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Untold Stories from Kandy Two months on, Vikalpa relates forgotten stories

Text and images courtesy Vikalpa/Ishara Danasekara

This is the money that my daughter and I collected every day in a till. It used to be on the cabinet. The notes can no longer be found.
These coins were caught in the flames finally and were burned.

He took the coins one by one and held them in his hands, his breath caught in his chest.

To him, the value in these coins was clearly more than the rupee or two that they were worth.

We’re not angry with the Sinhala people”, were his last words to me.

No one remembers anymore. Forgetting is a natural process for this country, such that even two months is too long ago for people to remember. These are stories that no one else has heard. They are vital to record, and reveal the enduring pain of the community. It has been two months since we heard these stories in Kandy, of ordinary lives that would otherwise go unnoticed or unseen.

One might ask why we’re writing about this after two months. The fires have burned out, there are no media visiting these areas and there are no more situation reports. They have been forgotten, in the same way that Aluthgama, Gintota and Ampara have faded from the public conscience.

It has been two months since the virus that is called 'Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism' attacked the Muslim community. The resulting damage to life and property resulted in Black March, a stain on this country’s history in 2018.

This is about the areas of Kundasale and Pallekale, where the few Muslim families living in a majority-Sinhala region had their homes attacked, under a 24-hour police watch; the stories of four families affected by the violence.

We’ve lived here for 21 years. During the 50-year Independence commemoration in 1997 Prince Charles was due to visit, and the city was being beautified. Our 6 families who were living in Bogambara was given this storeroom during the Pallekale ‘Gam Udaawa’ scheme on a temporary basis, by the Urban Development Authority. We’ve been here since then.

He works at a small shop in Madawala that supplies daily provisions for a small portion of the community. His wife tells me his daily income is Rs. 700, and their home has been the worst affected in the damage. These families have built extensions to the store-rooms, but now they have been reduced to their former state.

I used to do small jobs as a seamstress while I was at home, to raise money for our daily expenditure. See how my sewing machine has been burned, and it was in the middle of the hall when we came home, somehow pulled from inside this room. How do I make clothes again? I don’t have the money to buy another machine.

So said the lady in this photo. There were many things she did not say, expressed through the pain in her eyes.

These beautiful designs that you see all around the house are the work of my daughter. She’s shy. She had drawn even more beautiful designs than the ones you can see now.

These were just a few photos captured on camera. Yet the violence of what had taken place was visible throughout the house, which was streaked with ash.

The clock is frozen at 8.15, the last time it marked before being destroyed.

When talking to their neighbours on the phone a few days later, Vikalpa learned that this lady had spent some time in hospital due to the anxiety that came with talking about her experience.

The neighbours said that they were worried because the husband was a heart patient. His wife had not been able to sleep at night because her mother's antiques, part of her inheritance, had been destroyed in the fire. She had been hospitalised for talking to herself and after speaking harshly to the rest of the family.

This brought back memories of the glass of milk tea she served then. Despite visitors disturbing them in the aftermath of the disaster they had just experienced, she was happy to offer it to us. This writer put aside her dislike for milk in her tea and drank it. The fact that Muslims could show a Sinhalese person that level of care was truly touching. Yet people of this writer's ethnicity had laid waste to the lives of her community.

There’s nothing in the house. It means so much that you came, sorry but this is all I can offer you. We don’t even have biscuits.

Vikalpa didn’t feel unsafe stepping into their houses, shops and mosques alone, despite being Sinhalese, from the race of people that destroyed their property. They had no problem with a Sinhalese, being there, but some sections of the population has a problem with them, simply for being Muslim.

These stories are ones Vikalpa has heard time and time again. One mother shared that when night is falling, her daughter is nervous and asks if the ‘goni billa’ who cover their faces are coming home. (Note: Goni billa is a reference to a folklore monster used to scare children. In this instance, this is a reference to the mobs, many of whom covered their faces during the attack. ) She is afraid to go out now, she tells Vikalpa.

We jumped from the kitchen out into the garden and ran to the forest. What else were we to do? We had to save ourselves. My baby is two months old – I ran as fast as I could.

Vikalpa met a man whose home was stoned by mobs on the Kengalle temple road. The weight of the pain he was carrying in his heart and mind came through in his voice, which shook as he tearfully said;

I have done no wrong to anyone. Is there a point in living life in fear? What is the point of living after trauma like this?

What it feels like to live in fear is a lesson that some citizens and indeed the leaders of our country should learn. Allowing this to continue while these leaders sit back and watch has been the destruction of this country. The fact that our Muslim brothers should live in fear is not a serious issue to the Sinhala people, which is inexplicable. In the same way, when talking about the disappearances of Tamil citizens, some people say “Good for them.” It is difficult to understand how people can speak about fellow citizens in this way.

In the short term, these considerations are not deemed worthwhile, but these are long-term problems that need to be carefully considered. The Government has undertaken to conduct an investigation into this incident, for support to the victims in the long term. But two months hence, have they visited or begun a programme? No. Although some volunteer organisations implemented small-scale programmes on the subject, there is still a need for a formal process. There is a gap here. What could be the outcome of these mental hardships?

I had undergone a hernia operation 2 weeks before. I was alone in the house when [the riots] happened. I jumped out, because I was afraid that they would burn me along with our home. Afterwards, I was struggling a bit. I felt faint.

“These children’s TV, sound system, computer and laptop used to be here. Now, nothing is there.” The man speaking is the father of the Issadeen family.

This is our uncle’s medal, and his books.

This family’s playful grandson easily escaped Vikalpa's camera lens. His uncle was a young man with unconventional ideas, who freely shared them. He is 21, and his name is I M Naim. He has pursued GCE Advanced Level examination in St. Sylvester's College, Kandy and before that, studied at Kundasale Vivekananda Tamil Vidyalaya up to Ordinary Levels.

When someone does this to us, where are we to go? We too are Sri Lankan. It is only around 10% of foolish Sri Lankans who have started peddling communalism. It is this 10%, irrespective of whether they are Sinhalese, Muslims, Tamil, or Burghers, who are spreading this unrest. At the end of the day, I have lost everything. Everyone is saying that their homes are gone. I have a different story.
I am currently working as an Accounts Assistant. My Ordinary Level and Advanced Level certificates were burned. Still, I can get those back. But my IT, AAT, ACC course certificates are all gone. I can’t get those back. I am from a middle-class family, and one of the only children who passed the Advanced Level examination among all our relatives. Our father sells jak fruit in the market.
In order to afford these courses, the family saved lakhs in rupees, a little at a time. My father, my elder brother, my brother who lives abroad collected money. My plan was to get a degree. Now, that’s all finished. How can I prove whether I am educated or not when I go for job interviews? All the proof has been burned.
My younger brother was getting ready to sit for Advanced Level examinations. He doesn’t have even one book. People are willing to help him and give him notes. However he has already given up. He is heart-broken. He said he is going to look for a job. He will probably find some day-labour work after that.

His elder sister Isadeen Fathima Nadeera is pregnant with what will be her second child. This is her story.

My father prepared this room for me. We put all the baby’s things here too in preparation. Due to the rush I only took my birth certificate and clinic card. All my medicine had melted when I returned. My child’s schoolbag, books and everything was lost in the fire. We have no way to send him to school. I don’t even have a change of clothes, apart from what I am wearing now.

There were many more stories related to Vikalpa, from residents of Kengalle, Balagolla, Digana, Teldeniya and Ambatenna. These stories were related to Vikalpa and others. To attempt to write them would mean this story would run into thousands of pages. Now, these stories are hidden in time.

The issues highlighted in this story extend beyond Kandy. They may never be solved completely. And yet the way the root of this hatred has been allowed to spread and grow beggars belief. Does the state really not care or understand about this issue?

The Central Province Chief Minister, Sarath Ekanayake's residence is around 100 metres away from these people’s homes. Security guards and cameras keep watch outside. But as the residents of this area noted with great sadness, the Minister did not come and speak to these residents, even after the incident, nor did he arrange for them to meet with him.

It is unclear whether these stories will have any impact on people such as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who drove to Digana, spent just 5 minutes and returned in his VIP vehicle with black tinted glass, or the President, who did not even take the trouble to do this but visited the heads of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters instead. This chapter will be closed after paying compensation to these affected people from taxpayer's money, with the violence dismissed as that from an unruly mob.

Is this really so?

From our perspective, it looks as if the State is only putting on a show. They are nurturing and feeding the snake, while outwardly saying that they are being stung by its poison.

This is especially so when the monks who speak of "finishing off Muslims" appear out of nowhere at a State sponsored Vesak festival - a festival to celebrate equality and nonviolence as preached in Buddhism. We should not be writing these stories again and again. Despite two heads of State currently, and a constantly shifting situation politically, there does not appear to be any progress on this issue.

One of the author's Muslim friends, who traveled with Vikalpa for this story, related something incredible. It happened when the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe came to the Digana church. This friend was recording video and had overheard the Prime Minister say, "What is that person doing with a piece of chocolate in his hand?" In fact, it was a GoPro that the friend was using to record.

There is nothing wrong with the Prime Minister not understanding technology, but it is necessary for the State to have a thorough understanding of the new crisis that is spreading across the country. It's necessary for the State to be prepared, to control the situation. The next time thugs arrive with helmets and sticks, the violence they mete out will not be as tasty as chocolate. As a leader, the Prime Minister should be ready to face this threat - it is what is expected of him. Yet, this preparedness is not apparent.

Today, this government is only wearing the skin of 'good governance'. This skin could be shed at any time. The leaders don't feel the need to change this, and the majority of the community don't feel the need to change this situation either. In the absence of honest will to change this for the better, old wounds will continually be reopened.

Translation by Groundviews

View the original story (in Sinhala) here.

All images courtesy Ishara Danasekara, and cannot be copied or reproduced without prior permission from Vikalpa.

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