“That’s Liyanarachchi, we know each other from the time we were little boys. We used to play ball together,” said Mohammed Thaibu, pointing to an elderly man at the top of his lane. Standing by the charred remains of his telecommunications shop, “the first to be attacked” in that row, Mr. Thaibu said he was unable to come to terms with what he saw days ago in his hometown Digana, located some 20 km away from the city of Kandy in Sri Lanka’s central highlands. The stench of burnt machines and wires was still in the air.
An ancient town known for its Buddhist relics, Kandy is home to about 1.4 million people, 14% of whom are Muslims, according to the 2012 census. “I was born in Digana. I have spent all my 76 years here, along with the Sinhalese community. I just cannot understand where this came from,” he said, days after Sinhalese mobs destroyed his shop, and every other Muslim-owned building in that row, in arson attacks. A few yards away was a mosque, surrounded by shattered pieces of glass from its broken windows.
Except for one home, all that remained in that stretch was a pile of debris, with metal rods, chunks of concrete and burnt objects from what were once homes and businesses of dozens of Muslim families. The flames had gobbled up their life savings, at once erasing a part of their past and shattering their dreams for the future — as did every other anti-Muslim attack post-war, in the midst of a resurgent Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism with apparent political backing.
The greatest loss
Raheem Shamsudeen suffered the greatest loss — his 24-year-old son was found burnt to death on their shop premises. “Allah gave us everything, and Allah has taken back everything. What do I even say!” the 67-year-old father said, breaking down. A common refrain among the victims was: “No, no. The attackers were not local Sinhalese. They would never do this”. Others countered it with the argument that unless there were locals in the mob, the attackers could not have possibly identified Muslim-owned shops in a mixed-ethnic neighbourhood. It was as if denial, disbelief and suspicion were taking turns in consuming them. A “communal clash” between Sinhalese and Muslims is how the incident was widely reported, but many were struggling to make sense of that narrative. For those like Mr. Thaibu, viewing the Sinhalese — with whom they have coexisted for generations — as adversaries was baffling. “Even now, it is a Sinhalese neighbour who is sheltering my family after my home was damaged,” he said.
His hosts did not think it was a big deal. “People talk about racial differences. But aren’t we all human first?” asked Bridget Sylvia Somasiri, who had opened up her tiny home to Mr. Thaibu’s family. In another Muslim household on the same lane, residents said it was their Sinhala-Buddhist tenants living upstairs who stopped the attackers at the gate.
Sentiment of hate
Facts tell us that Sinhalese mobs came charging and set Muslim-owned establishments ablaze last week. A considered look at post-war Sri Lanka shows how hard-line Sinhala Buddhist groups and extremist forces have been whipping up sentiment of hate towards the country’s minority Muslims since 2012. Despite stoking violence and causing serious destruction, most perpetrators have remained untouched. But for the people of Digana, still reeling in shock, reconciling this reality with their experience of having lived peacefully with the Sinhalese is daunting.
Meera srinivasam . The hindu