By Seyed Alavi Sheriffdeen –
For the last 27 years, the month of August had descended upon me, bringing with it dark memories of the gruesome images of the Kattankudy Mosque killings that has had a lasting imprint of sorrow and agony on me. This year is no different.
On 3 August, 1990, 141 worshippers were massacred while they were in communion with God in two different mosques in the town of Kattankudy, in Batticoloa district of Eastern Province. Today marks 27 years since the Kattankudy killings committed by the LTTE that destroyed the lives 141 worshippers and that of their loved ones.Meera Jummah Mosque in Kattankudy and Hussainiyya Mosque in Manchanthoduwai stand to this day as a stark reminder of the sacrilege and blood spilt within its holy borders.
My dear father and little brother, aged just 10, were brutally murdered by the LTTE ,along with many other relatives.They were all engrossed in prayer when this tragedy took place. Each and every one who were killed in the Hussainiyya Mosque are very well known to me either as relatives or neighbours. This is one of the days that should be never repeated in the history of 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 l as if it just took place a minute ago.
Period of 1990
1990 was the peak year of the violence and killings in the history of Sri Lanka. Those who were connected with North and East during this period would know the miserable lives people led due to atrocities instigated and committed by the LTTE and other Tamil terrorists 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 closure of the universities due to 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 LTTE and other Tamil terrorist groups had started to do heinous crimes against the people in Sinhalese and Muslim villages, by kidnapping people for ransom, revenge and then 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 East but to remain in Colombo.
LTTE started their violence like a cancerous tumour. They initially killed their own people within the Tamil community leaders and proceeded to kill the Sinhalese and then to Muslims. Therefore,this was a very daunting period for the muslims in the Eastern Province as they were maimed to kill. 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 seems there was no solution for the LTTE appeared to be the most powerful guerrilla force on the 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 opted to hit and run tactics and and other cowardly acts to innocent Sinhalese and Muslim villagers. History has recorded several of such massacres that took place between years 1988 to 1994.
Who were the members of LTTE in the 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 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.
They were rejected by all decent tamils who condemned their atrocious acts of perpetuating torture and violence.
However, 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 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.
What did the LTTE want from the Muslims?
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.
In such a backdrop, the Muslim community has always been in a sandwich situation as it doesn’t identify themselves based on their linguistic variations. Historically Muslims spoke Tamil throughout the country, and were largely trilingual, linking them to both the Sinhalese community, Tamil community and the English speaking demographic. However they never claimed or identified themselves as Tamil on the basis of their proficiency in the vernacular. On contrary they took offence whenever they were classed as part of the Tamil community. They harmoniously co-existed with Tamils in North and East and lived with Sinhalese in other areas. While they proudly identified themselves as Sri Lankans they maintained their unique religious identity throughout history. Muslims either identified themselves as Ceylonese Moor, Bohra or Malay. This is contrary to Indian situation where South Indian Tamil speaking Muslims identify themselves as Tamilian.
Therefore 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 these claims were rejected and continue 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, assassinating them and other criminal acts. Initial anti-Muslim violence by Tamil terrorist groups in 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.
Day by day there were many of killings of Muslims, abductions, and robbery of Muslim shops. This placed Muslims in a very difficult position as they were struggling to forge their peaceful existence. Some minor groups that referred to themselves as Jihad Groups started to appear to protect Muslims. They were not accepted by Muslim community nor guided by any Islamic religious groups, although their intention was to protect the Muslim community. Their un-islamic acts were condemned by Muslim community and religious leaders.
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 from the LTTE. They were not very disciplined group either as there were many complaints with regard to their activities which was 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 target for LTTE, along with unarmed muslims and Tamil civilians. They targeted and killed them whenever they could so. The LTTE was determined to eliminate any resistance from anyone at that time especially from Tamil and Muslim community in the North and East.
Since the LTTE found that Muslim community was not willing to accept LTTE as their representatives and there were resistance from the Muslim community to support terrorist acts, they chose to turn their guns from pointing at military towards another minority community; Muslims. The worst decision they took was killing the villagers in their sleep and worshippers at their worship.
3 August 1990 Mosque Massacre
Thus, on the eve of Friday, 3rd 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 silence this minority community who were vocal about their criticism of the LTTE. The terrorist succeeded in gaining control within Tamil community through intimidation, as there were 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 at 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 of 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 preschool managed by 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 few years 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 vandalising properties of innocent people, so Mr Selvaraja and his family were forced to seek refuge in a safer area. The prevailing security situation then 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 in 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 gone through. Our life time may not be enough to sort these things out to get back to those old golden days.
The August 3rd 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 masters degree in Australia which eventually lead me to settle 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 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 LTTE did not stop with this, within a week they struck t 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. Pattern of attacks testify that 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, t LTTE and all other terrorist groups did nothing other than kill and cause destructions. They could not realise their liberation fantasy or instill 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 Prabakaran was enjoying life with his family, and enjoying luxury in his private swimming pool. What a liberation comrade!
There is no excuse to nurture hatred towards other communities under any civil law anywhere in the world. The much lauded end of LTTE and other terrorists,-be it independent or state supported- must be taken as a lesson that by killing and violence nothing can be achieved that would benefit anyone. The tragic end of the terror king Prabakaran at Nandikkadal bears testimony his worthless cause. Evil reaps evil, and brings a similar end to those who wield evil. By fooling the masses he lead this terror campaign at the expense of thousands of lives and million worth of losses. Many innocents from Tamil community were convinced or forced to join his murderous forces. Finally he used them as human shields to have a luxurious life in the middle of jungle. And most importantly he did not bite the cyanide capsules, which he tied in the necks of thousands of child soldiers by glorifying martyrdom thereby instructing them to commit suicide when at risk of being arrested by the military. Even this was to safeguard the secrecy of his whereabouts from reaching the military.
Prabakaran tried his best even at the last minute in Nandikadal on 18 May 2009 to save his life -out of selfishness not for the Tamil community- by dragging all innocent civilians as his human shield. While the world highly sympathise for each and every innocent civilian killed at Nadikadal and other places, victims of this murderous LTTE and other terrorist groups do not have any feeling and regret for LTTE murderous mob and its leader’s deadly end. On the contrary he has to be killed not once but repeatedly by the number of deaths he has caused in his lifetime to innocent victims from Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala communities.
I do remember and pray for each and every innocent individual killed or suffered due to this meaningless war. August 3 reminds me of my father’s legacy to not to let injustice to take place and stand for justice even at one’s own loss. Serving the community without differentiating them by religion, race or ethnicity is the only way forward to add value to nation building process of the country ruined by racial conflict over the past few decades.
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 realise this and work towards achieving this? Are we all mentally and physically prepared to move firmly in this direction?
If we are still not prepared to make this brave move, one day our situation will be as portrayed similar to the writings of Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a Protestant pastor who was an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler. I have modified his famous poem to read to reflect what took place 27 years ago.
First they came for the Tamils, and I did not speak out
-Because I was not a Tamil.
First they came for Muslims, and I did not speak out
-Because I was not a Muslim.
First they came for Sinhalese, and I did not speak out
-Because I was not a Sinhalese.
Then they came for me
-and there was no one left to speak for me
I hope this tragedy 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.