Featured image by Raisa Wickrematunge
Another July has passed. A month filled with dark associations, thanks to “Black July”, a month that only escalated events leading to a three-decade war and a whole host of other ill effects that pushed the country backwards.
However, the month of August also holds huge importance in my memory. Half of my immediate family, including myself, was born in August, but some of the darkest memories I carry are also from that month. August 1990 – the year of the infamous massacre in the Kattankudy mosque. My village.
I was an early teen when I received news about the disappearance of my eldest brother Aarif, who had just turned 23 in 1989. The last we heard from him was that he was going to a police station in Colombo to visit an uncle who at the time was in police custody. He had said as much in his last phone conversation with my mother. At the time this happened, he was supporting my schooling in Bandarawela. A few months later, before I could even begin to fathom what had happened to my brother, we received news that my sister Seleena was among a group of Muslims believed to have been abducted and killed by the LTTE in Onthachimadam, between Kalmunai and Batticaloa.
She was 25. She was travelling back home to Batticaloa after visiting me in Bandarawela, and I was to accompany her, but due to an urgent matter that had to be attended to in school, I had not at the last minute.
For two full days, my entire family believed that I too was caught in this tragedy, as they couldn’t reach me by phone.
Both Seleena and Aarif had wonderful qualities. Seleena’s fluency and her passion for the Sinhala language, as well as her broad worldview were uncommon traits in Batticaloa, where I was born and raised. As a child I looked up to both my brother and sister as role models. Their qualities deeply influenced me and were instrumental in shaping me into the person who I am today.
In August 1990 – a few months after the news of my sister’s loss – more than 100 Muslim men and boys were killed while they were attending prayers in two mosques in my village – Kattankudy. I was left in deep shock and discomfort. For the first time, I felt fear and uncertainty about being a Muslim living in the East of the country. This incident was attributed to the LTTE. However, this violence wasn’t completely new to my family. Previously, I also lost two uncles to violence – one in 1987 and another in 1988. The first one was among a group of Muslim men believed to have been kidnapped by LTTE from Kattankudy and the second one was among a group of young Sinhala and Muslim friends caught up in an attack believed to be perpetrated by the JVP in Bandarawela.
All these incidents, and in such a short time, left me in a state of deep shock. It was around this period that the Government started to recruit and arm young Muslim men as Home Guards, with the aim of giving them the tools to protect their own villages and communities. These men didn’t receive adequate training, nor were they instilled with strict discipline. Even though in the beginning they fulfilled an important and heroic duty for their community, they later turned their weapons against not just Tamil civilians but their own community as well.
I had many options to choose from with regards to my future. All these options seemed feasible. I still remember how the more adversarial, violent options were more popular, prevalent, and indeed, attractive to youth and adults alike. The violence seemed to come from all fronts. On the one hand there were small informal Muslim groups that retaliated violently against the Tamil community, believing that it would help ensure their own community’s security. On the other hand, there were opportunities to wield power, influence and wreak violence if you joined the Armed Forces.
At this time, I was deliberating on who should be blamed for all that had happened to my family and I. The “perpetrators” list unfolding in front of me was long. The LTTE, the police, the Government, the JVP and men from my own community were all on this list. I quickly realised that the issue was not simple and straightforward. My conscience told me that it’s not just an issue of choosing between options A and B, or options B and C. These incidents and experiences were emanating from deep-rooted structural problems. Even though I was extremely sad and felt helpless with this realisation, I didn’t want to remain angry with any person, group, or community.
This process of deep reflection and my mother’s continued mentorship around the Islamic principles of “peace”, “mercy” and “justice,” fueled in me a strong desire to make a difference in my country. With my mother’s support, I had the opportunity to interact and understand the “Other” through schooling and life as a boarder. Gaining the ability to be tri-lingual and engage with others made me strongly believe that a positive change was possible and I could contribute towards it. Being tri-lingual was a unique experience when I was growing up in Sri Lanka. It remains a rare asset even now. It gave me the opportunity to communicate with and understand diverse Sri Lankan communities and gain friends across divides, even in conflict.
We always hear arguments and counter arguments about whether remembering is good for peacebuilding and reconciliation, or vice versa. Remembering is a painful affair, but completely forgetting the awful and inhumane experiences from our past is impossible. Whether we like it or not they will be a part of our lives. I think it is important that we create an environment and culture in which remembering is dealt with constructively – in a way for individuals, families and communities to heal, better understand and empathise with each other. In this way, we can stand together as a nation committed to prevent the creation of yet another violent conflict.
All mainstream narratives of Sri Lankan histories are of rulers, the powerful and the warriors. But, what about ordinary citizens – average folks who have sacrificed so much in terms of the loss of loved ones, properties and opportunities? Those who are displaced? Are we ready as a nation to recognise and acknowledge their pain, sacrifice, resilience, and patience, and listen to their vision for future generations?
This inspired me, along with friends and colleagues, to co-champion the Community Memorialisation Project, which collected personal experiences of violence in Sri Lanka. Hundreds of these stories were not only shared widely with Sri Lankans but also used to generate dialogue among diverse communities, in order to foster better understanding and empathy. This gave me enormous pride and contentment.
I am blessed as well as proud to be Sri Lankan, because I am tri-lingual. So are my wife and three children. We have all made an active effort to connect with the “Other”- to meet, engage with and understand them better. We all want a mutually shared future that all Sri Lankans could be happy and proud of. The opportunities and circumstances that I was presented with were entirely by chance, but it is a clear and strong choice that my wife and I are making for our children – to work hard towards a vision for our children to live in a Sri Lanka that is prosperous, just and peaceful.
Editor’s Note: To read more content marking 35 years since Black July, click here.