By Kalani Kumarasinghe and Yoshitha Perera
Kuliyapitiya, May 17 (Daily Mirror): In the inner corners of Giriulla near Kuliyapitiya, the air is eerie and tense, with security personnel posted on every street. Doors and windows are firmly shut painting an eerie and grim picture in an otherwise pleasant, active town.
In nearby Kuliyapitiya a family is gripped with fear, after mobs surrounded their residence on Monday evening. M.T.M. Sapuwan, a resident of Karanthipola, Kuliyapitiya, was a victim of a heinous mob attack, which has left his family devastated and displaced.
A blackened frame of a two-storied building sits under an expansive, charred Margosa tree, on the Kuliyapitiya – Hettipola Road, where Sapuwan lived. A warped frame of what used to be the ground-floor storefront gate bends forward precariously.
“My family returned home from Wariyapola after breaking fast that day. We learned from our neighbors that the situation wasn’t good. They said several roadside eateries and shops were pelted with stones, and our neighbors asked us to remove the vehicle from our house,” Sapuwan recalled.
Together with his son, Sapuwan drove his vehicle to a friend’s place, where they parked the car, fearing the worst. Upon their return however, Sapuwan and his young son found that their house was surrounded by an angry mob of about 150 people.
“Some of them even had swords and other heavy equipment in their hands,” said one of Sapuwan’s two sons, who had been observing the frightening situation from the second floor of their house.
The mobs broke into the store and started crashing the clay pots and other wares on the floor.
“My son called me from the house, saying that the mob was about to do something terrible. My other son and I had no option, but to hide in the land opposite our house, waiting for a chance to rescue my family” he said.
“We called the Police, and tried calling everyone we knew to come and help us. By that time, the crowds began to slowly disperse. One of them said it was enough. But another started to run across the street, calling out for someone to give him a box of matches. They returned with a petrol can,” Sapuwan said.
One attacker was then heard saying that they’ve caused enough damage. Another was heard disagreeing, saying that Sapuwan’s home must be set on fire.
Just as Sapuwan feared, the mob set fire to their store. The plastic goods immediately caught fire and soon the ground floor was engulfed in flames. “My wife, son, daughter and grandchild were trapped upstairs,” Sapuwan said, adding that his neighbor managed to distract the crowd enough for Sapuwan and his son to rescue his family.
The store, full of goods to be sold during the Eid festival, had at this point started to burst and spew ash. “My son called and said that they couldn’t bear the heat anymore,” Sapuwan said.
With the help of his neighbor, Sapuwan came out of hiding and helped his son out of the house, down the burning staircase. Army personnel who arrived at the scene, then helped his wife and children out of the house.
“We called the Police as soon as they started attacking our house. But they only arrived at the scene when it was too late. We kept watch over our house until dawn,” the family said as they were of the view that someone would plant suspicious material inside the store,” Sapuwan said, staring at the blackened remains of his residence.
Meanwhile, the Kuliyapitiya Urban Council’s pleas to provide the area with a fire brigade, had fallen on deaf ears, according to the Councillors.
“This area has a number of coir workshops which are prone to fires. Whenever there’s an incident, we have to wait for a fire engine to be deployed from either Kurunegala or Chilaw, by which time, everything is destroyed,” a Councillor said.
According to Sapuwan, Sinhalese too were shocked by this incident. With water provided by the Pradeshiya Sabha, the fire was doused with help from the neighbors.
But Sapuwan has lost everything. “It was our Sinhalese brothers and sisters who helped us, even in this situation. We don’t believe anyone from our neighborhood in Kuliyapitiya was involved,” he added.
Sapuwan’s family now resides with the neighboring Sinhalese family, whose members have housed them since the ill-fated day.Although many shops and buildings suffered from stone-pelting, the attack on Sapuwan’s home was the most detestable of them all. Kuliyapitiya Mayor Lakshman Adhikari says that calm has been restored in Kuliyapitiya.
“We were expecting the situation in the country to return to normal this week,” he said. “Unfortunately this incident disturbed the calm, which we had maintained for years,” he added.
Only 12 per cent of the population in Kuliyapitiya is Muslim. They are a peace-loving people and they have been co-existing with the community peacefully, all these years, Adhikari, who has been the Mayor of the city twice, asserted.
Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, following a visit to the area, has assured that peace will be maintained in Kuliyapitiya. The Mayor was also seen guiding relief programs for the victims of the attacks as well as the shocked residents of the area.
Police sources revealed that four suspects were arrested in connection to the attacks. “We’re going through surveillance and CCTV footage to identify the perpetrators,” an officer attached to the Kuliyapitiya Police station said.
In Hettipola, Panduwasnuwara, more than 80 shops, houses and buildings owned by Muslims have been the targets of vicious mob attacks.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Ministers Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Rauff Hakeem and Kabir Hashim visited the affected families in the area, and saw residents visibly shaken by the violence that unfolded on Monday (May 13).
Along the Kuliyapitiya-Hettipola main road, vegetable stalls and roadside eateries were vandalized around 1.30 pm on Monday. Nawfer, a resident of Kotampitiya, said that the mobs started by pelting stones at their houses and shops.
There were about 1,000 rioters who were beyond the police officers’ control,Nawfer’s wife said.
“We abandoned our houses, and ran towards the fields at the back of our house with our neighbors and their children,” she reminisced.
Dozens of families along Kotampitiya, followed suit, as the crowds began to break into Muslim houses and smash mirrors.
“They didn’t loot, but they broke-in and broke all the mirrors of our houses,” Nawfer said.
His family believes that even though the majority of the mobs were outsiders, their attack couldn’t have been carried out without the help of a few villagers. “How could they identify which house was owned by Muslims?” they questioned.
Masjid Al Huda, the central mosque in Hettipola, was attacked by the same mobs on Monday evening. The caretaker of the mosque, Mohammed Saleem, believes that it was a well-organized attack.
“Trouble started brewing in Chilaw, over a facebook post and now it has reached us. During the past 12 hours, the mobs carried out a lot of property damage to this area. I believe their only motive was this, I never felt that bloodshed was their intention,” Saleem said.
“Our families have been living here for generations. We have been educated at Sinhala schools. It’s very unlikely that the villagers orchestrated this attack. Young girls from this area, work in a nearby apparel factory, during all sorts of odd hours of the day. Their safety has been assured by the entire community, including the Muslims. This is an attack instigated by a few rebellious minds. It may have no solution, but we hope there will be an answer for this unanswerable question,” he added.