Photo courtesy of Hefraz Hizbullah
Hejaaz Hizbullah is my younger brother, and this week, on August 25, he spent his 40th birthday in detention at the Criminal Investigation Department, having been wrongfully arrested and portrayed as being connected to the Easter Sunday terror attacks.
My earliest memories of Hejaaz are from our home in Mt. Lavinia, where we had moved to from Kalubowila. Hejaaz was the youngest of three siblings. The three of us, being very close in age, would spend many hours playing together in our garden that surrounded the house. Hejaaz looked up to our elder sister, referring to her as an unsung hero in a birthday wish. Hejaaz and I, being two boys, were often in cahoots.
Our play times were inspired by Robin Hood, where we would take our bows and arrows and run around the garden. I would climb walls and jump around and Hejaaz would follow me around being my partner and sidekick, even though most of the time, he couldn’t keep up. But that never stopped him from trying, for many years to come. Robin Hood set the stage for Hejaaz’s aspirations and he grew up with a keen interest to help people (and animals – he recently rescued a cat and is now a confirmed cat person) around him. There was a period when we were in school where we were both involved in environment conservation. We would pick up turtle eggs from Kosgoda and bring them safely to our hatchery at St. Thomas’. Hejaaz was just ten or 11 then and he took his responsibilities very seriously from making sure that the soil was well watered, to cycling to school over the weekend to feed the turtle hatchlings with fresh fish and ensuring that the water had the correct level of salinity.
His love for the environment, his school and life in general continued to shine through. He knew what he wanted to be very early in his school career. Despite passing his O’Levels with flying colours and being able to get into the Science or Math streams, he opted to join the Arts stream. Our headmaster came home to scold him and tried to convince him to join one of the other streams. Hejaaz just stuck by his decision because he knew he wanted to become a lawyer, and that’s what he was going to do. No one in our family tried to discourage him as we all knew that he would have done his background research. He would always make informed decisions. Hejaaz had a knack for debating and public speaking and he knew that those were his strong points; he knew he would be able to make more of an impact in helping people by honing those skills as a lawyer. Being a Scout, an active member of the Interact Club (taking over as President in 1997) and a prefect, Hejaaz never turned down an opportunity to help anyone. He was involved in a number of social activities and sports, excelling in water polo. He, like myself, had been representing the school in swimming since primary school. In 1994, at the age of 14, he joined the school water polo team and eventually represented Sri Lanka at the Third Asia Pacific Water Polo Championships in Hong Kong in 2000. Hejaaz being awarded Sri Lanka Water Polo Colours the same year was a proud moment for us.
All this meant he barely spent time at home. I remember how he would get a hundred calls every evening when he used to be at Law College – quite a lot of them from girls. He was very popular with the ladies and everyone at home got tired of answering the landline because we just knew it was for him and would let the phone ring itself out.
However, Hejaaz wasn’t someone who focused only on his causes and his work. He’s a fun loving, spontaneous man and still loves attention as much as he did when he was a child. He looked up to people like Dr. Asanga Welikala back in school. He was in a league of his own. The family used to tease him about his high ideals, nicknaming him Uncle George – something that annoyed him no end. Despite being teased by us for being too posh, he never backed down when it came to getting work done on the grassroots – from speeding up court cases for the underprivileged farmers in Anuradhapura that had been dragging on for years when he first started practicing as a State Attorney to distributing water for mourners at Ven. Sobitha Thera’s funeral, he involved himself in everything. I recall how we used to participate in a special New Year’s Eve mass held at Vihara Mahadevi Park with our friends, the highlight of the occasion for us being the delicious breakfast that was served on in the morning. This was probably what gave Hejaaz the idea to convey a message of solidarity by organising a special Ramadan Ifthar for his classmates, along with the attendance of clergy from all four faiths, in May 2019, a few weeks after the Easter Attacks. This is the kind of person that Hejaaz is. Having been to a Christian school with a multicultural environment, he integrated well with people from all faiths, with no leanings towards extremism whatsoever.
Hejaaz is someone with a spotless track record. He worked hard and excelled at what he did. Along with his peers, he represented his law college across the world in New Zealand, the United States and India in Moot Court and Client Counselling competitions, winning several awards for his country. At Law College, Hejaaz won the Walter Laduwahetty Gold Medal for Excellence for the best performance, as well as the Hector Jayawardene Memorial Gold Medal for the Address to the Jury Contest. Upon graduating he joined the Attorney General’s Department. He was also a Chevening Scholar and pursued his Master’s in Law at University College London. He used his skills as an orator to canvass for charities and speaking on behalf of the less fortunate. His love for his country is immeasurable and he also played a part in contributing towards reconciliation efforts.
Forever brimming with enthusiasm, Hejaaz was always making plans for one thing or the other. A small but heart-touching example is how he would plan out Eid celebrations at home, and make sure it was a fun-filled, joyous event for everyone. He and his wife would buy and beautifully pack presents for each child in the family from my one-and-a-half-year-old to our 19-year-old niece. Then he would dress up and jig around when handing them out. It’s little things like that which make us miss him most – especially on his birthday. It’s a day for joy and happiness but right now our family is shattered. Our elderly parents are sick with worry and have aged incredibly during this period.
Knowing how he was arrested and how he’s being portrayed as an extremist connected to the terror attacks under the allegation of apparently aiding one of the perpetrators and worse is an absolute shock. My sister-in-law is due to give birth in a few weeks and this is taking its toll on her as well. Hejaaz had a lot of plans for his family’s future together but right now all that is up in the air. Everyone is just praying and hoping for the best. And it pains me that we can’t do more than just proclaim his innocence and hope that justice, eventually, is served.