“Is the font okay?” a young man at the computer asked M.I. Abdul Majeed, showing him a printout that read ‘for security reasons, visitors are requested to park their vehicles outside the mosque’.
“That’s perfect. Let’s put up this message on all three gates,” said Mr. Majeed, secretary of the Jumma mosque in Sainthamaruthu, located in the southeastern Ampara district.
On Wednesday, more than a week after Sri Lanka’s Easter attacks, administrators at this mosque were on high alert. One of the serial explosions had occurred in neighbouring Batticaloa district, some 45 km north. Within days, locals realised that the threat was even closer. It was in their midst, as was evident when security forces rounded up a house in this town in the early hours of April 27.
Following an overnight gun battle with suspects, in which three alleged jihadists were killed, troops found 15 bodies inside a house where, officials said, at least three suicide bombers triggered explosions. Six children and three women were among the dead, while authorities later identified three men as the father and two brothers of Zahran Hashim, who is believed to have led the serial bombings on April 21.
Tip-off to police
“They were people from Kattankudy living here as tenants. We didn’t have the slightest idea that they were terrorists. The moment some people in the locality sensed something suspicious, they alerted the police,” said Abdul Rafeek, a member of the municipal council in nearby Kalmunai town. His point on locals tipping off the police would be repeatedly made by many here, in different ways.
Until the Easter blasts, the following gunfire and bloody explosions that jolted Sainthamaruthu, the small town was focussed on its own problems, especially its 30 year-long-demand for a separate urban council.
The 100%-Muslim town, which is home to some 25,000 people, has been demanding that it be given a separate local body to develop infrastructure and local governance.
“All Muslim parties promised us that they would get us an urban council, but none actually did,” said Y.M. Hanifa, president of the mosque. Losing faith in their political leadership, members of the mosque backed nine independent candidates in the last local authority elections. “All of them won,” Mr. Hanifa said, with evident pride.
The members were elected to the nearby Kalmunai Municipal Council, the next best to having their local body.
“We moved here, into this tsunami settlement built by the government in 2008. Our own homes, boats everything was gone,” said Aboobakkar Aisha, 58, recalling how “even the war or the tsunami” didn’t affect the community as much as the recent incidents did.
It was on the lane parallel to hers that the suspects had taken a home on rent. “We had no idea that people in our midst had such motives. If our people had not alerted the police, all of us would have become suspects in the eyes of the military. That would have made our lives miserable,” she said.
The attacks and the subsequent responses of the government have already brought other consequences to the community, particularly women.
In addition to heavy policing and perpetual fear, locals feel trapped in the settlement that is made up of rows of tightly packed homes along hard, concrete roads.
“After the government banned face veils, my daughter can’t go out. She can’t even go to the madrasa without wearing it,” said S.M. Fazmia, 30, pointing to how the controversial niqab ban — which other Muslim women have challenged on grounds of civil liberties and lack of consultation — had, in this case, restricted women’s mobility.
Those attached to the mosque also flag new, urgent concerns, like keeping radicalisation at bay.
“We know radicalisation had no place in our multi-ethnic context. Let alone its ideological appeal, it is practically very hard to follow that doctrine and coexist with others here. The community is clear on that,” said Mohammed Islmail Mohammed Sadaath, a former lecturer of political science.
Different religious and ethnic groups have coexisted in the past.
Muslims’ links, especially with Tamils, was mostly through education and trade, according to Mr. Hanifa, 83. “My teacher was a Tamil, most of my students were Tamil,” the retired school principal said.