Anti - Muslim attacks: Mobs on the rampage in three districts | Sunday Observer

Anti - Muslim attacks: Mobs on the rampage in three districts

Burnt to cinders
Burnt to cinders

An irredeemable gloom hung over the air. On Tuesday (14) evening Kottaramulla, in Nattandiya, was uncomfortably silent. As the 6.00 p m police curfew approached army personnel and police officers patrolled deserted streets. They would stop and check all vehicles going past that way.

A day after an organised gang, of about 400 men, on motor-bikes armed with swords, poles, knifes and axes wreaked havoc in the area killing one, residents in Muslim populated streets were taking refuge in their homes. Several families would spend the night in one house for better protection.

In Fathima Watte about a dozen men and boys sat on two mats that were laid in the front yard of a house. From inside the house women peeked out every now and then to check on the men who were feasting on a humble meal of rotti, dates, kanji and fruit juice with basil seeds.

Fear and insecurity

They were breaking fast. This year’s holy month of Ramadan is plagued by fear and insecurity for many Muslims in the country. In several areas- Kobeigane, Wariyapola, Hettipola, Katupotha, Chilaw, Kuliyapitiya and Minuwangoda- Muslims were directly targeted on Sunday (12) through to Monday. Mosques and homes were stoned, and businesses torched.

“We usually have this meal inside our homes. But this time it is different. We have to stay together to protect our families,” says M. Rifaz, a businessman from Fathima Watte,who is on the alert for a possible second attack.

They have no faith that the police and army personnel would protect them if it does happen because the evening before the security forces tragically failed them.

Forty-eight-year-old M. H. M. Rizvi, a father of three, said that the police did nothing to control the rioters as they pelted stones, forcibly entered their houses and caused severe damage to property, as the occupants readied to end their daily fast around 6.30pm.

“I ask the police to let us protect ourselves, if they can’t do it,” Nattandiya Pradeshiya Sabha member S. S. M. Rilvan declared. He said he couldn’t recognise most of the perpetrators, while a few were from neighbouring Sinhala colonies.

He was one of the persons who were singularly targeted by the rioters who charged into his house which was under construction. What the rioters did not know was that Rilvan was living at his sister’s house at the time. This also shows that the crowd was fueled by political vengeance.

A mob killing

If the mob wanted blood to be spilt that night, they had their way. Fifty-year-old Mohammad Saleem F. Ameer who owned a carpentry workshop and lived opposite the house Rilvan was constructing was hacked to death by the rioters.

Over 30km away, the picture that was painted in Minuwangoda was equally grim.

The rioters pelted stones at a mosque, shops (believed to be) owned by Muslims and torched and looted them on Monday evening. A total of sixty-seven shops were damaged, while 27 of them were burnt to the ground. Five out of them were owned by Buddhists.

“What do you expect when senseless politicians make idiotic comments like Sri Lanka is not a Sinhala Buddhist country? This is a Sinhala Buddhist country! Politicians have to speak sense,” said Nishantha Fernando, a three-wheeler driver from Minuwangoda town.

He was referring to the statement made by Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera where he said he could be a ‘cardboard hero’ and say that this was a country of Sinhala Buddhists. “But I say this is not a Sinhala Buddhist country, but is a country of the Sri Lankans,” he said.

However, most who gathered at the scene on Wednesday (15) morning wondered why anyone would harm a community that lived in harmony with all others. “How could anyone do a thing like this? We were living together. This is very wrong,” said a man who was visiting the scene from a near by village.

Minuwangoda town was a graveyard. Smoke was still seen coming from several burning shops. Where there once were lively and thriving shops selling, from toys to garments were now beyond recognition.

Their owners gathered at the Minuwangoda Jumma Mosque, which also came under attack by the rioters. Its light green windows were shattered, the main door had a single blow mark across it which seemed to be made by a sharp object. Glass was strewn across the floor inside the mosque. Along with the glass were stones, rocks and pieces of concrete that had caused the mayhem.

“I have no tears left to cry. I don’t know what else to do. We are helpless,” said 39-year-old Mahamad Saffan who owned a baby-item shop that was burnt to the ground.

His eyes were swollen, a clear sign that the father of three had been crying. He was among many others who had come to the mosque to record police statements. They do not know how they could recover from the loss. Most businesses were not insured.

A spokesperson for the mosque Tuan Muradh said the attacks were politically fueled. He claimed that if politicians wanted to stop the attacks they could have done so easily.

Almost all shops were closed at the time of the uprising. The owners had gone home for breakfast. The mosque was also empty.

Two revelations resonated in Minuwangoda too as it did in Kottaramulla. The armed forces did little to control the situation and most in the crowd were alien to the area.

“It is hard to say where the mob came from,” said Mohammad Musim Mohammad Indaas, the owner of New Fawz Hotel on Airport Road, Minuwangoda.

The New Fawz Hotel was the first to be attacked that night. Indaas was in the village temple when he received a phone call saying the shop was being attacked.

He rushed to the shop to see that the employees, mostly Buddhists and Muslims, including his son who was at the cashier’s desk have escaped through the backdoor to the paddy field where they hid. The shop was almost empty.“Police were also called to the shop. I noticed that the crowed that gathered outside the shop was getting larger. Soon, there were about 1000 people.

I thought they had come to see what had happened.” Indaas soon learnt that they had not.

“The crowd started to throw stones and attack again. They used our own empty soft drink bottles to trash the shop,” Indaas said. When he tried to escape on his vehicle, it was attacked too. He had to run to save his life.

There was about 45 minutes between the first attack at 5.30 p m and the second that caused most of the damage in Minuwangoda. If the security forces wanted to make a successful attempt to control the situation, they had enough time. Their failure led to heavy financial losses that have to be borne by the businessmen. The attacks continued till after 10.00p m that night, well past the imposed police curfew. Another similarity that could be seen in Kottaramulla and in Minuwangoda is that the armed rioters came in motorbikes, while most wore helmets. Video footage obtained by the Sunday Observer showed the attackers, mostly young, shouting gahapan kudukarapan (attack, smash).

Indaas struggles to understand why he was targeted. He was a key contributor to the area’s Vesak celebrations, helped the village bhikkhu and even gave subsidised rice packets to school children.

The only reason he could arrive at is that the people were fueled by jealousy and backed by political forces.

Paththanduwana Kalyaanawansha Thera of the Minuwangoda Kopiwaththa Sri Meththaraamaya said that the Muslim community and Buddhists in the area lived in harmony. They helped each other when in need. “He (Indaas) would bring the dana (alms) to the temple too. People in this area know that. This is not religious hatred,” the Thera said.

Acts of retaliation

It was speculated that this week’s riots were acts of retaliation for the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings that claimed 257 lives, and wounded 500 others, in organised serial suicide bombings in three churches and three luxury hotels.Father Nadeera Fernando of Methodist Church, Minuwangoda, situated in close proximity to the shops that were burnt and attacked, is certain that these were ‘opportunist attacks’.

“These people were waiting for a moment like this to attack. They also had the help of the people from the area,” the Father said.One of the shops that was attacked was named ‘Royal Phones’. “How did the gang know it was Muslim owned? Royal phones could be owned by a Buddhist “ he said.

Another garment shop, the largest in the area, and owned by a non-Muslim was vandalised too. Its name ‘Ekko’ could have misled the crowd.

Fifty-year-old M. Shriyani, a mother of four, owned a clothing shop ‘Siripathi Dress Point’ which was between two Muslim shops.

They had closed the shop early on Monday to visit a relative in the hospital. On their way they got phone messages about the riots.

“When we came here, we saw our shop burning. I called out for help. I screamed ‘this is a Sinhala shop’,” she said. The fire brigade was late to douse the fire.

Father Nadeera together with other religious leaders have notified the police to be on the alert for any incident before the riot ignited.

“I anticipated an attack in Minuwangoda because I live with the people. I hear what they say,” he said explaining that police had enough time to act from the time of the first attack to the second. “All they had to do was block the four roads leading to the town. It is that simple.”

The opportunity or reason for rioters could have emerged when a 38-year-old Muslim man in Chilaw posted a Facebook post stating “Don’t laugh more.

1 day u will cry”. Taking the post as a threat a group had assaulted the author of the post and caused damage to shops in the area on Sunday (12), prompting the police to declare a curfew.Shots were fired into the air to disperse the crowd. The author was taken into police custody.

Sources told the Sunday Observer that over 30 mosques were attacked by rioters Since the April 21 Easter Sunday attacks.

Social media blockage

Meanwhile, the Government attempted to calm the situation by imposing a social media blockage which was lifed on Friday (17).

On Monday (13) President Maithripala Sirisena left for China leaving Ruwan Wijewardene as the Acting Defence Minister.

Amidst the social media blockage Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe tweeted, “I appeal to all citizens to remain calm and not be swayed by false information. Security forces are working tirelessly to apprehend terrorists and ensure the security of the country, but each time there is civil unrest, we increase their burden and hamper ongoing investigations.”

The Chief of Police Chandana Wickramaratne said that police will use ‘maximum force’ against the rioters. A large number of suspects were arrested in connection to the riots. The Mahason Balakaya leader Amith Weerasinghe was remanded till May 28, Nawa Sinhale National Organisation Director Dan Prasad who was arrested was released on bail and Anti-Corruption Force Operations Director Namal Kumara is in the custody of the CID. Several political figures were seen at the riot scenes.

A video footage depicting SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara attempting to get bail for six suspects who were alleged to be involved in the Hettipola, Kurunegala, unrest made its rounds on social media platforms. In Minuwangoda, affected businessmen said they saw deputy leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya Madumadawa Aravinda in Minuwangoda during the riots.

The Sri Lanka Army is probing a video that was shared on social media showing a man clad in army uniform walking away from a building seconds before it was attacked by rioters. Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake told a press conference that all Sri Lanka Army personnel were innocent. In the footage, he said, the soldier was merely adjusting the strap of his firearm and not inviting the mob, as claimed.

Forty-two-year-old M. Rishad, a father of three and married to a Buddhist woman, from Wegowwa in Minuwangoda, was struggling to make ends meet. They were living in a partially constructed house with only one room. On Monday this room was also not spared by the rioters.

“They (Rishad and his family) were living happily. It was hard for them financially but they did everything for their children. Why do people do things like this?” asked his Buddhist sister-in-law who accompanied Rishard to the Minuwangoda Jumma Mosque to record a police statement.

Additional reporting: Indusara Pathirana
Pix: Sulochana Gamage
Hirantha Gunathilaka
Aanya Wipulasena
Anuradha Kodagoda.


A senseless death: A bereft family

Fifty-year-old Mohammad Saleem F. Ameer is remembered by many as an ‘innocent man’ who worked hard to support his family. Ameer owned a carpentry workshop where Muslims, Buddhists and Tamils were employed.

Ameer lived opposite NattandiyaPradeshiya Sabha member S. S. M. Rilvan’s house which was under construction. On Monday (13) when a gang came looking for Rilvan, Ameer fell on his knees and prayed.

When the heavily armed rioters approached the house, Ameer asked his 37-year-old wife A. F. Gifriya and four children aged between seven years and 16 years to hide in the house.

Time- around 9.15pm- after the curfew in the area was imposed.

“Around 30 men charged into the house first. I didn’t see their faces. Most were wearing helmets. They were shouting. I didn’t understand what they said. Then they left,” Gifriya explained as she lay on a bed in her mother-in-law’s house. A pedestal fan helped cool the room which was crowded with female relatives and little children. The rioters left only to return again with more men. Gifriya huddled inside a room with her children, as Ameer went out into the front yard to speak to the crowd.

The frightened mother and the little ones only heard the voices, loud and angry, and then everything went silent.

When Gifriya stepped outside she saw the workshop, their motor bicycle and the small lorry engulfed in flames.

She also spotted her husband lying head down near the gate. “I ran to him. Cradled him against my lap. He had a cut wound in the middle of his forehead. There was a lot of blood. I cried for help,” she tells the Sunday Observer.

Three of the people she asked for help were policemen. Gifriya said the police officers were busy making phone calls.

“He (Ameer) was warm against my lap. His heart was pounding,” she recalled.

It was two neighbours who finally helped the distraught wife. They put off the fire in the lorry, put Ameer’s unconscious body into it and rushed to the hospital along with his second son 15-year-old F. A. Ajmal.

“On our way to the hospital the lorry caught fire again. We did not stop,” Ajmal said.

When they reached the hospital and Ameer was taken in, they doused the fire one last time.

Later ,the group was told by the hospital staff to go to the police station, lodge a police complaint, and go home.

“We lodged the police complaint and came home. I knew my father was not coming back again,” Ajmal said.

Widowed Gifriya, who is still mourning her husband’s death, said her husband was very loving and was planning to build their humble house.

As gloom pervades across the country this Vesak full moon poya weekend, 15-year-old Ajmal is at his grandmother’s house looking after his grieving family. He says he does not feel anything now.

“Thaththa thamai naththe (it is father who is missing),” he says struggling to fight the tears which wells up in his eyes.