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A Painful Memory

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

Glass crunches underfoot as old men and young ones climb to the second floor to say their noon prayers at the Masjidun Noor Jumma Masjid in Digana, Kandy. They stop at each floor to look at the damage done to their beloved place of worship. There is glass scattered on the ground floor and they cannot remove their footwear as they usually do before entering into the mosque. At the foot of the sacred mihrab, a chair lies face down in a bed of broken glass on the pulpit. On the first floor, a huge tire lies surrounded by burnt Qurans and other sacred books. There is a bench hanging out a window and the office room and kitchen are blackened with soot. The moulavi’s room is in ruin. The smell of rotting food is heavy in the air. Old men with walking sticks struggle to climb to the second floor which is the least affected part so that they can offer their prayers.

The situation is no different at the Masjidul Lafir Jummah Mosque also in Digana. The inside of the entire building is blackened and the roofing sheets lie shattered on the landing to the first floor. The place is beyond recognition to all who walk inside to assess the damage done.

In what used to be a house situated next to the Masjidul Lafir Jummah Mosque, a young man searches through the burnt belongings for his mothers’ medical records. He stops patiently to explain his afflictions to everyone who walks in to his charred home. Though in his late twenties, this young man does not cry for his destroyed home. All he speaks of his brother who is in hospital seeking treatment for severe burn injuries and of his younger brother who is no longer with them. The 23 year old succumbed to a most horrific death caused by smoke inhalation without a way to escape his burning home. The brother fondly remembers his youngest sibling as a harmonious youth who had many friends from all faiths and respected one and all.

Though a week has passed by, armed forces patrol the streets. While some Muslim businessmen open up their shops, certain others are unable to do so as their markets are ruined and their wares destroyed. There is fear and suspicion in the eyes of all who pass by. The wounds are still raw. The fear still lives on.

It is unfortunate that Sri Lanka seems to have forgotten its gory days of ethnic war which raged in the north and east for 30 years. In February, clashes arose in Ampara when a group of persons who falsely claimed that an eatery under Muslim ownership was mixing sterilisation pills into the food they serve. On 27 February, an isolated incident occurred in Digana when a group of persons attacked a lorry driver over a minor motor accident. Following 2 weeks of intensive care, the lorry driver who was a Sinhalese succumbed to his injuries. After his funeral, communal tensions broke out in Digana and neighbouring areas in Kandy on 4 and 5 March.

Mobs consisting of Sinhalese men and women burned mosques and attacked Muslim homes and business establishments. The government declared curfew and a state of emergency, deploying armed forces and security personnel fearing that a backlash would take place in retaliation for the injuries and losses incurred by the Muslim community. A youth from Digana lost his life in this incident and several others were injured. Further, great financial losses were incurred by Muslim businessmen whose shops were damaged in the clashes.

Several extremist groups such as Mahason Balakaya and Asura Sena incited mobs through speeches and other media content uploaded onto social media sites. In order to prevent future incitements, the government requested the Telecommunications Regulatory Board to impose a temporary blockade on social media sites such as Facebook and WhatsApp. Several victims of the violence also claim that the inaction of the deployed Special Task Force (STF), Police and other security personnel contributed towards the magnitude of the destruction.

Personal Accounts

*Hijaz is a family man who runs a small shop in Digana. On 5 March, he came to the mosque and helped prepare lunch for the STF officers who were stationed outside for protection. Like many other businessmen of his community, Hijaz had closed his shop as requested by the security forces who had ensured them of protection. Hijaz recalls a mob of about 3,000 persons forcibly entering the mosque and destroying it. “They threw the food that I had prepared with my own hands and urinated in the kitchen” he described. “They even robbed the new containers from the kitchen.” Hijaz explains that until 5 p.m. mobs went about the town attacking mosques and shops. He tells of an incident