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Through the Scorched Frames The aftermath in welekade

Text and photos by Afrah Niwas, featuring the voices of those directly affected in the Welekade area of Kandy district by the anti-Muslim violence recently unleashed in the hill capital.

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” - Albert Einstein

“Only our clothes are different, everything else is the same,” the first woman I spoke to from the affected area said. The Temple and the Mosque were around 100 metres apart, one on either side of the main road. My first instinct as we entered this area was to recall the many reports I had read online. Perhaps this community too had worked together to prevent the violence. It quickly became apparent that the attack on this community was completely unexpected. It happened on the morning of March 7, almost two days after the initial attacks in the Theldeniya and Digana areas. The elderly woman I first spoke to continued to provide her own account of the attacks. She said that a Sinhalese woman took many women into her house and sheltered them during the attacks. However, in the aftermath of the violence, the state of normalcy that these communities experienced, and their relations with each other, had been shattered.

“There were no issues between us before… But nobody came to us to at least to say a word of consolation. We are yet to meet them face to face. I do not know what they will say now. Before, whenever we saw each other, we would greet each other as “akka…” Her voice trailed off.

Flowers made of cloth survived the fires that consumed a house.

The words of a small schoolboy whose house was completely burned still echo in my head. When they had heard the on-coming mobs, he fled the house with his elder sister and their younger brother. Their mother had passed away some time ago and their father was at the hospital undergoing a major surgery at the time of the attack. Standing amidst the wreckage, fighting back brimming tears; he said in past tense “Dhatha da kalyaanatha next month wechirunthom" (we had planned to have our elder sister’s wedding next month”.) It took me some effort to descend those ruined steps and leave him alone there.

“After burning the vehicle parked in the front, they burned the small children’s bicycle. They even broke the children’s toys…what kind of beings were they?”

One of the women had returned home a few days after the attack, even though it was not fully repaired, because her ten-year-old daughter had started to fear that they had become refugees. “My daughter kept asking me, “Umma, are we refugees now? Have they burned all my books too?” She is already very frightened. I did not want her imagination to traumatise her further, so we came home after repairing the broken doors and windows with wood and cardboard.” Fortunately their house had not been burned.

A burned car under a katu anodha (soursop) tree

From the testimony of many of the people from the area, the violence that happened here seemed to follow a familiar pattern, one that was widely reported in other parts of Kandy too. Initially the mobs had arrived pelting stones. When the residents saw the large crowd, some had fled into the interior, while others had locked their doors. One man said, as soon as he saw the crowd, he had begun praying with his family. “We could not have withstood those people. There were just too many.” There were varying figures as to the number of people in the mob, according to eyewitnesses - from “200” to “400” to “1000”. After the first wave of attack, some men in uniform - either army or STF, the residents could not say - had rushed to rescue people from burning or locked houses. They were not allowed to put out the fire or retrieve anything from their burning homes. Rather, they were asked to immediately get in to the Defenders to be taken to safety.

A mother recalled with tears. “We left like orphans. My daughter’s three month old baby, had just a piece of cloth on her. We ran. They took us to the safety of our relative’s – slightly interior to where we were.” She went on to add that while the men in uniform protected her and her young daughters from harm, their properties, vehicles and so on were burned or destroyed. She questioned how this could have happened, since the STF or army were already present when the attacks began.

Another eyewitness said, “We did not even have a moment to lock the doors. They said “api balagannang, api balagannang – (we will take care of it, we will take care of it)”. When we came back; we don’t know what they took care of.” She did not say this in anger or rage. She sounded sad. Profoundly sad. While many of the residents of Welekade were grateful to the ‘men in uniforms’ for saving them from bodily harm, they expressed a deep sense of betrayal and loss.

Another eyewitness related the rescue of a mother and her one-and-a-half year old baby by a Sinhalese neighbour. Apparently the neighbour, with the baby still in her arms had fallen on the ground begging the mobs not to attack her friend’s house saying that they were “hondha minissu” (good people). What was left of the house made it clear that those cries had gone unheard. Contrary to how this was depicted in some media as a clash between two different religious communities; the people of Welekade say this was a wave of violence unleashed upon them by mobs from outside the area, and by silence and inaction, the blessing of the powers-that-be.

The recent violence is yet another devastating reminder of how we are performing as a country. The demons that haunt our “post-independence”, “post-war” lives have been cast abruptly into daylight. In the midst of rebuilding houses made of bricks, cement, and wood - would we be able to rebuild ‘homes’ for the many citizens who have lost them, not merely in March 2018 but also before due to different forms of violence and marginalization? Most of the women we spoke to prayed, “Something like this should never happen, not to anyone. Never.”

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