Digana: Tales and Reflections One Year after Disastrous Riots

Rajitha Jagoda Arachchi, in Sunday Observer, 3 March 2019, where the title runs Digana: Ground Zero one year on

A year ago, the peaceful village was an unrecognisable hotbed of hate and violence and this street on which Samsudeen’s home now stands reconstructed, was filled with concrete and glass, debris from the attacks on Muslim-owned homes and businesses around town. The shoe merchant Samsudeen lives in a newly built house in the middle of town. The man in his 60s invited us into the bedroom cum living room of his modest home, and motioned to his wife to bring refreshments for his guests.

A year ago, Samsudeen’s house and shop front were burned and blackened in the vicious communal riots that broke out in Digana, Kandy. Worse still, the violence claimed his youngest son Abdul Basith (27) who was on the top floor of their home when it was burning. A year ago, the peaceful village was an unrecognisable hotbed of hate and violence and this street on which Samsudeen’s home now stands reconstructed, was filled with concrete and glass, debris from the attacks on Muslim-owned homes and businesses around town.

Samsudeen, who was devastated by the loss of his son, is reflective about what relations used to be between neighbours before the violence. “Our area never had issues between religions. Basith my youngest son also had friends in all races, all religions. We lived with Sinhala People for years peacefully. Still I cannot believe what happened. It’s like a nightmare,” said Samsudeen.

Samsudeen who says he started working at the tender age of nine, had started his own shop in Digana after going through lots of troubles in his life. “I started life as a lottery seller. Out of each lottery ticket sold, I earned two cents. But I never complained and worked hard. Then I finally started this shop in my house using my savings,” he said.

It was March 5, 2018. A few days before that, four Muslim youth had beaten a person to death after a quarrel on the road. This lead to the riots in the Digana area lead by racist mobs who wanted to burn the properties of Muslims. “My wife and I jumped out of the house when they set our house on fire. Basith was upstairs and he could not jump out of the house immediately,” Basith’s father recalled.

Later Fayaz, Samsudeen’s second son climbed the roof looking for Basith. He fell down with the roof. He had no option but to run out of the house and was caught in the fire. But he managed to get out of the house. “People laughed at my burning son. No one came forward to rescue him. However, later the police had admitted him to the hospital. As the Police said they hospitalised two boys, we thought Basith was one. But instead, we found his dead body the following day,” Samsudeen wiped his eyes with both hands and his walking stick fell on the floor.

“The post mortem report stated that Basith died on March 4. But nothing happened in our house on March 4. It all happened on March 5. To be honest, we now feel that we live in a house belonging to someone else,” said Samsudeen, looking around the new walls. Samsudeen had received only Rs. 150,000 as compensation from the government while it cost him more than Rs. 3 million to build his home and shop, which were in pieces.

A few minutes later Samsudeen’s eldest son Fasal also joined us. The 37-year-old Fasal is a Muslim Maulavi. Fasal said that it was the mosque that helped them rebuild after the riots last year. “The pressure we had that day hasn’t changed. The government paid only Rs. 50,000 for the house and Rs. 100,000 for the shop. They said that it was just an initial amount and we will be paid more later. But we received nothing after the initial payment. Our Masjid has a fund to which all Muslims donate 2.5 per cent of their annual profit for CSR work. If we had not received financial support from the Masjid we may have had no place to go,” he said.

In August 2018, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that Rs 205 million had been allocated for compensation. “We don’t know what happened to that money. The Government should have supported the community and our society is losing faith in it,” he said.

Both Fasal and Samsudeen believe that those who participated in those riots are a minority. They still have confidence that the majority Sinhalese are against such behaviour. “I understood that very well because several Bhikkhus and lots of Sinhalese people came and helped us later. Also I believe the Sinhalese and Muslims do not have religious conflicts. This is all about politics. Politicians create these issues. On the other hand, people try to exaggerate the fact about our businesses and make the Sinhalese envy us,” Faisal said.

He also thinks they have the utmost responsibility in terms of generating awareness about Islamic teachings. “Many Sinhalese misunderstand Islam. They come up with different topics from time to time. One time it is Halal. Then Burka and then sterilising pills. We have to eliminate these myths from society,” he said.

The founder of Mahason Balakaya (a social media activist group which was sharing false information and facilitating ethnic tensions for years) Amith Weerasinghe is also from Digana. He and Fasal had gone to the same school, Sinhala Maha Vidyalaya in Kengalle.

“There were several barriers along the road. The Government could have stopped all this. But they did not. If they did my son would still be alive,” said Samsudeen seeing us out of his home.

Other victims of last year’s violence also recalled traumatic memories. “The STF was scared to intervene. Without the army’s intervention the situation would never have been controlled and we would all have been dead,” said one resident of Digana who did not wish to be named.

Our next stop was Ambale, a village 20 km away from Digana town. We wanted to see the family of Kumarasinghe, who died after being beaten by four Muslim youth, the cause of the Digana riots. Thilaka Padmasiri, Kumarasinghe’s spouse had just returned from school after picking up her two children. “It has been an year now. The death of my husband is an immeasurable loss to our family. Ministers and MPs came home promising help for the children and to build our house. But now they have all forgotten us,” she said.

As they were busy with funeral arrangements they had not seen the devastated Digana town. “Actually none of us had issues with Muslims. We still go to Muslim shops. It was outsiders who came to our area and rioted,” she said.  After the riots there were many who helped including some Muslim families. “One such family came to Peraketiya temple on January 1, and gave us Rs. 50,000.” said Thilaka.

On our way back to Colombo we stopped at Gomagoda temple to meet the chief incumbent who saved a few Muslim families during the tension. The Chief incumbent of the temple says both the law enforcement and religious leaders have let the communities down. The Arts may be one way to heal the divide between ethnic communities, he said. Artistes like Freddy Silva and Gunadasa Kapuge served that purpose. Present day artistes don’t do that. Have you seen a tele drama in which a Sinhala boy marries a Muslim girl? Artistic productions can heal wounded hearts. Instead the media only wants to show dubbed Hindi tele dramas. This is a pathetic situation,” said the Thera.

‘Saadu, keep our children and protect them’

Chief incumbent of the Gomagoda Temple Kahagala Dhmmananda Thera said, “I remember that day. I was inside my room when a boy told me that Muslim families were gathered in the temple. To be frank I thought that they had come to attack the temple, because there were such rumours going on.

I went out of my room and saw more than 30 Muslims gathered in the temple. They were pleading and asking me to protect them. “Saaduat least keep our children and protect them,” the mothers cried. It was a very difficult moment for me. I had to make a quick decision. I didn’t think twice and arranged the preaching hall (Bana Maduwa) for their stay.

I immediately spoke to some youth who are close to the temple. “Don’t let them go Hamuduruwane. We are on our way,” they said. They came quickly. They helped calm the disturbed people with no hesitation. We cooked food to distribute to them, gave milk to the children, provided them with pillows and mattresses. In the meantime, many Sinhalese people in our village were calling me and asking what needs to be done in order to protect the Muslims.The Police then came and provided protection. By next morning they were able to go back to their homes.

They came to the temple looking for protection. I couldn’t break their trust. It was the Sinhala Buddhists that attacked them. However, I must say that if they were true Buddhists they wouldn’t do such things.

The Digana incident is now over, but who can say that it is completely over? Amith of the Mahason Balakaya has recently distributed a booklet to the public provoking racism. This activity is to boycott Muslim shops during the Sinhala Avurudu season. Some Sinhala Businessmen have also partnered him, I think.”

Pix – Sudam Gunasinghe

Special thanks to Sakeef Saam

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De Sayrah, Amalini 2019 “Digan One Year On,” 5 March 2019,  https://groundviews.org/2019/03/05/digana-one-year-on/ …. related articles in same stre by Amalini De Sayrah

Roberts, Michael 1994 “The Imperialism of Silence under the British Raj: Arresting the Drum,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading, Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 149-82.

Roberts, Michael 1994 in “Mentalities: Ideologues, Assailants, Historians and the Pogrom against the Moors in 1915,” Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading, Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 183 212.

Roberts, Michael 1994 “The Agony and the ecstasy of a Pogrom: Southern Lanka, July, July 1983,” Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading, Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 317-30 …with improved version reproduced in Nethra, 2003.

Roberts, Michael 2011Marakkala Kolahālaya: Mentalities directing the Pogrom of 1915,” in Roberts, confrontations in Sri Lanka, Colombo, Vijitha yapa Publications, pp. 113-53.

Roberts, Michael 2019 Addressing ‘Chauvinism’ and  Primacy in Modern Lanka,” 24 February 2019,  https://thuppahis.com/2019/02/24/addressing-chauvinism-and-primacy-in-modern-lanka/#more-34224

Roberts, Michael 2019 Confronting Chauvinism,” 5 March 2019, Daily FT, http://www.ft.lk/columns/Confronting-chauvinism/4-674003

Sirisena, Piyadasa 1982 Maha Viyavula [The Great Chaos or Calamity] Colombo: Gunasena [orig., 1916]

Sirisena, Piyadasa 1954 Apata Vecca De! [What happened to Us!] Colombo: Gunasena, 1954


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