A Fact Finding Report by a Women’s Collective on the Ethnic Riots in Aluthgama, Sri Lanka.
On the 15th of June 2014 ethnic riots took place in Aluthgama following a rally organized by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Buddhist fundamentalist organization. Even though the police and state officials had been informed of the potential of the rally to turn violent, no steps were taken to stop the same, instead a large number of police and Special Task Forces (STF) personnel were deployed in the area. In the aftermath of the violence that shocked the country, a women’s team visited Aluthgama and met with several survivors with the objective of documenting the events that took place. Below is their report. Considering the safety of the survivors their names, location and other identities are not recorded.
“Around 12 midnight on 15/06/2014 the Welipitiya Mosque administration made an announcement that a large group of thugs were coming to destroy the Mosque. Upon the announcement the men from the village brought their families, left the women inside the mosque for their safety, and stood outside the mosque to protect the mosque. Around 2000 persons arrived in a procession at that time chanting slogans saying ‘we will destroy the Dharga Town mosque’, ‘we will change Dharga Town into a Sinhala village’ and started pelting stones from all sides,” said a mother whose son was attacked in this incident. She stated that she has four sons, she has been separated from her husband since the birth of her youngest son, and has brought them up single handedly amidst various challenges. “My two unmarried sons aged 20 and 17 heard the announcement from the mosque and left to guard the mosque. A few minutes after they left home I heard gun shots and ran outside to look for my sons but I could not locate them. I ran back home and prayed for their safety. I could hear the firing of gun shots for about 2 hours.
“Around 3 a.m. on 16th June, I was informed that my son was shot in the leg and was taken to the hospital. When I heard this I felt helpless and asked my second son to take me to see my injured son. However, he informed me that the Kalutara Nagoda general hospital refused to admit my son and therefore he had been taken to the Colombo hospital and that it would be difficult to take me to Colombo right now.” A couple of days later her son called and informed her that her second son’s leg needs to be cut off and that she needed to sign agreeing to the same. She said when her elder son was on his way to visit his injured brother he was also attacked by mobsters and the 2000 rupees he had was taken from him. He was stripped of his clothing. Narrating this she cried and said ‘I have brought up my children through such hardship and I cannot believe my 20 year old son has no leg. I don’t want to see him like this”.
A 36 year old man was killed in Welipitiya during the riot. His wife has three daughters aged 12, 4 and 2 months. The widow could not speak much other than repeating “our house was situated within the Sinhala village and I will not be able to return there.” She is currently living with her brother and has no financial support. She and her children are severely traumatized.
The team also met many whose houses and properties had been set on fire in this village. In one village the survivors had this to say: “We have been living in this village for the last 22 years. There are two Muslim households and both were burnt. As we heard about the riots, we decided to leave but were prevented by the mobs. Our Sinhala neighbors helped us escape. We subsequently heard that our house had been set on fire. When I went to see the house it had been burned to the ground and there was nothing we could recover. Amidst the 17 Sinhala houses in this village we could see only two houses had been burned- the Muslim houses. This proves someone in our neighborhood had given information or identified the Muslim houses to the mobsters.”
The team then went on to meet a woman whose husband was killed in the riots. However that woman was unable to speak due to shock and grief. Another woman who was with her and had also lost her husband stated that both their husbands were daily wage laborers and that now they no longer had any financial support. They both lived in rented houses. They refused to speak to anyone due to fear. “If we talk about these issues the CID arrives and takes people away in white vans. I explained the incidents to the police and they took my phone number. After they left my phone has been disconnected. I called the telephone company and asked them what happened. They said they would reconnect it but to date the phone line has not been fixed.”
When the riot started calls were made to 119 and 118 to the Aluthgama and Beruwela police. But their lines remained disconnected. They also said that it was only after rioting subsided and two lives were lost did the police and the military arrive. Many Muslim women also said at initial stages of the riot when the mobs tried to enter their house they fought back throwing stones, boiling water and chilly powder at them.
The team then visited Adhikarigoda and saw 17 houses that had been burned and a mosque that was damaged. The team spoke to an 80 year old woman whose house had been burned there. She said “when the mob arrived they told me to come outside. I was home alone and scared, so I ran out through the back door into the forest area. I called my daughter from my mobile phone from there and she told me to stay patiently where I was. I waited for two hours. I was scared and there were many insects in the forest. I didn’t think I would make it back alive. I stood there for two hours listening to them destroy my house and heard explosions as well.”
Thereafter the team met with an affected woman from Seenawatta, narrating the incidents she said “when the announcement was made by the mosque I was at a neighbor’s house and I went to my house to collect my documents and valuables. However when I went there my house was already on fire. There were military personnel standing nearby and I asked for their help to recover my documents. They told me ‘these are problems you all sought after and you all better sort them out.’ My son and I put out the fire and went to the mosque. I have helped my Sinhala neighbors often but they too participated in this attack on us. I saw it with my own eyes and it is painful.
“A day before the riots, many cardboard boxes were unloaded from several lorries in the garden of the adjoining the Buddhist temple. When I asked a Sinhala neighbor as to what was in the boxes she said it was for following day’s Pirith ceremony. However now we know that they were all full of weapons. There had been sharp knives, petrol bombs, clubs and axes used to attack us. Sinhala houses had been told a week before the procession to hoist Buddhist flags on their houses when the procession was taking place. This has been done to identify the Muslim houses. Many of the Muslim children from our villages study in Sinhala schools, however they are now afraid to return to their schools and their future is uncertain.”
Another woman stated that her husband had just returned from abroad and all her valuables such a watches, jewelry, lap-top computer and money had been taken away and bottles of arrack and cigarettes were found in the house after the riot.
A two months pregnant woman from the same village said “after hearing the announcement I left through my front entrance to get to the mosque. Then I saw attackers coming from every direction and when they saw me they started coming towards my house. I didn’t know what to do and began crying loudly. The Sinhala woman next door quickly got me into her house and called the mosque asking for help. Few men from the nearby mosque came and took me to safety. I just got married in that house and now I am pregnant without a place to live.”
On 15thJune 2014 the attacks by the BBS backed thugs against the Muslims of Aluthgama and Dharga Town also impacted Karunasenapura and Ambepitiya areas where many houses of the Muslims were burnt to ashes around 8.30 p.m. A woman from one of these villages recounting the incident and said “There were about 4 families in this village and in our house we had 16 people that day. Around 7.30 p.m. my brother got a call saying that there was tension in Dharga Town and they warned us to be careful. My brother was very worried and we decided that we should try and save our lives. So we left the CCTV camera on in our house and went to our relatives. My brother dropped us all off at our relative’s place and took my father and another brother. I called our neighbors and friends and told them about the warning we received. Around 8.30 p.m. I called my brother but couldn’t get through. Then I called a friend of my brother and he told me ‘your house is burning sister, you better pray’ I heard this and fainted. My brother’s wife is pregnant. I called a relative to ask what was happening. He said that they called the fire brigade and they have said that they would only come around 9.30 p.m. I called 119 and there was no answer. Everything has happened according to their plan. The next day my mother and I went to see our house. It was completely burned and there were people standing around and looking at it. The police came and chased us all away.”
The father of this woman said earlier on the 15/06/2014 there was a meeting held by the BBS in Aluthgama where ‘Aba-sarana’ was said to China Fort and Dharga Town. That means ‘this is the last day for these two towns.’ “When I heard this I got worried and I warned a few friends as well. I was prepared to go away. Then we got the news from Dharga Town. In a few minutes we saw about 200 armed men coming our way. Our youth had no weapons but still they resisted. I took everyone from my relative’s house and sent them to the Jamiya Nalimiya and left them there. Then I went to where the houses had been destroyed and I saw the STF standing there. I begged them to help stop this. They said troops were coming from Jaffna, Vavuniya and Anuradhapura and once they arrived they would put a stop to this. They said they have no authority to stop this. I called 119 and 999 but no response. I was distressed. We have video evidence of the attack and the attackers are people from this village and from the next village. We have informed the police but to date no arrests have taken place and I see them walking freely right in front of my eyes.
Before they began the attack they brought a Buddhist monk and kept him inside a house. I think they were planning to send him out if we retaliated. That way if the Buddhist monk was attacked, they would use that as a reason to escalate the violence. I have a gem cutting business and had 10 people working under me. I had gem cutting machines, computers and other machinery. I have lost assets worth of 80 lakhs.” While he was narrating this he began crying saying “who will compensate me for my losses?”
We met a young man (age 27) who had severe injuries to his arm. He has two daughters and was injured during the riot. His hand was cut below the wrist. “On 15/06/2014 I had just finished prayers at the Masjid and was standing outside with about 20 people. Around 300 people came to attack us and they had knives, axes and sticks. We shouted out ‘Allahu Akbar’ and attacked back. But we didn’t think we would get attacked like this. One of them tried to cut my head with a knife and I lifted my hand to prevent it and that’s how my hand was cut. If we hadn’t fought back they would have killed us and made through to the mosque, destroyed the mosque and then the China Fort. Once my hand was cut we went to the hospital but the doctor there said he cannot help us and told us to go elsewhere. So we went to Colombo. I can’t work for the next 6 months. My family has no protection. I am unable to take care of my children and my wife. I feel so helpless.”
A villager who came and met the team stated that a few days before the riots a monk had come in a vehicle and a Muslim auto driver was also in the same traffic block. There was an argument that turned into a fight. The monk then had torn his own cloths and gone to the police stating that a ‘sonavan’ had attacked him and injured him. The next day at the BBS meeting they have said “It is our country, Sinhala government, Sinhala army and everything is ours!” and it is only after that they went on procession, destroyed the mosque and burnt the Quran.
The fact finding team was able to find out the following during its mission:
Even though Muslims have been living in this area for over centuries they are unsure whether they can continue to live there. Some women that the team interviewed stated that even Sinhala women had attacked them. And that even though there are a few Sinhalese who did not participate in the attack that they were afraid to provide any support for the Muslims. The team was also made aware of earlier attacks on them especially in 1991. The team noted that most of the survivors when got emotional switched speaking from Tamil to Sinhala, which shows how much they are intertwined with the Sinhala community.
• The private dispute between a monk and a three wheeler driver seems to have been used to create the initial spark for these riots.
• Initially the announcement was made that a walking procession would be undertaken for which the Muslims were prepared. However there were many eyewitness accounts that the mobsters also came in vehicles from neighboring villages.
• Survivors’ narratives imply that the BBS was planning a procession and preparing for the riot days ahead specially stocking up knives, petrol bombs, clubs and axes in Temples and bringing in bus loads of attackers.
• State structures like the police, STF and government hospitals seem to be complicit in this attack: 119 numbers were disconnected, ill response of fire extinguish service, hospitals refused to treat patients, the police/STF refused to take action during the riot.
• Although the government denies involvement, people on the ground feel otherwise. The conduct of the police, STF and even government hospital doctors during the initial stages of the riots fortifies their belief.
• No one has been brought before court for shooting, physical and arson attacks, leave alone provoking the riot.
• There is heavy military presence like in the north and many Muslim men are afraid to go out thinking that they may get attacked again. Women and children are mainly restricted to their places of refuge and don’t want to go back.
• Businesses have reopened but there is apprehension in regard to what may happen next.
• Most children studied in Sinhala schools and are afraid to return to these schools.
• During the riot and after no measures were taken to help the community that was trapped in the mosque due to the curfew. Many survivors stated that there was no food even for pregnant women, children and breast feeding mothers. No basic necessities were provided for by the government.
• Psychosocial Support: Several people from the community suffer from severe trauma, especially women and children. Several survivors told the team that they could still hear the gun shots. So far no psychosocial and mental health support has been provided.
• Legal Support: The community requested for additional legal support and stated that to date only Muslim lawyers had come forward and that no support had been provided by lawyers from other communities. Many stated that they have evidence including video evidence that can be used if legal action is taken.
• Accountability: Law enforcement authorities should arrest and charge those who instigated and perpetrated violence forthwith in terms of the law and ensure fair trial through which justice could be meted out. A comprehensive and open inquiry by an independent commission that will look into reparation and justice. It should also identify and address the causes that led to the breakdown of law and order and the lapses in not being able to prevent violence and escalation to ensure non repetition.
• Reconciliation: Sinhalese and Muslims have been living together in this area for over centuries; however many Muslims now feel that they can no longer continue to live there. The Muslims are mostly Sinhala speakers in these areas. There is a breakdown of trust within the community and there is an urgent need to take active steps toward reconciliation in a hope to restore the community’s faith in each other.