by Dr Alavi Sheriffdeen
(The contributor is a teacher based in Australia who lost his father and little brother at the Kattankudy mosque massacre in 1990. He has been leading a number of community educational and empowerment projects in the East of Sri Lanka since the war ended in 2009)
Every year, when the Month of August approaches, a feeling of dread and despair engulfs me as the memories of 3 August 1990 come flooding back. On that fateful day, with one swell swoop, 141 worshippers were massacred while they were in communion with God in two different mosques in Batticaloa, Eastern Province. Nearly three decades later Meera Jummah Mosque in Kattankudy and Hussainiyya Mosque in Manchanthoduwai bear testimony to the bloodshed that took place within its sacred walls.
It has been 27 years today since that dreadful day when Kattankudy Mosque massacre shattered lives of many. I am one of those victims who lost a dear father and a brother, aged just 10, along with many other relatives. Each and every one who was killed in the Hussainiyya Mosque was very well known to me either as relatives or neighbours. This is one of the days that should never be repeated in Sri Lanka or anywhere in the world. Even though decades passed, its tormenting memories and scars have scorched the minds of its victims. To date, these traumatic memories are still fresh as if it just took place a minute ago.
Period of 1990
Year 1990 was the peak of the violence and killings in the history of Sri Lanka. Those who were connected with the North and East during this period would know the miserable lives people led due to the atrocities instigated and committed by the LTTE and other Tamil terrorist groups. There was neither law, nor order. If anyone can get hold of a gun and has some sort of connections with terrorist gangs, he or she could wield power and make others bow to their will. Thousands of valuable lives were mercilessly taken away by cruel individuals who called themselves soldiers of the liberation struggle.
After the closure of universities due to the unrest caused by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the country, the universities had just reopened in 1990. I was then a law student at the University of Colombo. This was the time during which the LTTE and other Tamil terrorist groups had started to commit heinous crimes against the people in Sinhalese and Muslim villages, by kidnapping people for ransom, revenge and brutally killing them. Muslims and Sinhalese were not able to travel freely in Tamil dominated areas as they were at risk of being kidnapped anywhere, anytime. Hundreds of Muslims were abducted and their vehicles and goods were confiscated by LTTE bandits. All of them were slaughtered en masse in Onthachimadam, south-east of Sri Lanka. My parents were concerned for my safety and advised me not to come to the East but to remain in Colombo.
The LTTE started spreading their violence like a cancerous tumour. They initially killed their own people and leaders within the Tamil community and proceeded to kill the Sinhalese and then Muslims. Therefore, this was a very daunting period for the Muslims in the Eastern Province as they were maimed or killed. Muslim youth were abducted and callously murdered, which was very common at that time. Everyday news of abductions and killings of Muslims would reach me in Colombo. It was a time of agony as it seemed there was no solution as the LTTE appeared to be the most powerful guerrilla force on Earth even though they were not so in reality.
Apart from the Eastern Province, several bomb explosions took place in various places, including bus and railway stations and public venues, causing destruction and claiming lives of many innocent civilians. Even places of worship were not exempted.
When the LTTE couldn’t gain much with open combat with the Sri Lankan military, they resorted to hit-and-run tactics and other cowardly acts against innocent Sinhalese and Muslim villagers. History has recorded several of such massacres that took place between 1988 and 1994.
LTTE members in East
Even though the world may not know who the LTTE and other Tamil terrorists were, the people of the East knew them very well. The LTTE comprised mostly of children who were languishing in poverty, those who performed poorly in schools, the unemployed, low paid labourers, village thieves, thugs and any others who could deal with and adopt their ruthless mode of operation. The only exception was those children who were forcefully recruited or those who were compelled to join them in order to avoid being arrested on suspicion by the military. However, the LTTE was rejected by all decent Tamils who condemned their atrocious acts of perpetuating torture and violence.
However, the Tamil community in the North and East were brutally intimidated so they remained quiet in their condemnation due to fear for their lives. A simple statement of reproach against these groups would qualify them for a lamp-post killing. Lamp-post killing was the popular punishment the LTTE meted out to those who were brave enough to oppose them. They would tie their critics to the lamp-post and shoot them in their head. Next to the dead body there would be a signboard saying, “The traitor of Tamils”, the following day the people can witness the brutal killing and be warned against opposing them.
The LTTE initially commenced a hate campaign against the Sri Lankan Government and then broadened the spectrum to include the Sinhalese people. They preached hate against the ‘Sinhalese’ Sri Lankan Government, in order to justify the killing of anyone with even a trace of Sinhalese identity. They used this methodology to declare war against the Sinhalese people, thus wiping out a number of Sinhalese villagers by intimidating and killing them.
The LTTE wanted to rule the Muslims in the East with an iron fist, under the subjugation of their ruthless law, contrary to the peace loving aspiration of the people.
Towards this end they introduced a term Islamia Tamilar (Islamic Tamils) in the pretext of representing them, as an attempt to revive Ramanathan’s old claim that Muslims were ethnically Tamils. Historically, this claim has been rejected and continued to be rejected by Muslims. When the Muslim community did not adopt or accept this new identity, the LTTE resorted to fear mongering tactics by abducting Muslims for ransom, vandalising their shops, killing them and committing other criminal acts against them. The initial anti-Muslim violence by Tamil terrorist groups in the Batticaloa District took place in 1985 when non-LTTE terrorist group killed some farmers and threw their bodies in the river in Unnichchai area. They accused Muslims of being government informants. From this point onwards, Tamil-Muslim relations were badly affected by constant attacks on the Muslim community.
By this time the government also decided to recruit civilians to protect their homes from LTTE attacks. However, since they didn’t have enough training, experience in warfare or sophisticated weapons they couldn’t defend themselves against the LTTE. They were not disciplined either as there were many complaints with regard to their activities which were similar to the LTTE’s mode of operation. Many terrorist groups sporadically sprouted within dejected groups of people. Ultimately, the LTTE spearheaded a campaign that worked towards obliterating all other Tamil armed groups and Muslim-resistance groups that emerged sporadically.
When the LTTE came to know about these groups, they became the primary targets, along with unarmed Muslims and Tamil civilians.
They targeted and killed them whenever they could. The LTTE was determined to eliminate any resistance from anyone at that time, especially from Tamil and Muslim community in the North and East.
3 August 1990 Mosque Massacre
On the eve of Friday, 3 August 1990, the LTTE chose to kill unsuspecting Muslims in cold blood, while they were engaged in prayer.
This was done with the intention of making the Muslims to bend to the will of the LTTE, thereby silencing this minority community who were vocal about their criticism of the LTTE. The terrorists succeeded in gaining control within Tamil community through intimidation, as there was none who had the guts to raise their voice against them.
The mosque massacre that took place exactly 27 years ago, has put a person like me in chaos. I am from an academic family, probably the first academic family of my small village Manchanthoduwai. We had very close ties with many non-Muslim families in Manchanthoduwai as it was a village comprising multi-religious communities. My father, a respected teacher always stood against revenge killings of Tamils by Muslims. He prevented it at many occasions risking his own life. When the wealthy people were leaving my village out of fear that the LTTE may attack Muslims of the village, my father, an experienced and dedicated teacher refused to leave the poor neighbours and move to safer areas. He did not want to abandon his neighbourhood of multi religious peaceful communities.
My kindergarten years were spent at a pre-school managed by the Methodist Church. I had my primary schooling at the local Muslim school, and engaged in secondary education among, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist students at Kattankudy Central College followed by a few years at St Michael’s College. I left Batticaloa to continue my higher education and eventually settled in Colombo to pursue my law degree. This variety of experiences had given me a broad spectrum of friends from all communities and religious backgrounds.
When this horrendous massacre took place, I did not only lose my father and relatives but it obliterated relatives and friends spanning several generations. For instance, my father’s teacher Mr. Selvaraja was living in our neighbourhood. His property was destroyed due to the revenge attacks carried out by those who claimed that they were Muslims. Contrary to the teachings of Islam, they vandalized properties of innocent people, so Mr Selvaraja and his family were forced to seek refuge in a safer area.
The prevailing security situation did not permit me to visit him and his family even though he lived many years after my father’s death.
His son, my dear friend Segar Anna was killed in 1993 by unknown terrorists and his body was found on Kallady beach. To date, his killers remain unidentified. The news of his death did not reach me until after many years of his demise.
Many of my friends from our old neighbourhood have permanently left our area and their whereabouts are not known. Even as I write this, I think of the many misunderstandings and mistrust that would have happened. Our life time may not be enough to sort these things out to get back to those old golden days.
The 3 August mass killings made my family homeless and we became refugees overnight. I was forced to abandon my law studies and was fortunate enough to be awarded a World Bank scholarship to pursue a Master’s degree in Australia which eventually led me to settle down in Australia without seeking political asylum as many may have thought. I had just passed the SLEAS exam by this time and had ample opportunity to develop myself further and establish my life in my motherland. However, I was targeted by the LTTE, thus concern for my safety compelled me to leave the country.
This massacre has changed the demography of the people in my neighbourhood and their lives. The survivors of the massacre and their families still recount stories of pain and trauma continued years after this tragedy. My little beautiful village Manchanthoduwai at the banks of the Batticaloa Lagoon lost its beautiful harmonious multi faith community. It was invaded primarily by the LTTE and the rest of terrorist groups.
Blood thirst of the LTTE did not stop at this, within a week they struck Eravur, another Muslim settlement north of Batticaloa. This time they invaded the villages and killed over hundred villagers in their sleep. The victims included a day old infant too! Wikipedia has listed their attacks from 1970 till 2006. Each attack has painfully branded its victims who still suffer from the deep wounds it has left. The pattern of attacks testify that the LTTE did not even harbour an atom size value for human lives as they mercilessly killed a day old infant, teachers, community, political and religious leaders. They paid no heed to the sanctity of religious places, schools or other public places as they went on a rampage killing innocent civilians.
Lessons to be learned
In the guise of Tamil liberation struggle, the LTTE and all other terrorist groups did nothing other than kill and cause destructions. They could not realize their liberation fantasy or instil much needed peace for their own people or the country except add fuel to the fire, instigating racial hatred. While innocents were losing their lives, LTTE terrorist leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was enjoying life with his family, and enjoying luxury in his private swimming pool. What a liberation comrade!
We are all morally obliged to contribute towards it and discard racism for the sake of harmony and peaceful living. If we do not do it, all of us will suffer. Will our politicians, community and religious leaders realize this and work towards achieving this? Are we all mentally and physically prepared to move firmly in this direction?
I hope this situation would not be repeated, May God protect Sri Lankans from the evil of racism and from another terror state in which we suffered for many decades.