Photo courtesy of LBC

The Other Side is a documentary series that is focused on sharing the perspectives of three women belonging to the families of some of the alleged perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attacks of April 2019. This series was compiled and initiated by the Easter Attack Survivors Project (EASP), which is a project of the Sri Lanka Reconciliation Movement (SLRM), an organization established for the purpose of enabling discourse on peace and reconciliation through story telling and policy.

In 2021 EASP launched another series named The Survivors Speak in which the team interviewed survivors of the St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya and a foreign survivor. The Survivors Speak series focused on amplifying the perspectives of the survivors whose life transformed significantly following the attack. It was an emotional, haunting and inspiring insight into the lives of individuals who lost their loved ones on April 21, 2019.

This was a stepping stone for the organization and the society at large to start open conversations between different perspectives while (yet again) proving the need for interfaith education and discourse. The series received a lot of positive responses from its viewers. The team also wanted to give a brief insight to the stories of the alleged perpetrators and their families in order to capture an untouched and unheard dimension of the terror attack. The Other Side was launched to fulfill this objective. While publicizing perspectives of the family of the accused may be considered controversial by some, it is the organization’s belief that understanding the multi-layered impact on a demographic whose life transformed rapidly following the terror attack is important for its citizens. It is imperative that we do not take a judiciary role but a humanistic role that can have a ripple effect on how Sri Lankan society views socio-political issues and hold relevant parties responsible for their inaction without needing to create a blame game.

In the aftermath of any terror attack, emotions run high as individuals and communities seek answers, justice and closure – rightfully so. Following the Easter Sunday attacks, many people belonging to the Muslim community, to which the perpetrators belonged, were accused of participating in the devastation. This stigmatization of Muslims after such attacks is not unheard of; for instance, after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre in the US, global perceptions towards Muslims shifted, perpetuating stereotypes and generalizations.

The blame game that took place after the Easter Sunday attacks was particularly vicious and proved to be quite detrimental to the otherwise mostly peaceful coexistence that Sri Lankans previously enjoyed. While those who knowingly were associated with the crimes of Zaharan Hashim (mastermind of the attack) should undoubtedly be prosecuted, those who unknowingly associated him had to bear most of the brunt. For instance, prior to the attacks the women of the families of the accused were housewives, had no financial independence and barely stepped out of their houses in keeping with their culture. Their lives were transformed following the attacks since they took on the double burden of financially providing for their family while being ostracized from society. This shift in terms of gender role and other facets of their personal lives catalyzed the trauma they were dealing with post-attack.

“What Zahran did was wrong,” says one of our interviewees. “Everyone is a living being and what he did is absolutely wrong. He was exposed and identified. But we are in pain because they have identified us as being with him.”

Following the premiere, the audience discussed a wide range of topics and shared their perspectives relating to the docu-series. One of the points raised was whether the families of the accused were given sufficient aid when they desperately needed help. The responses that prevented from doing so had one common theme: fear. Fear of being harassed, attacked and labelled as terrorists for helping these families. Islamophobia was at an all-time high, and with multiple arrests taking place daily, it makes sense that people were terrified. This goes to show the damage these blame games do. Blaming someone, or as in this case, an entire community, after terror attacks is normal as we search for closure by prosecuting the culpable. Holding an entire community accountable for the actions of a few showed that the root causes run deeper than we think. It is sad and terrifying at the same time but warrants closer inspection and introspection. While it should be acknowledged that some people created this devastation, painting all Muslims with a broad brush should have been avoided. The situation demonstrated how much these generalizations and prejudices were prevalent in our society.

Another important point that the interviews highlighted was the overwhelming economic burden that women had to bear when the men in their lives were accused of taking part in the attacks. “Since the kids are small, I struggled,” says another one of our interviewees. She goes on to add how her children got used to eating frugally and how they only got by with the help of her neighbors who randomly dropped things outside her home and ran off, fearing they would be persecuted for helping her. This was something experienced by many families of the accused. In the absence of men, there is a gender role reversal where women become the sole providers for their families, which places immense pressure on them. Coupled with the mental strain and gender pay gap, it was even more challenging. At a time when people were wary of helping them out of fear of being seen as affiliates, this proved to be even more painful.

The resolutions that were suggested during the discussion were two fold. Firstly, the need for the state to play a bigger role in preventing the attacks and allowing the situation escalating to the degree it did was emphasized. Audience members highlighted the tools for this being robust policy, law and order and equal treatment of all minorities. The duty of the government is to protect its citizens regardless of race or creed; to be entitled to such protection is every person’s basic human right. Secondly, audience members stressed that the state alone cannot ensure reconciliation nor should its citizens be entirely dependent on it to do so. Why? All the problems stem from the archaic education system that has now been made exclusive to Sri Lanka. The education system needs to create individuals who are not only competent in subject matter but also be empathetic and well-rounded.

There is a disparity on resource distribution that needs to change as well to make education free and most importantly equitable. Another idea that was put forward was the need for inter cultural and inter faith learning through literature, music, art and many other facets that form one’s identity. Another proposal was to establish or reform schools so that they are not segregated based on religion or ethnicity, which is a stepping stone for instilling and normalizing inter cultural and inter faith education.

All hope is not lost, as demonstrated by acts of trust, understanding and mutual respect. One of our interviewees gratefully recalled how a Sinhala officer intervened on her behalf when the burka was not allowed when she was visiting her husband in prison. Another passionately insisted, “The cause for these issues is the lack of awareness of other religions and races. These racial issues emerge mostly because children are not taught about other religions and races.” This highlights the importance of interfaith dialogue. These conversations are not the easiest to have and might be controversial but they are a necessary step in building peace and reconciliation. This is what SLRM strives for – to encourage open conversations, challenge misconceptions and bridge divides. It is a herculean task that requires the contribution of every Sri Lankan to build relationships based on mutual respect and empathy. As one of the interviewees beautifully put it, “Allah created all of us as human beings. One blood circulates within us all. Life is too short to have enmity. We have to all live in harmony in this life.”

Following the premier, SLRM will publish The Other Side on its social media pages. The organization hopes that there will be more conversations and actions from what was discussed.

This article contains excerpts from interviews with various individuals and the views expressed are solely those of the interviewees. They do not represent the positions, beliefs, or viewpoints of SLRM or its affiliates. The identities of the interviewees have been changed for privacy and confidentiality.