Ampara village reels from raid on terrorist hideout | Sunday Observer

Ampara village reels from raid on terrorist hideout

In the shell-shocked Ampara village of Sainthamaruthu, residents are determined to keep outsiders out and discussions have already begun about rooting out radicalism from Islamic teachings in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks that had a terrifying ripple effect in the East

SAINTHAMARUTHU: The unheard of little coastal town 10 kilometers away from Kalmunai shot to global fame last week. First there were reports of fire fights, then three explosions at a modest house in the area. The blast killed 15 people, including three women and six children. The suspicions of the local residents about the strange and reclusive family that had moved in to the neighbourhood and rented the house had proved correct. Among those who perished in the suicide explosions were the parents and brothers of Mohammed Cassim Mohammed Zaharan, the radical preacher from Kattankudy, who masterminded six brutal suicide bombings that killed 250 people and wounded hundreds more on Easter Sunday.

Facing intermittent gunfire from inside the house in Sainthamaruthu, security forces waited until first light to storm the residence. Inside the wreckage they found mangled bodies – the family Zaharan had killed themselves to evade capture. Army medics rushed into the house to rescue a four-year old child and a woman injured in the explosions. It would later transpire that the woman was Abdul Cader Fathima Hadiya, Zaharan’s wife. The little girl – originally mistaken for a little boy – was Ruzaina, his daughter.

The tip off by residents in the area had helped security forces and investigators to hone in on the most radicalised members of Zaharan’s family, including his brothers, a breakthrough they hope will result in more leads about the terrorist network and prevent further attacks.

Five days later, Muslim elders in the town made a decision on how to bury the dead killed in the April 26 explosions. Muslim theologians have refused to allow burials with Islamic rites for any of the suicide bombers killed in the Easter Sunday attacks. Sainthamaruthu Muslim elders decided to follow their lead after the town faced its own share of horror. The children killed in the blasts at the house in the ‘Bolivarian Village’ would be buried with religious rites. The adults who decided to kill themselves among women and children would not be afforded the same treatment.

A week later, Muslim men streamed into the mosque in the Sainthamaruthu main street for Friday prayers under the watchful gaze of army and police officials standing guard outside. Body checks are conducted by volunteers from the community before the men can walk into the mosque for prayers. For days the village has been in lockdown, with nightly curfews and regular search and seize operations as security forces tried to comb down the area to eliminate any remaining individuals linked to Zaharan’s terror network.

In the wake of the shocking events, the Ampara Muslim community is shaken to its core. It has left behind a deep seated fear of outsiders and residents are particularly keen to distance themselves from the town of Kattankudy in the Batticaloa district, where Zaharan was raised.

Mohamed Shaheed, the trustee of the Thakiayapalli mosque in Sammanthurai said religious leaders and trustees of the mosques in Ampara had decided to initiate their own security measures to weed out possible suspect individuals.

Volunteers could be seen greeting those they recognised and requesting the Police to search mosque attendees they did not seem to know personally. “Many people gather for prayers and therefore we decided to take precautions,” Shaheed said adding that villagers have been requested to notify the mosque of new residents in the area. The residents appear to be most wary of those coming from Kattankudy. “Just two days ago we were tipped off about a new Kattankudy family that had taken up residence in the area,” he said adding that this was duly informed to the Police who had carried out security checks thereafter.

As the Army carried out another search in Thakiyapalli on the day according to Zakaria Iqbal a resident, the people are now feeling upset with those from Kattankudy. “Communities including Muslims in Ampara are upset with people from Kattankudy after this incident,” he said adding that shopkeepers in Ampara hailing from Kattankudy have now left after closing down their shops. “They were afraid people would retaliate against them after the incident on Friday,” Iqbal said.

Iqbal also blames the house owner who rented his house to Zaharan’s family just days before the Easter Sunday attacks. His decision had resulted in serious troubles for the Sainthamaruthu village, Iqbal claims.

Curfew and raids have hampered business activities and livelihoods in the coastal town, Iqbal explained. “People will not go and open their shops and businesses. Most people in the area are paddy farmers and the regular curfew has kept them away from the fields. Still, Iqbal is quick to reassure that the people are not complaining about the inconvenience and the village is extending its whole-hearted support to the security forces and police as they try to mop up the terror network. “These are precautions that must be taken. The inconvenience does not matter,” he said.

In the shell-shocked village, a discussion is also quietly underway about radicalism within the Muslim community that led to the Easter Sunday carnage. “It’s a black mark on the whole Muslim community – this radicalism must be eliminated from the root,” said Vellathambi Rafeeka, a resident of Sainthamaruthu. A mother of three herself, Rafeeka is mourning the senseless death of six children in the April 26 incident and the Easter Sunday explosions that claimed the lives of at least 45 children according to UNICEF.

She has other worries also. “What if there are other Zaharan followers left behind who can radicalise more youth in Ampara?” she said, “We are so worried, so we’re supporting the army and the police to do their work.”

Mosque leaders are opening up the gates and urging the troops to search the premises. “We have nothing to hide here, please look,” they tell the army personnel.

Moulavi Adam Bawa the Vice Chairman of the Sammanthurai Jamiyyathul Ulama emphasized that it was the people of Ampara that provided the Army with information on terrorists hiding in the area. Moulavi Bawa is keen to differentiate the two towns. “The attackers were from Kattankudy. It was outsiders who came here to commit these crimes,” he said referring to the bombings and the April 26 explosions. The residents in Sainthamaruthu on the other hand had tipped off security forces. “You can’t compare these two towns – we are not all the same,” the Moulavi said.

The Sainthamaruthu resident who gave police and troops the tip off about Zaharan’s family hideout told Sunday Observer that the villagers became a lot more vigilant in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. Mohammed Imran (not real name) explained that the owner of the house rented to Zaharan’s family had arrived at the mosque last Friday claiming to be suspicious of the family who had paid him to rent the house for several months. “Soon afterwards, a group of six including mosque trustees visited the house and asked them who they were and where they were from – they refused to answer and told us to go away,” Imran said in an interview.

Later on, a third occasion when yet more residents arrived at their door with questions, the men had threatened to shoot them. “We alerted a traffic police officer and the Army was called,” he said. But Imran had not stopped there. He had guided the troops arriving at the location.

Cautious of strangers since the Easter attacks, Imran says the activities of the family who had arrived there possibly on April 19 had seemed odd. “They would lock people inside and leave when they were going out,” Imran said. Strangers would also regularly go in and out of the house.

For his information, Imran and others have got a cash reward of Rs 1 million, but insist money is not the motivation. “For 10 years there has been peace. We are not interested in problems again,” he said. He believes the community will remain vigilant and inform security forces of any suspicious activity.

“Our country must go back to what it was before Easter Sunday, that is our wish,” he said.

A week on, the signs of terror that unfolded in Sainthamaruthu is fading slowly. On Friday a group from the Sainthamaruthu Municipal Council were seen washing down the house where the terror group had set off explosions that resulted in 15 people being killed. Glad to be rid of the radical family that may have unleashed even more terror on the island and brought infamy to the little Ampara village, residents are left mulling the inhumanity and senselessness violence that has shed so much blood since Easter Sunday, as building blocks and broken toys belonging to the children washed out into the street.

Pix: Rukmal Gamage

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The community supported the troops: Maj Gen. Mudalige



Major General 
Mahinda Mudalige

Security forces continue to work towards normalcy in the Ampara region following the raid on the Zaharan family hideout in Sainthamaruthu, said General Officer Commanding of the 24 Division, Major General Mahinda Mudalige.

On April 26, it was his men who faced the assault by the terror outfit in the village.

Maj. Gen. Mudalige is full of praise for the community for its support extended to the Army. “The people are keen to eliminate these elements from their society” he noted adding that the Army will continue with their searches to safeguard the people.

“We understand the Muslim culture and have never disturbed the community” he pointed out adding that unfortunately the troops now have to enter the homes of the people to conduct checks. “They fearlessly gave us information even while under threat, therefore it is our duty to protect them,” he said. 

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