iama US-Sri Lanka dual citizen and that as a Marxist he does not like America, I toldhim he is actingjust like what the Americas did in locking up Japanese during WWII. He accused me of being a follower of Billy Graham which Ihaveneverbeen, forcingmetorespond that heisthe one who was once working for Youth for Christ in Jaffna.  He insisted that the Ahmadis should go to his Poonthoddam. I said I need time to consult legal opinion on whether my rights are being violated. He gave me till Friday and assured me at my request that no soldier or policeman would come home. He then told Father Ponniah that he is aware that he is also having a family of four.TheAhmadis in coming to Jaffna had stopped at his place and he had joined them to my home. Obviously we are already a police state with spies watching even the Archdeacon of Jaffna. Alas, at 8:50p.m. a police jeep parked outside my home. By the time my children reported it to me, and I came out, they took off.

The Ahmadis are in panic. They are leaving immediately to an unnamed place out of Jaffna.

“Sieg Heil” to Jaffna’s Gestapo Governor  


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