From the ashes of pain and loss, a vision for a Sri Lankan future | Sunday Observer

From the ashes of pain and loss, a vision for a Sri Lankan future

We have passed another July, which is considered a dark month in Sri Lanka’s recent history. It was “Black July” that led to a three-decade war and a host of other effects that pushed the country backwards by almost a century.

However, the month of August also holds huge importance in my memory. Firstly, half my immediate family, including myself, were born in August. But some of the darkest memories I carry are also from that month, specifically from August 1990, during the famous mosque massacre in Kattankudy – 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 thing we knew was that he went to a police station in a Colombo suburb to visit an uncle who was in police custody. This is what he told my mother, in his last conversation with her shortly before he disappeared without a trace. At the time, Aarif was supporting my schooling in Bandarawela. We never heard from him again.

Abducted and killed

Only a few months later, in early 1990, before I could come to terms with the loss of my brother, my family received the news that my only sister Seleena had been among a group of Muslims believed to have been abducted and killed by the LTTE in Onthachimadam between Kalmunai and Batticaloa. She was 25 years old.

Seleena was travelling home to Batticaloa after visiting me in Bandarawela when she was abducted. The original plan was for me to accompany her, but urgent school matters had held me back in Bandarawela while she undertook the journey alone.

Unable to reach me by phone, for two full days my entire family believed that both my sister and I had been victims.

My brother Aarif and my sister Seleena had wonderful qualities that had drawn me close to them. Seleena’s fluency and her passion towards the Sinhala language, as well as a broad worldview were uncommon traits in Batticaloa where I was born and raised.

As a child I grew up looking up to my brother and sister as role models. Their characters and personalities had a deep and enduring influence on me, and were perhaps the greatest catalysts towards shaping the person 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 at prayers in two mosques in my village, Kattankudy.

I was left in deep shock and uncertainty. For the first time I felt a strong sense of fear about being a Muslim in the North and East.

The Kattankudy mosque violence 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 the LTTE from Kattankudy and the second was among a group of young Sinhala and Muslim friends caught up in an attack in Bandarawela, believed to be by the JVP.

All of these different incidents within such a short time left a lasting and shocking impression on me.

I was confused, with thoughts swirling in my mind. It was around this period that the government started to recruit and arm young Muslim men as ‘gam battas’ or home guards to protect their villages and communities. These men did not receive adequate training.

Adversarial, violent options

They were not held to high standards of discipline. At first they performed an important and heroic duty on behalf of their community.

But in time to come, they would turn their guns not only against Tamil civilians, but even members of their own community.

In retrospect, I had many choices about my own path in life. All of these options came to me, the doors were wide open and the options were feasible.

But I remember, adversarial and violent options were always the more popular, prevalent and attractive for both, youth and adults.

This was true for all sides of the ethnic divide. On the one hand, there were small informal Muslim groups that retaliated violently against the Tamil community believing it would help ensure the security of their own community. On the other hand, there were opportunities to wield power and violence if you sided with the armed forces.

Around this time, I was deliberating hard about who to blame for all that had befallen my family. The ‘perpetrators’ list that was unfolding before me was long.

The LTTE, police, government, JVP and men from my own community were all in this list. But I quickly realized the issue is not simple or straight forward. My conscience told me, it was not just an issue between A and B or B and C. These incidents were emanating from some deeply rooted structural problems.

Deep personal reflection

Even though I was feeling extremely sad and helpless, I did not see reason in directing my anger at a particular group or community, any longer.

It was this process of deep personal reflection and my mother’s continued mentoring and guidance about Islamic principles of peace, mercy and justice that built within me a deep desire to make a difference in my country.

With my mother’s support, I had the opportunity to interact and understand the ‘other’ through my boarding-school life. Gaining the tri-lingual ability to engage with ‘the other’, was also a major factor that made me believe strongly that positive change was possible and that I could contribute to it.

Being tri-lingual was a unique experience when I was growing up in Sri Lanka, and it remains a rare asset even now. It gave me the opportunity to communicate with and understand diverse Sri Lankan communities and gain friends from all sides of the conflict and divides.

We often hear arguments and counter arguments about whether memory and remembrance workin favour of or against peace building and reconciliation.

For myself, I know that remembering a painful thing, and in spite of that pain, completely forgetting tragic and inhumane experiences is also almost impossible. It remains a part of our lives, with or without our consent.

The most important thing therefore is to create an environment and culture in which memory and remembrance are dealt with constructively - in a way for individuals, families and communities to heal, better understand and empathize with each other.

This way, we can stand together as a nation with a strong commitment to prevent another cycle of violence that will bestow upon our children a similar, painful legacy.

What about ordinary citizens?

All mainstream narratives of Sri Lankan histories are full of rulers – the powerful and the warriors. But, what about ordinary citizens; the average folks who have sacrificed so much in-terms of loss of loved ones, lost property and opportunity, those who are displaced? Are we ready as a nation to recognize and acknowledge their pain, sacrifice, resilience, and patience? To listen to their vision for future generations, including their children and every child of this wonderful island nation?

Along with a friend and colleagues, this inspired me to co-champion the Community Memorialization 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 to help better understanding and empathy across Sri Lankan society. This gave me enormous pride and satisfaction in my life.

Blessed to be Sri Lankan

I am blessed to be Sri Lankan, and proud of being able to call this island ‘home’.

Since my wife, my three children and I are all trilingual, we have all made an active effort to connect with the ‘other’- to meet, engage and understand them better.

We want a mutually shared future, one that we, as Sri Lankans, could be happy and proud of.

My circumstances were a matter of 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.

(The writer is a development practioner and a media professional with experience in Sri Lanka and overseas).