Fires Of Hatred:
Meeting the Sri Lankan Businessman Who Lost Everything – But Still Forgives
Two years ago gangs rampaged through Dharga Town, committing hate crimes against Muslims there. One of the victims tells how he feels about the gangs now.
Just two years ago Mohammed Hanifa Sharuk Hajiar was one of the most successful businessmen in the northern Sri Lankan town of Dharga. But on June 15, 2014 everything he had worked so hard to achieve was destroyed in an arson attack.
On that night local gangs got together after a rally organized by the BBS, also known as the Bodu Bala Sena or Buddhist Brigade, and harassed their Muslim neighbours in Aluthgama, Beruwala and Dharga Town. The rally came after previous clashes and an alleged attack on a monk. Around 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population is Muslim and some Buddhist groups had said that the country’s minorities had too much influence.
During the sectarian violence which lasted several days, hundreds of local Muslims were hurt, four people were killed and many businesses and houses were looted or burned down, or both. Thousands of Muslims lost their homes and livelihoods and the towns of Beruwala, Aluthgama and Dharga Town were covered in a pall of black smoke for days.
Although he is not comfortable talking about that night, Sharuk Hajiar begins to recall what happened.
“At 5pm I went to watch the meeting,” he says. “We saw groups of men being brought in by lorries and dropped off at all the junctions. All of them wore black shirts and black trousers. I felt like some terrible calamity was about to happen.”
These were the people who would commit many of the crimes that followed, Sharuk Hajiar says.
When the mob came to his home, he was trapped inside with his wife, son, daughter and grandchild. The mob looted the house in front of the powerless family, loading furniture and electrical goods into a truck parked outside the house. Then they set the house on fire and the family fled.
“It wasn’t only the outsiders who did this,” Sharuk Hajiar says. “But also people who had eaten at our table. They spoke to me in the most despicable way. And uniformed army officers just stood there watching!”
“I lost everything,” Sharuk Hajiar says.
Some of the Sinhalese locals in Dharga eventually met with their Muslim neighbours, says Abdul Gafoor Mohammed Hifaal, a trustee at the town’s Adikarigoda mosque. They asked for forgiveness and said that only a small minority of local Sinhalese had been responsible for the crimes against the Muslims.
“Some of the Sinhala brothers cried. There are a lot of Sinhala brothers among us who are very sad about this,” Hifaal notes.
Although some organizations and individuals have tried to assist those affected by that night, the Sri Lankan government has yet to help compensate the victims in Dharga.
“All I had was given to me by God,” Sharuk Hajiar concludes. “And God knew when it was all lost. It was God who gave me the strength I needed to survive and who kept my family safe. It was also God who taught me not to hate those who committed crimes in his name, despite what they did. My mind is not polluted by hatred. Even today I am happy because of this.”
“Before that night I had thought we were all brothers,” Sharuk Hajiar continues. “I still think like that. I don’t think about caste, or race or colour or religion. If all of us in this country thought that way, how beautiful would Sri Lanka be?”
Hearing this elderly Muslim man, who often helps at charitable Buddhist events, speak in this compassionate way, one wonders why the men, who committed hate crimes in the name of their own religion, did not have some of the same kinds of thoughts.