Photo courtesy of The Jakarta Post
Sri Lanka continues to maintain its policy of mandatory cremations for those who have died due to COVID-19, deeply distressing the Muslim community whose faith prohibits cremation. The science, the faith, the politics, all of this has been talked about at length by many.
While official data is not available on the number of Muslims being cremated, speaking to families and community leaders it seems over two thirds of those cremated are Muslims. As of today, the official COVID-19 death toll is 330.
Here are the voices of a few of the families who have been subjected to this pain, and the memories they carry of loved ones lost.
There is a little child asleep on the living room floor when we arrive. He is placed under the fan on a pillow with more pillows as a barrier to keep him safe. His young father and younger siblings, Rinosa’s children, watch him as he sleeps.
Their mother was admitted to hospital for a different illness but authorities said the family needed to be quarantined as she had tested positive for COVID-19. They were taken to the Kandakadu quarantine centre and held there for just one night when they were told she had died and been cremated.
Rinosa’s two girls are in their early and mid-teens but are now considered the women of their small house. Their mother used to do everything for them, they say. Now as schools reopen and they are going back into a routine that she was very much a part of – waking them up, helping them get ready and taking them to school – they feel her absence even more. The older girl wonders if she will even be able to continue with school because it is now her responsibility to take care of the house.
Their father is rifling through a shopping bag filled with forms, certificates and medical reports. Among them are reports that clear the whole family of ever having COVID-19, which makes him wonder how Rinosa could have got it. Rinosa’s death certificate bears two damning lines – first, that she passed of “COVID-19 pneumonia” and second that she was cremated at the Kuppiyawatte cemetery. Her post-mortem PCR test said she was COVID negative.
The man says he has helped wash so many janazah (funeral rites for dead bodies in accordance with Islamic practices) during his lifetime but he is distraught knowing he couldn’t do that for his wife; that he couldn’t give her the last rites she deserved.
The elderly lady is the matriarch of her extended family. Relatives who live with her and in nearby units rally around her; they come to take phone calls, give her updates and wait for her guidance. She is Rafaideen’s elder sister.
“My brother didn’t like being in pictures,” she says. The one most valuable reminder she has of him is the land deed which he transferred to her name. This is pulled from another bag of documents, some creased and ageing, that her granddaughter hands to her. They lived most of their lives in the Henamulla camp, most of which has since been demolished. Residents like her were moved to new high rise structures nearby by the government. Their brother signed over the three perches he owned to her. When the time for relocation came, she was given two flats in the new building because she had claim to two houses in the camp.
Rafaideen had been ill and passed away at home. Health authorities took nearly a day to come and take the body away and then another two days keeping the body in the hospital to run tests. By the time she was asked to identify the body and told he had apparently tested positive for COVID-19, she could barely do so because it was in a terrible state of decay.
Authorities asked them for Rs. 30,000 for the coffin, and another Rs. 8,000 to carry out the cremation. They paid this, worried about what they might be subjected to if they didn’t.
As we walk to the small home, an upbeat Hindi song plays from another street. Like the blowing winds against our skin, the song’s energy jars against the weight of the stories we hear.
Shaykh’s father describes losing his job during the pandemic and starting to work as a three-wheel driver to support his family. He looks through a steel cupboard for the few things that were meant for their baby; a plastic mat, soft cloths and a carry-box stocked with cologne and half-used baby powder. As he takes these items out, Shaykh’s mother leaves the room, quickly hiding her face behind her shawl.
They had waited six years for this baby, the father says. Even though Shaykh was just 20 days old when he died, they couldn’t bear the way in which he was lost. Shaykh was growing, smiling at them and was the furthest from being a sick child, he says.
After the baby’s things are put away, Shaykh’s mother returns. She says the doctors, kitted out in full PPE, didn’t even touch her baby because they were coming from a lockdown area. She, however, tended to his needs. Shaykh’s story of a positive rapid antigen test and a denied PCR test sparked communal anguish when it made the news.
Shaykh’s mother, who was still breast feeding her child, says she put all her trust in the doctors. After what she endured, she asks, how can she trust them again if her other child gets sick?
Their young daughter then wanders in, industriously opening a plastic desk looking for her books and coloured pencils. They moved to this house in this locality to give her the chance to attend a good school. She is too young to understand, the mother says, as the little one concentrates on her drawing. Their daughter told them that since they took her little brother to the hospital and he never came back, she would never go to a hospital and they were never to take her to one if she got sick.
Two roads away, a family is still searching for answers. Their mother was admitted to a hospital for an unrelated illness. Upon admission, she tested negative for COVID-19 and wasn’t sent to a special ward. Her son visited her one evening, when he fed her and tied her hair neatly. He was not allowed to see her again.
Following his visit, the hospital told him that Fawsiya had tested positive for COVID-19. They assured him that she would be transported to the Divulapitiya hospital and brought back home once her treatment was completed. But that Divulapitiya hospital denied that anyone by that name had been admitted. As they made some frantic calls, they learned that Fawsiya had been taken to the Mulleriyawa hospital. That is, her body was there – they had transferred her from Colombo base hospital and she had died the same day at the Mulleriyawa hospital.
Fawsiya’s family brings out a letter printed on creased white paper and ask us to read it as they speak and understand Sinhala but cannot read it. The letter has been written by local police, impersonating the family, stating details of the woman’s case and requesting the state to cremate Fawsiya’s body at the state’s expense. The forged letter falsely claimed that no one in the family had any opposition to Fawsiya being cremated.
One son, sick and ailing, was forced to sign the document after the police kept harassing him to do so. The other son, the one who saw her last, is distraught; his mother once took care of him, and now he can’t perform the last rites she is due.
At the time of them telling this story her body is still in a freezer at the hospital. When and how it will be cremated, along with how many others, is still unknown. No one in the family were ever asked to take PCR test or placed under home quarantine. Fawsiya’s daughter-in-law, who looked after her volunteered to take a random PCR test done in the area a few days ago and tested negative. They firmly believe that if Fawsiya indeed got COVID-19, it would have been from the hospital.
Yoonus and Nazly
Walking up to the next home, the Lotus Tower looms on the skyline ahead. Two families are gathered in the small yet cozy space. To say goodbye to one relative is difficult enough. To lose two loved ones in quick succession is even harder.
The first man, Mr. Yoonus, was receiving treatment at Sri Jayawardenepura Hospital when a PCR test showed he was positive for COVID-19. He was put in an ambulance with two sons who were accompanying him and sent to IDH for further treatment. Despite being in close contact with him, especially during the ambulance ride, his sons were not allowed into IDH. Due to an administrative miscommunication between the two hospitals, Mr. Yoonus was kept in the ambulance for two hours after reaching the IDH hospital.
He died soon after admission. His son shows us the last photo they took of him, in those last moments, taken from the other side of a glass wall. The family did not consent for him to be cremated but were forced to sign a note from the authorities stating that they did. To add insult to injury, the family were also made to pay for the coffin and arrange its transportation to the crematorium despite not consenting to the cremation.
Mr. Yoonus is described as a good father and grandfather. His children turned to him for comfort even as they grew older, and he adored his grandchildren. The loss is felt across generations.
The second death was of an aunt from their in-laws’ family, Nazly. After her death, her family was told that her body had tested positive for COVID-19. Nazly’s family refused to give consent for her to be cremated. To date, they still do not officially been informed of what happened to her body.
Her nephew holds onto a shirt she gave him a few months ago. He says that no one in this country should ever have to bear the pain that his family has been put through.
The tassels on the edge of the old man’s prayer mat flutter under the ceiling fan. His son recalls a generous and charitable soul who would go the extra mile for people that most others would not acknowledge.
As his son describes him, Jamaal was a man who would serve water and cool drinks to cleaners, construction workers and anyone who came to work in their house or in the neighbourhood. He would treat all equally and with dignity. Jamaal was extremely healthy, even to his last days. This is something his son can’t quite get his head around and makes his sudden demise even more difficult to bear. The last photos they have of him are at a birthday party for a young child in the family where his family say he was enjoying himself.
The son still can’t forget the circumstances of losing his father and the lack of clarity that persists. He admitted his father to the hospital because he was unwell. When he called the hospital for an update on his father’s condition, he was told that Jamaal had died. A few hours later, despite them making arrangements to bury him near the local mosque, he was hastily cremated by authorities.
His father was cremated while burial was still legal; the gazette making cremations mandatory was issued 11 days afterwards. Their helplessness was amplified when the family was sent to quarantine centres in Welikanda where they spent more than 40 days. Multiple PCR tests done on them came back negative, despite having spent time in close quarters with Jamaal before he died. There are still so many questions, the son says, and so much that remains unclear about what actually happened.
The racist policy remains in place
Never once has the government meaningfully reconsidered this policy despite the outcry and grief that the Muslim community and allies have expressed. Orders to look for burial sites are given but that topic quickly disappears off the agenda. Experts refuting the claims on which the policy is based and providing reliable scientific claims that allow burial are ignored and the unscientific, racist policy remains in place. The highest court in the country refused to hear the petitions of those who wanted this policy reversed, leaving absolutely no recourse for protecting the Muslim community’s fundamental rights.
For many of these families even exploring various avenues has grown exhausting. Judges and doctors, ministers and the media all have let them down. These memories are what they will always have.
The truth, they say, remains with God.
Below is a video of 07 testimonies:
All stories and videos were taken with the consent of the family members