A Painful Memory
Glass crunches underfoot as old men and young ones climb to the second floor to say their noon prayers at the Masjidun Noor Jumma Masjid in Digana, Kandy. They stop at each floor to look at the damage done to their beloved place of worship. There is glass scattered on the ground floor and they cannot remove their footwear as they usually do before entering into the mosque. At the foot of the sacred mihrab, a chair lies face down in a bed of broken glass on the pulpit. On the first floor, a huge tire lies surrounded by burnt Qurans and other sacred books. There is a bench hanging out the window and the office room and kitchen are blackened with soot. The moulavi’s room is in ruin. The smell of rotting food is heavy in the air. Old men with walking sticks struggle to climb to the second floor which is the least affected part so that they can offer their prayers.
The situation is no different at the Masjidul Lafir Jummah Mosque also in Digana. The inside of the entire building is blackened and the roofing sheets lie shattered on the landing to the first floor. The place is beyond recognition to all who walk inside to assess the damage done.
In what used to be a house situated next to the Masjidul Lafir Jummah Mosque, a young man searches through the burnt belongings for his mothers’ medical records. He stops patiently to explain his afflictions to everyone who walks in to his charred home. Though in his late twenties, this young man does not cry for his destroyed home. All he speaks of his brother who is in hospital seeking treatment for severe burn injuries and of his younger brother who is no longer with them. The 23 year old succumbed to a most horrific death caused by smoke inhalation without a way to escape his burning home. The brother fondly remembers his youngest sibling as a harmonious youth who had many friends from all faiths and respected one and all.
Though a week has passed by, armed forces patrol the streets. While some Muslim businessmen open up their shops, certain others are unable to do so as their markets are ruined and their wares destroyed. There is fear and suspicion in the eyes of all who pass by. The wounds are still raw. The fear still lives.
It is unfortunate that Sri Lanka seems to have forgotten its gory days of ethnic war which raged in the north and east for 30 years. In February, clashes arose in Ampara when a group of persons who falsely claimed that an eatery under Muslim ownership was mixing sterilisation pills into the food they serve. On 27 February, an isolated incident occurred in Digana when a group of persons attacked a lorry driver over a minor motor accident. Following 2 weeks of intensive care, the lorry driver who was a Sinhalese succumbed to his injuries. After his funeral, communal tensions broke out in Digana and neighbouring areas in Kandy on 4 and 5 March.
Mobs consisting of Sinhalese men and women burned mosques and attacked Muslim homes and business establishments. The government declared curfew and a state of emergency, deploying armed forces and security personnel fearing that a backlash would take place in retaliation for the injuries and losses incurred by the Muslim community. A youth died from Digana lost his life in this incident and several others were injured. Further, great financial losses were incurred by Muslim businessmen whose shops were damaged in the clashes.
Several extremist groups such as Mahason Balakaya and Asura Sena incited mobs through speeches and other media content uploaded onto social media sites. In order to prevent future incitements, the government requested the Telecommunications Regulatory Board to impose a temporary blockade on social media sites such as Facebook and WhatsApp. Several victims of the violence also claim that the inaction of the deployed Special Task Force (STF), Police and other security personnel also contributed towards the magnitude of the destruction.
*Hijaz is a family man who runs a small shop in Digana. On 5 March, he came to the mosque and helped prepare lunch for the STF officers who were stationed outside for protection. Like many other businessmen of his community, Hijaz had closed his shop as requested by the security forces who had ensured them of protection. Hijaz recalls a mob of about 3,000 persons forcibly entering the mosque and destroying it. “They threw the food that I had prepared with my own hands and urinated in the kitchen” he described. “They even robbed the new containers from the kitchen.” Hijaz explains that until 5 p.m. mobs went about their town attacking mosques and shops. He tells of an incident of which he heard where a moulavi of another mosque was forced to carry a sword so as to show that the Muslim community too was engaging in violent acts. As an entrepreneur, Hijaz has incurred personal losses too. “All the glass windows of my shop are shattered and just today I opened my shop after a week has passed since the incident. Around 100 shops have been destroyed and around 15 shops were burned” he explains. He believes that these attacks were aimed at disrupting their businesses. “This is the peak season for our businesses. Such attacks are carried out to hurt our business. It happened last year, it happened this year and it will happen next year” opines Hijaz. “We have been patient and not retaliated. From within my church I tell you that we did nothing to harm them! We will repair our markets next month. We never raised our hands against other shops, religious places or any other place!” During this time of violence, Hijaz feared for his family’s safety. “We took our children away from home and hid them for their safety. What more can we say but that we are truly saddened by this situation.”
Another witness from the Masjidun Noor Jumma mosque also goes on to describe how the mob had entered the mosque. “First they switched off the electricity so that our CCTV cameras would not work. They then came into our moulavi’s quarters and destroyed the CCTV monitors” he explains. He is of the opinion that this was an organised attack. “They attacked our moulavi and destroyed his room. They also piled together the prayer mats and burned the Qurans and other texts and books. They burned our office too.”
The brother of the 23 year old victim who died from smoke inhalation is filled with a great sorrow. His brother’s body was found in the bathroom on the day following the attack. “He had tried to escape but was unable to do so. My elder brother who came into the house the next day had been the one who found the body.” During the incident, he had been abroad where he is employed but returned home when he heard of the tragedy that befell his family. His father’s shop that is in front of the house is completely destroyed and the little house is in ruins. “My brother worked in mobile phone sales and had many friends of all communities” he explains, grieving that this fate had to befall a 23 year old. “Another one of my brothers is in hospital with severe burn injuries and my father has lost his shop.”
In Solidarity with the Victims
The Alliance Development Trust (ADT) reached out in solidarity with the victims of these communal tensions. It distributed 450 packs of dry rations which contained rice, dhal, flour, tea leaves, chillies, noodles, sugar and milk powder worth LKR 610,759. These packs were distributed among affected families in the Digana area, where the violence had resulted in its greatest destruction.
The moulavi of the Masjidun Noor Jumma Masjid is grateful for the 200 packs which were distributed among the faithful worshipping at his mosque. “We are happy for these packs which you have given us and for this gesture. I thank you on behalf of the recipients too.”
The moulavi of the Masjidul Lafir Jummah Mosque is also profuse in his thanks. “We are proud of this moment because our brothers have brought us these packs” he states, going on to say “but the value is not just in the packs they brought but because they have expressed their oneness with us in this time of difficulty.”
*Names and certain details of persons have been changed to protect their identities.