Tension prevailed in the Galle suburb of Karapitiya on Wednesday June 12th 2013 when Muslim women protesting the intended demolition of their homes by the Urban Development Authority(UDA)demonstrated in front of bulldozers and succeeded temporarily in prevented their dwellings being wrecked.
The dramatic incident where around 25 Muslim women bravely sat down or lay down in front of four bulldozers that were getting ready to mow down their homes resulted in the demolition efforts from proceeding further.
Thirty –two dwellings belonging to Muslim families in the vicinity of Karapitiya teaching hospital and Bus depot were targeted for demolition by the Urban development Authority (UDA) for the ostensible purpose of expanding the Bus depot and adjacent roads.The Muslim home owners have been living in the area for many decades and possess title deeds of legal ownership.
UDA officials accompanied by military personnel went to the area on Saturday June 8th and informed the Muslim resident families that the lands where their homes were built on have been earmarked for Urgent Urban construction purposes and that they should vacate their homes in 72 hours. They were told that their dwellings were to be demolished to acquire land for enhancing and developing roads adjacent to the hospital and bus depot and also to expand the bus depot.
The Muslim home owners had remonstrated against this arbitrary action and pointed out that they could not be driven out from their homes at such short notice without alternatives being provided or compensation paid.
They were told by officials that they were acting on the direct orders of Defence and Urban development Ministry Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and that the families should first vacate their homes and then apply for compensation which would be paid in due course.The residents however refused to leave saying it was unjust to compel them to leave without proper alternative arrangements.
The Families to be evicted all of whom were Muslims thereafter contacted Muslim politicians and sought assistance to prevent their homes from being demolished. An appeal was sent to President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is also the minister if Defence and Urban development.Lawyers were also contacted to discuss possible legal action.
On Wednesday June 12th morning UDA officials and building contractors entrusted with the demolition and reconstruction project arrived in the area. They were accompanied by the Police.
The residents were told that their time was up and that they should leave within three hours with their belongings. Thereafter the demolition would proceed regardless of their refusal,they were told.The residents refused to move and sat down in front of their homes in protest.They were then warned that they would be arrested if they protested but the families driven by the desire to preserve their homes did not give in.
After about three and a half hours four bulldozers arrived at the scene. The bulldozer drivers took up position at vantage points opposite the homes and began taking steps to mow down the targeted dwellings.The families under threat got very agitated at this sight.
At this point of time the women started shouting emotionally that they would not let their homes be destroved.They moved up to the bulldozers and sat in front of them in protest.
The officials then threatened them saying they would not hesitate to crush them with the bulldozers if they did not move. The women numbering around 25 refused to budge. Some laid themselves down on the ground near the bulldozers shouting we wont move even if you run over us.
The men and children also moved forward and got behind the protesting women. Several children began crying loudly “Ummah! Ummah!! (Mother,mother).Some went and sat with their mothers.
With the situation getting worse the officials asked the Police to remove the protesters by force and let the demolition begin but the Police personnel acting very humanely said they cannot use force on women and children and urged the officials to suspend the demolition and persuade the homeowners through discussions to cooperate with the UDA project.
Thereafter the UDA officials tried to talk with the demonstrating residents who refused to give up the protest saying hiw can we let you destroy our homes?
The officials and contractors then left the area saying they would be back soon to continue the demolition. Some abused the protesting women in filth warning them of dire consequences. Police however intervened and got the would be demolitionists to leave without provoking the enraged community further.
The Women and children then got up and went back to their homes after succeeding in preventing their homes being demolished through their spontaneous courageous protest demonstration.
Some of the Muslim homeowners later went to the Police station and lodged a complaint that they had been abused and threatened by UDA officials and building contractors.
A group of affected Karapitiya Muslim homeowners have now gone to Colombo to consult with lawyers. Meanwhile a team of Muslim lawyers from Colombo will be going to Galle on a fact finding mission.
It is learnt that legal action in the form of a fundamental rights petition is being contemplated and that two leading Muslim lawyers who are Presidents counsels may represent the Karapitiya Muslim families in this regard.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at ~ firstname.lastname@example.org