Legacy of riots overshadows Eid in Sri Lanka

Tensions persist in Aluthgama and other Sri Lanka towns hit by communal violence as the fasting month of Ramadan ends.

    The government is confident that the communities can coexist peacefully [Dinouk Columbage/Al Jazeera]
    The government is confident that the communities can coexist peacefully [Dinouk Columbage/Al Jazeera]

    Aluthgama, Sri Lanka - Tensions persist as Muslim and Sinhalese communities in the Sri Lankan town of Aluthgama try to rebuild their lives in the wake of communal riots.

    The two-day violence in June overshadowed the traditional observance during Ramadan, which has been a stressful time for local Muslims who were forced to rebuild damaged homes and businesses.

    But while an older generation in the coastal settlement remains angry at their neighbours, children are looking forward to the Eid al-Fitr celebrations that mark the end of the fasting month.

    Ashraff, a Muslim boy on his way to the mosque, said he was excited about celebrating Eid and about sharing the food with his Sinhalese friends.

    "My friends always bring food during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, and I do the same during Eid," he said.

    "This year will be no different - they did not attack our homes, so I do not know why they cannot celebrate with us."

    Mohammed Shezad doesn't believe Eid al-Fitr is joyful for his family this year [Dinouk Colombage / Al Jazeera]
    Rebuilding under way

    At least four people were killed when Muslims and their properties were attacked by Sinhalese Buddhists in Aluthgama, Beruwala, and Dharga, and 2,000 people were displaced in southwestern Sri Lanka in violence that followed rallies by a hardline Buddhist group, Bodu Bala Sena.

    President Mahinda Rajapaksa responded to the clashes by ordering the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development to rebuild damaged homes and businesses.

    A ministry spokesperson, Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya, told Al Jazeera that 35 houses and seven shops had been restored and returned to their owners while an additional 103 houses and 25 shops were still undergoing repairs.

    The upheaval disrupted Ramadan and left many Muslims fearful about the future. Mohammed Shezad, a resident of Aluthgama, said this year his children did not observe the fast.

    "I have two young children whom, on the night of the riots, I had to take to the mosque so that they would be safe," he told Al Jazeera. "For several weeks they had sleepless nights, I could not ask them to fast as well."

    Shezad did not believe Eid al-Fitr would be joyful for his family this year.

    "How can we celebrate when our homes were attacked and shops burnt down? Every night I am scared for my family's safety: those riots targeted us because we are Muslim.

    "If we celebrate Eid, who is to say they will not attack us again?"

    Sinhalese homes displayed Buddhist flags to make sure they were not affected [Dinouk Colombage/Al Jazeera]

    His sister and her three children are now living with his family while their house is being rebuilt.

    "The army promised it will be complete in a month, and until then my sister and her children will stay with us," Shezad said.

    "The shop I worked at was burnt down, so I have no work. The owners have promised to pay me, but they said they must wait until the shop is rebuilt. I do not have enough money to look after both families and celebrate Eid."

    Call for clampdown

    Some Muslims like Mohammed Althaf, whose house suffered several broken windows and a damaged roof, believe that simply rebuilding homes and shops will not repair the damage done to the community as a whole.

    "We were a community of Sinhalese and Muslims who had lived together for decades in peace. Now both sides are suspicious of one another," Althaf said.

    "I do not believe that the Sinhalese of Aluthgama took part in the riots, but they did not help us either. By the second day, Sinhalese homes were putting out the Buddhist flag so as to make sure they were not affected."

    As a Sinhalese I am ashamed that this happened ... I have seen many of them [Muslims] living in fear that a repeat of the violence could occur.

    Ranjith Boteju, local Sinhalese

    Althaf urged the authorities to take strict action against those responsible for the violence.

    "If the government is genuine about their desire to live in harmony, then violence such as what we saw must be stopped. These people must be arrested and charged, otherwise what will stop them from doing something like this elsewhere?"

    Police spokesperson SSP Ajith Rohana said that 124 people had been arrested in connection with the violence, nearly 100 of whom had appeared in court.

    "Those who have been remanded will be produced before the courts once again and then it is up to the courts to decide their punishment," he said.

    Mixed feelings

    There are mixed feelings on both sides in this community about who is to blame and what the future holds.

    Ranjith Boteju, a Sinhalese resident who has lived in Aluthgama for 60 years, condemned the rioters.

    "As a Sinhalese I am ashamed that this happened," he told Al Jazeera.

    "I have never seen such violence before in my life, I have lots of Muslim friends and they were all affected. The month of Ramadan is very special to them and this year I have seen many of them living in fear that a repeat of the violence could occur."

    Yet, not all Sinhalese residents share his sentiments.

    Bodu Bala Sena on Sri Lanka riots

    "Some Muslims had stoned a procession that was going to the temple and the Sinhalese involved fought back," said resident Asela Ratnasinghe. "Several of them attacked a Buddhist monk on Poson poya, which is a religious day for us.

    "I do not support those who burnt down shops and homes - but the Sinhalese must be allowed to defend themselves if attacked by someone."

    Despite simmering tensions, the government is confident that the communities can continue to coexist peacefully.

    Sri Lankan cabinet spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella said that what happened in Aluthgama was an isolated incident and the government would ensure the safety of all communities.

    "The month of Ramadan has passed with no such violence, and we do not expect there to be," Rambukwella told Al Jazeera.

    "Sri Lanka is a country where all communities are free to practise their religion."

    Follow Dinouk Colombage on Twitter: @dinoukc

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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