Photos around questions I couldn’t answer: Four days after the riots

All photos by the author

At journalism school I was taught to get as close as possible without getting involved. Go in, get the story, don’t become the story, don’t interfere with the story. These rules played like a soundtrack on loop in my mind when I visited Aluthgama and Beruwela, four days after the devastating riots in June 2014.

I make this trip to Galle often, almost every weekend. We rarely use the highway so it’s always the same trip along Galle Road, same pit stops, same sights. When we got close to Beruwela I looked around and thought it wasn’t bad at all. A few shops were closed, not as many people on the streets as usual, but it was a weekday and no one really uses old Galle Road after the highway opened up. Then I noticed more shops closed – ones with certain names and mainly jewellery shops. A little further down there were more people in fatigues carrying weapons than civilians. And then it hit me – the rows of burnt shops, the rubble on the road.

Having observed hate speech rise in social media months before the violence I saw the signs, but didn’t think after such a long war, anyone would be foolish enough to start yet another.

An elderly and extremely nervous man guarded the Al Humeisara Central College in China Fort that acted as a shelter for around a thousand people. He would look around, open the gate, let one car in, then shut the gate and open it again for the next car, although the two cars were literally bumper to bumper. He didn’t seem to want to leave the gates opened for any longer than was absolutely necessary.

Walking into the shelter I first met the men who tried to be accommodating, offering a bottle of water, asking where I was from, guiding me around the shelter and explaining things. Walking a bit further, I encountered the women and children. Their anger and grief was palpable.

“On Monday we had a funeral in our house, they didn’t let us take the body out. We have to bury our dead within 24 hours but I couldn’t give my mother that final bit of respect. They came, they kicked and screamed and demolished, they didn’t let me bury my mother” said one woman in the group.

Another relatively young mother explained how her neighbours had told her not to return home.  “When it is safe to go back out the shelter will no longer keep me and my three children, it’s a school they can’t really keep me…but my neighbours have told me to come collect my belongings by 6pm today and never to return to the area. If I can’t go to what’s left of my home where am I to go?”

“They say we should not eat beef? But it’s alright for them to kill people on a Poya day? We learned Buddhism in school. We know this is not Buddhism.  This is just the work of some uneducated rowdy frustrated people.  It seems like every ten years we have to rebuild our houses, we were just recovering from floods, now this? The government says they will compensate us… will they reimburse and help rebuild everything? Even if they do compensate us we will have to bear the brunt of it financially and with both business and houses gone how will we do that? They got rid of the LTTE, they increased the size of the forces, why couldn’t they stop this?” questioned Rikaza Hamid.

In Ambepitiya and at the Meera Jumma Mosque in Dharga town, another shelter, those displaced said “It was predominantly people from out of town. Of course of the people who were from the village we know who pointed out the houses and sympathized with the attackers… how else would they have known which houses were muslim owned and which weren’t?“.

“If the shops were owned by Sinhalese and rented out to us, everything was pulled out of the shop and burned on the road so as not to damage the building. If the building itself was owned by a Muslim it was damaged and burnt completely. How would they have known who was renting buildings and not? The first wave arrived and cut off access to water, it was the second mob that burned things. They cut off the water so we couldn’t put out the fires. A third lot came the next day and destroyed and looted what was left of the inside of houses” said Mohamad Raheem.

Walking through one of these houses the extent to which they had gone was striking. Wells had large bits of rubble pushed into them so as to obstruct access to water. The looting had gone so far as cutting open plastic tills that kids collected coins in. The blades of ceiling fans had been folded in.

“This sort of thing happened before didn’t it? In the 80’s? Why are they doing this again? They push and push to see how far people can go before they break. We harbour no anger towards Buddhists or Sinhalese. The President was in this area three times in the last few months… for weddings for engagements. Why is he not here now? He should have been the first to come here. It is not anyone’s fault but ours. We Muslims also voted for him.” Alternating between tears of anger and grief Yasmina Farook asked me questions I could answer.

“How do we start again? We have no money, no homes and most of all our hearts are hurting. We don’t know who we can trust. No one stood up to protect us; they didn’t even try to say anything to stop people getting hurt. From where we are standing we don’t know where to go anymore, we don’t know how to start. We don’t even know if this is the end or if there is more to come” sobbed Yasmina, grabbing my arm.

This short article and the accompanying photos (view all of them in full screen here) are all I can offer the victims of June’s riots, in solidarity and hope that the lives and homes they rebuild will never see this violence again.

  • Kumudini

    shilpa very subtely uses words like “They ” . being careful not to specify who the perprators are . It is very sad when crazy fools go on the rampage attacking innocent people . However . there are two side s to a story She has conveniently omitted how many Sinhala houses were damaged and their property was looted . This is biased journalism which portrays only her views and not the actual story. These are the media gurus which damage SL reputation of being a callous country without any compassion . Let her hear the side of the priest sabitha thera who was attacked which sparked off the unrest who has even given refuge to Muslims in the temple and offered meagre financial assistance to muslims when needed.

    • Vishakha Wijenayake

      Yes, what is the actual story? The actual story is that most of the looting and the burning happened during a so called curfew which was imposed only on the Muslims. Muslims were stuck either in their houses or in Mosques where they were taking shelter while the mobs freely walked around rampaging the area. The police and the STF simply looked on, mostly doing nothing to help the Muslims even to put out the fire. This was a planned attack and it would have happened whether or not a priest was attacked or not. The people who supposedly attacked the priest were arrested long before Gnanasara’s ridiculous drama. They were asked to kneel down ask for forgiveness from a group of monks who forced kicked them and made them crawl on the floor. The police looked on. What is this balanced story you are looking for. Sometimes the truth isn’t very balanced. Don’t buy into the rumours that were spread with the specific intention of blinding the Sinahala populace with a righteous anger. Please get your facts straight.

      • Stel En

        Muslims do not allow a single temple in their countries. sri lanka has 20000 mosques.

  • Shilpa Samaratunge

    Kumudini, the word ‘they’ is used in inverted commas meaning
    it is a direct quote. There is no subtlety in that; it is very simply exactly
    what those in the shelters said. They did not have specifics to offer me in
    that regard, the only thing on their minds was to vent a little of the
    frustration, fear and anger they felt. I
    am not saying Sinhala houses weren’t looted or damaged, they may well have
    been, however this was a reflective piece on a visit to a shelter for Muslims
    who were affected.

    Nowhere do I say that Sri Lanka is a callous country with no
    compassion however if by sharing the stories of those in the shelters I am
    saying that then so be it. If Sobitha Thera did this then he’s doing what
    religious institutions and leaders should be doing which is help people across
    all beliefs and walks of life. It does not however mean that Aluthgama
    did not happen. It does not mean that there weren’t over a thousand men, women
    and children living in a shelter because they no longer have homes. It is more than just sad when people’s homes
    are attacked and their lives threatened.