The 3rd of August 1990. A day that shook the nation. A day in which survivors, families, friends, and many others across the country recall their losses and mourn over the heinous atrocities that were committed. A day that foreshadows great sorrow, as memories of the horrific scenes engulf the minds of loved ones and that of the Kattankudy community.
On this very day, 31 years ago, the LTTE opened fire at Muslim worshippers, cold blooded, and brutal, leaving many dead instantly, with very few survivors. Commenting on this incident, the Sunday Observer published the following:
Tiger terrorists cold-bloodedly butchered 147 Muslim devotees, praying in mosques in the pre-dominantly Muslim town of Kattankudy, Batticaloa in the East. The massacre at Kattankudy that shook the nation and drew worldwide condemnation was meticulously pre-planned and executed in secrecy by tiger terrorists who had disguised themselves as Muslim prayers and entered the Meera Jumma and Husseinia mosques when hundreds of devotees were attending Friday Isha prayers. Disguised terrorists armed with automatic weapons crossed the lagoon and entered Kattankudy city, about 224 km east of Colombo on that fateful night, with the intention of committing this horrendous genocide for ethnic-cleansing… As hundreds of Muslims knelt in prayer at that critical hour in both mosques, in close proximity to each other, those disguised terrorists suddenly went on spraying automatic fire and hurling hand grenades at the worshippers, creating panic and havoc among devotees…Most of the victims were shot in the back or side. About 100 worshippers died on the spot, but the final death toll rose to 147 as many more succumbed to injuries in hospitals, afterwards. (Sunday Observer, 3 Aug 2008)
Who was responsible for this carnage?
This heinous crime, committed within the sacred walls of the two mosques devastated not only the immediate victims of the massacre, but also the country. It left a myriad of unanswered questions pertaining to human empathy, vile callousness and possible breach of security.
Sun’s editorial on 6th August 1990, commented on this “the dastardly, heinous act would have shaken the conscience of the most hardened of hearts of all, who were responsible? The terrorists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who in the 14th month of negotiations with the government, masqueraded as the self appointed representatives of the Tamil speaking people, both the Tamils and the Muslims.” Further it described LTTE as “a bunch of bloodthirsty criminals who have no values but draw their power only from the barrel of automatic weapons”.
Amongst these worshippers who were mercilessly butchered at that night were, young children under the age of ten, who couldn’t escape the bullets that were fired mercilessly at the congregation. The elders in the mosque tried to protect the young ones by pleading to the LTTE to spare the children and target them instead. Yet, the cold-hearted LTTE preferred otherwise, and no mercy was shown. No lives were to be spared. “The faithful Musalman…knelt down in obeisance to Allah. Just the lights went off and bullets began to rain on them. ..a grenade ripped through the zinc sheeted roof scattering flesh, blood and bones all over”. (Sun, 6 August 1990)
There are several other accounts like these from the survivors of the mosque attacks. Many said that they pretended to play dead during the attack, hoping to eventually flee the scene. However, the Tigers considered this tactic in their planning. Some of them came back to the site of the carnage dressed as hospital personnel, calling out for people who required medical assistance. Some worshippers fell prey to this ploy and were subsequently killed by the terrorists.
Fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, relatives and community figures, all killed in the space of one single evening. Families of loved ones were grief-stricken, raw with emotion, but utterly helpless to come out and help, in fear that they too will also be targeted.
As the dust settled and after the perpetrators fled the scene, people crept out to see what events played out. Words cannot describe what people saw. Bodies were ripped apart by bullets. Glass and debris were strewn everywhere. Blood was splattered across the walls and floor of the mosque. The death toll was well above one hundred, with many seriously injured worshippers present amongst the corpses. All of these worshippers left their houses that night to offer their night prayers in congregation. No one expected this to happen.
Thirty-one years have passed since these massacres took place. Both mosques have been renovated, however the bullet marks and building damage are still present on their walls and pillars. A stark reminder for what happened on that day and the pain that Kattankudy and the broader nation went through.
These bullet marks are not preserved as a reminder for the purpose of seeking revenge for the younger and generations to come.
On the contrary, these bullet marks are kept to act as historical touchstones. So that those who sacrificed their precious lives in cold blood while they were in communion with the divine will be remembered. These bullet marks will be a permanent reminder for the present and future worshippers that any innocent life, regardless of race, creed or religion should not be lost for any reason.
The Spirit of Kattankudy
Kattankudy has suffered since 1984 due to numerous atrocities committed by Tamil militant groups. People were killed and millions worth of their properties destroyed, thousands lost their livelihood as they could not reach their traditional paddy fields. Banks, shops, cooperatives were forcefully looted at gun point by various Tamil militia and related groups. Many were killed and kidnapped from their homes in the presence of their children and families. Hundreds of people from Kattankudy on their way to home at Kurukkalmadam were stopped at gunpoint, forcefully taken to obscure locations and then mercilessly killed by the LTTE.The killers didn’t even bother to return the remains to their families. Until now their graves are not known to their families.
However Muslim cleric and leaders of Kattankudy while taking every measures with the support of government security forces to protect its civilians, continued to advise the community against reprisals against any innocent member of Tamil community. It must be noted that the muslim community at that time, despite being psychologically shattered and emotionally strained due to the trauma they endured at the hands of the Tamil rebel groups, practised benevolent restraint and were keen to lend their support to protect the lives and interests of the their fellow Sinhalese and Tamil brethren.
The people of Kattankudy understood the agenda of the Tamil Militant groups, and thus, this did not hinder the historically fortified cordial relationship of the Kattankudy community and other communities. As a result the Muslim community of Kattankudy have maintained excellent terms with the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, and acted as one, when the need arose, looking out for the lives and interest of the other, and reaching out when one is in distress. In the Eastern region, Kattankudy is also a land of opportunity to carpenters and construction workers who come seeking economic prospects. The town opens its doors and its heart, allowing communities to mingle, in order to survive. It is this generosity and benevolence, of this much battered city, that set the foundation for its people to heal together, albeit the deadly trauma they endured 31 years ago.
However the emergence of the Zahran’s cult group has tarnished the name of Kattankudy in the media as it “has produced the mastermind of the massacre” (as described by the Washington Post, 26 April 2019).
This cult does not in any manner or form reflect the spirit and essence of Kattankudy and its people. People of this town and the Sri Lankan Muslim community in general have rejected their ideologies and cruel massacres they have been involved with where hundreds of innocent Sri Lankans lost their precious lives at their respective places of worships and other locations. The Muslim community totally reject these cruel massacres as per the guidance of teachings of Islam. Prophet Muhammad said “There should be neither causing harm nor reciprocating harm. Whoever harms [others], Allah will harm him, and whoever causes hardship [to others], Allah will cause hardship to him.”
Lessons to be learnt
Precious lives lost during the war for reasons known or unknown should teach a great lesson that these cold-blooded, brutal, and meaningless killings had only short term goals, yet ultimately the whole community suffers the aftermath. There will be no winners, and if there were any solutions or gains, it was never long lasting, only superficial and temporary. This was well articulated by Reverend Miller SJ, (Former Rector of St, Michaels College, Batticaloa), “Our civil war has now been fought, and both sides, in fact, all sides have lost lives uncountable and decades of years. There have been no winners. All have been losers.”
Human life has always been precious and should remain precious. Sectarian politics and personal gain, creates a toxic game of chess, with a massive human loss. However, unstrategic, selfish choices made by political superiors for political mileage result in loss of lives, properties and positions. This is not a worthy message to be emulated for the future. It should be a country’s socio- political prerogative to impose preventative measures, creating a more humane atmosphere for people to learn from their past, and thrive.
As evidenced by history, In multicultural societies in south east Asia, such as Sri Lanka, ethnic clashes erupt because of conflicts between individuals from two different communities. If proper research is done on major ethnic riots taking place in Sri Lanka, it would reveal that a few individuals had orchestrated it with evil intentions for their personal gain, later disguised it as a clash between two communities that seemingly occurred organically, of course leaving the minority community as the victim, at the end.
Until these trends stop, and culprits brought to court for justice, and civil society and authorities stand firm for accountability and justice, unfortunately many more lives will be lost and the community will have to suffer for cowardice to survive.
May we never forget this event and other similar events that have stained Sri Lanka’s history, and may we take heed to the lessons that have come out of it. We hope and pray that such an atrocity especially at places of worship never happens again, anywhere on earth.
*Dr. Alavi Sheriffdeen lost his father and 10 year old brother at the aforementioned carnage. He strongly campaigned against revenge killings of Tamil community members in the name of mosque massacres-as it had been the practice at that time- after the loss of his own family members at the hands of the LTTE.