Abbas Ahmadi, an IT specialist, was rather high in the Afghan provincial civil service. He is of Hazara ethnicity and persecuted by the majority Pashtuns who ironically dominate the ruling faction as well as the rebelling Taliban. The Hazaras are in part the descendants of Genghis Khan and therefore are regarded as Asiatic. Says Abbas that they, the Hazaras, have suffered a lot more than the Tamils of Sri Lanka, having lost 80% of their fertile lands.
Abbas was asked three times by the Taliban to resign his position. When an assassination looked imminent, he flew to New Delhi some five years ago with his wife and 4 children and from there applied for an online visa to Colombo where he applied for asylum upon landing. Sri Lanka does not give refugee status. He and his family were given a residence visa because the UNHCR had determined them to be eligible for asylum but this visa was an interim relief while the UNHCR found a third country willing to accept them as refugees. The Sri Lankan visa did not give them the right to work.
Says Abbas that at long last he was told that the US would accept them as refugees, and they should get the required medical tests done. He did that. But then, in a sudden reversal, he was told that the US would not accept them. This was immediately after Donald Trump’s election. He then appealed and that appeal is ongoing, and the family waited for a response from the US.
Then the Easter Bombings happened on 21 April, 2019. Several refugees like him were attacked by Sinhalese mobs. The frenzied mood of Sri Lankan mobs is best captured by Tarzie Vittachi in his book Emergency ’58. The relevant passage explains to us why the army is unable to stop the mobs today but was able to in 1958:
“The Bren gun was mounted near the gate. At 3.20 p.m. the first wave of goondas advanced towards the police station, with sarongs lifted, shouting obscenities and coarse defiance. They were still confident that Apey Aanduwa would not shoot them down.
“As they came nearer, the Bren fired a burst over their heads to warn them. This had just the opposite effect. They took it as confirmation that the army was only bluffing. The roar of the crowd became louder and the obscenities more defiant. The entire 3,000 now began to swarm towards the barricade. At this point the army unit commander said that he needed authority to open fire. Aluwihare signed the order. The officer put the paper in his pocket and walked out. On came the mob. They were only a few yards away now. One man in front raised his sarong, displaying his genitals in foul defiance of the army. The Bren opened fire and the passionate exhibitionist fell dead. Two of his comrades shared his fate.”
Fortunately, renting in Moratuwa, Abbas did not face such “Saronged Johnnies” who raised their sarongs. But like-minded others threatened his landlord into ejecting him. Several refugees like him were endangered by mobs led by Buddhist priests betraying Buddhism as Harvard’s S.J. Tambiah put it in his book Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka (University of Chicago Press 1992), a book that was promptly banned in Sri Lanka because it seemed so incontrovertible in the normative traditions of academe.
Today’s refugees were mainly forced into camps and police stations. The irony was that the police who should have opened fire on the mods and rioting monks took the refugees into their police stations where some 700 refugees in one instance are said to have shared two toilets and were being thanked for the help the police had rendered them. Such is the upside down world in which we Sri Lankans admire ourselves for our greatness that we see in our failures.
Abbas says he was rattled by President Maithripala Sirisena saying he cannot defend the refugees and pleading with outside counties to take them away quickly. The UNHCR which had been helpful till then did nothing. Even Christian institutions did not come forward to help after the hostility to the refugees which the President seemed to harbor and National Christian Council’s efforts to settle them in one of their buildings faced mobs led by a monk after the first night and the refugees had to be returned to their camp.
Efforts by the Southern Province and Northern Province Governors to settle refugees in their provinces met with opposition partly because the governors’ authority had been, albeit meaning well, usurped from the expired Provincial Councils to which elections were unlawfully delayed through parliamentary intrigue and inefficiency
Sadly many Tamils saw it as an effort to bring Muslims to Jaffna because the Sinhalese did not want “such dangerous people” in their midst. Tamils could not see the parallels to 2007 when Gotabaya Rajapaksa as defense secretary declared Tamils as dangerous terrorists who had to be shipped out of Colombo to save Colombo from bombs. At the time the courts declared such racial profiling to be discriminatory and violative of rights. The government was forced to return to Colombo the Tamils involuntarily taken to the North.
Today there are some meagre signs of hope against similar racial profiling of Muslims. The Human Rights Commission has come out against the banning of the Abaya. After the Sri Lanka Institute for Development Administration banned administrators coming to their courses in the Abaya, the Election Commission declared its protest and said we would permit our officers who so choose to go for SLIDA courses wearing the Abaya, and take it up legally if they were obstructed.
At that point Ruki Fernando (a Colombo-based rights activist) and the Ven Fr. Sam Ponniah (the Anglican Archdeacon of Jaffna) joined forces to bring willing refugees to Jaffna. Theirs were individual efforts with no institutional support. Father Ponniah privately asked some Jaffna Anglicans if they would host some refugee families in their homes. A few agreed and the number of families moving to Jaffna became 4 and then 5 and then 6 and so on says Father Ponniah.
Newspapers like the Uthayan had positive comments but not the Valampuri. It is a newspaper whose editor in a University of Jaffna speech declared that all Christians must become Hindu. That communalist newspaper is now threatening those helping the refugees find safety in Jaffna by writing that if any harm befell the refugees in Jaffna, then those bringing them to Jaffna must take the responsibility. Other churches that failed to offer even verbal support for the refugees cautioned Father Ponniah. Neighbours warned those who had volunteered to host the refugees, “The Muslims will come, produce fast and take over Jaffna. That is what the Sinhalese want. Do not give in to that.”
Today 19 May, Ruki Fernando arrived with other volunteers and the Abbas Ahmadis at 3:00 pm. As chief householder I had to go with them to the Police who seemed worried by Muslims coming to Jaffna but finally took my request to register the Ahmadis in my home, promising to send my application to Colombo for approval. The HQI’s worry was that this was the first refugee family settling in Jaffna. Apparently all the other volunteer hosts had backed out for some reason.
There are many ironies in the experience of the Ahmadis. They fled their home in Bamien which I visited and enjoyed during the last elections there. The Buddha statues of Bamien, a world heritage, were destroyed by the Taliban which chased off the Ahmadis. Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka are turning on the Ahmadis and others like him, telling them they cannot live in the Sinhalese areas of Sri Lanka.
The second perhaps greater irony is that on July 23, 2016 two Islamic State suicide bombers blew themselves up during a peaceful protest in Kabul killing 160 and wounded over 200 people as reported by Reuters. The attackers were reportedly from the local affiliate of the so-called Islamic State, known as the “Khurasan Province” (IS-Khurasan). The target was the Ahmadis’ Hazara folk who had been demonstrating against the route of a planned multi-million-dollar power line. And we Sri Lankans think the Abbases are ISIS!
And worse, Tamils think that racial profiling is wrong only if it is applied to Tamils but not when they apply it to Muslims.
To paraphrase Asterix’s inseparable buddy Obelix, “These Sri Lankans are crazy!”