Just over ten days ago Mohammed Lafeel was the proud owner of a shop selling mobile phones and latest phone related gadgets. Wanting to diversify his business, he had also branched into selling antique bric-a-brac and jewelry. The modern and the ancient had existed side by side in his shop. But it had been promoted as a phone shop mainly and its shiny name board indicated it. Foreign tourists were among those who visited his shop, attracted mainly by the antiques.
Today, Lafeel’s shop is a charred wreckage. The same sad fate had befallen several other neighbouring Muslim owned shops. Some of these had for the past ten years done business alongside a few Sinhalese owned shops. The local authority (Pradeshiya Sabha) had provided the land bordering the Digana road in Kandyin 2008 and had helped small scale entrepreneurs of the area to put up their shops.
“Ten years of hard work has now turned to ashes,” Lafeel says, standing in the shop of Sinhala tradesman, S. B. Ekanayake, whose shop is adjacent to his.
When Sinhala mobs charged into this street last Monday, armed with kerosene, their targets were mostly shops that seemed to them to have the most expensive items. Shops selling phones and phone accessories were specifically targeted.
Lafeel, along with other traders, closed his shop last Sunday after the area was ordered to be shut down by the Sinhalese from the Digana area as well from outside. White flags were being put up on 04 March across the street and March 05 declared as a day of mourning to mark the funeral of a Sinhala Buddhist man who had been attacked by four Muslim men on February 22nd and who had died in hospital on 03 March. The altercation had been sparked off by a minor road accident involving the damaging of a side mirror and one party trying to overtake the other.
Many, including Buddhist monks, agree that the road rage incident by itself had nothing to do with ethnicity although it later, following the death of the Sinhala man was used to stir up communal hatred.
Lafeel, who had never imagined the incident would result in the rioting that followed, is still reeling from seeing his hard earned efforts at prosperity lying in ruins.
The flames that lapped up his shop had also eaten into the adjoining business premises of Ekanayake. The rough estimated loss, taking into account the items the shop contained, is nearly Rupees 8 million (USD 51,360). For Ekanayake it is far less, but his shop now blackened with soot, would have to be fully re-painted, his name board re-done and the damage to the walls inspected to estimate the cost for repair. He cannot afford to close his shop waiting for all this to be done and therefore sells his packets of tea as usual, hoping people will buy his wares regardless of the state of his shop.
“You people have your mosques to look after you. I am in a country of a majority of Buddhists but who exactly can I turn to,” Ekanayake asks, sitting inside the blackened shop with a burnt out nameboard that once read Randalu Tea Centre.
Lafeel promptly insists that Ekanayake need not feel isolated.
“We have done business together for ten years. Ekanayake takes full control of my shop when I am unable to be there. Sometimes for days the keys of my shop and the shops of our fellow Muslims will be with him. Our minds do not have even a shadow of a religious divide,” Lafeel asserts.
“Communalism is a curse caused by stupidity. When will it end? Until it ends what is the real security for these shops? Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe came and visited the damaged shops and promised us compensation but can he guarantee that this will not happen again?”queries another Muslim of a neighbouring shop who joins in the conversation. His shop selling pens, books and similar items was not damaged but his home in the Muslim village of Hijirapuram was stoned.
In the same row of shops, Hanif Mohammed despairs over the blackened rolls of cloth. His fabric store is a totally burnt out mess.
“We sold denim cloth and different types of material that we used to get wholesale from factories. The overall loss we have suffered is over Rupees seven million (US$ 44,940). We are told by the Local Council that we are eligible for some compensation. Will it be sufficient to cover the loss that we suffered?” he queries.
In another nearby shop the aged uncle of M. Salheemis not conversant in Sinhala and apathetically sits in front of his nephew’s shop of fancy items, replete with chains, earrings and bangles. It is seemingly non-affected by the violence of last week but on closer inspection one sees the cracks on the wall.
“If not attended to, it could collapse after the rains set in,” points out Salheem.
Further away in Digana town, Sinhalese tradesman are seen joining hands with the affected Muslim businessmen to clear up the debris.
“Even to offer to assist them, we are ashamed. For no fault of us we have to bear the brunt of what a handful of so called Buddhist people have done, in the same way that the Muslims of the area had to suffer for what a mere 4 Muslims had done to a Sinhala man,” says Asanga, who owns an auto-rickshaw. His clients are Muslim entrepreneurs of the area.
“Sometimes I transport their things to their shops. When this terrible communal riots happened last week, the first thing that came to my mind was that my Muslim friends might think that I and my fellow auto drivers would have had a hand in it, although we were as clueless as they as to how the riots came about,” he says.
Some owners of larger businesses whose buildings have been completely gutted, are so shocked by what had happened, that they are unable to explain their loss coherently.
Farhan Haji, who owned a four-storied clothes shop is one such person.
“He came to inspect the shop only two days ago. He won’t talk to anyone. He is in such despondent state that family members fear for his health,” says one of his acquaintances.
The loss incurred by Farhan Haji is roughly estimated to be well over 100 million (USD 64,200).
Around 100 Muslim owned shops were destroyed in the mayhem last week along with mosques and several Muslim homes.
Mobs armed with stones had also randomly vandalized homes of Muslims and attacked Muslims who had come out of their homes to try and get to their shops, passing through the throngs that had gathered.
“Before the riots when we alerted the police that such a thing could happen, we were given assurances that our shops would be protected and that we had absolutely nothing to worry about. Curfew was declared but all this happened during curfew. We are now trying to find out what exactly was meant by ‘curfew’,” says S. H. M Irshad with acynical laugh.
Irshad is a committee member of a civil society of the village of Kumbukkandura, near Digana in which many of the homes of the affected traders are located.
About four kilometers away from Kumukkandura is the village of Balagolla, which has Sinhala Buddhists mainly. The Balagolla Buddhist Centre is headed by senior monk, Ven. Thalpotha Dhammajothi Nahimi, who is also in charge of the prominent Buddhist temple in the vicinity, the Bambaragaha Raja MahaViharaya and two other temples in the area.
Ven. Dhammajothi was among the monks in Kandy who had personally stood guard at the mosques in the area to ensure that no mobs attacked during the Jumma prayers last Friday.
The monk had given protection to both the Balagolla mosque as well as the Kumukkandura mosque and had prevented Sinhala Buddhists in his village of Balagolla and nearby areas from taking part in any act of vandalism or communal hatred.
“On 5th evening when it was evident that things were getting out of hand, I used loudspeakers to get all the villagers, including Muslims, to come to the temple premises on the 6th. Over 3,000 people turned up.”
“I reminded them the importance of seeking refuge in kindness, understanding and wisdom as preached by the Buddha. The Sinhalese collected dry rations worth around Rs. 25,000 (USD 160.50) and we handed them over to the Muslims,” says the monk who also shows photographs on his phone of Muslims including Maulavis of the area attending a ceremony three years back when he took over the Balagolla Buddhist centre.
“During this incident a lot of village monks from different locations in Kandy worked in unison to ensure that violence did not spread. If it had, the whole of Kandy would have been engulfed and we would have had a horrendous situation. For my part I ensured that my student monks were given support to see that outside mobs did not incite the villagers,” says Ven. Dhammajothi.
One of his students who was instrumental in stemming the violence in Teldeniya, where some shops were targeted, was Ven. Garanigala Chandra Wimalawho was in charge of the Indrasevana Viharaya in Teldeniya.
(South Asian Monitor will in the days to come continue to look in-depth at the anti-Muslim riots of last week and at diverse sociological aspects surrounding communal unrest in Sri Lanka).