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Caught in the backlash


A police officer on the streets of Colombo, secretly photographed from a vehicle in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, 4th May 2019

It was one of the deadliest terror attacks since 11th September 2001. On 21st April 2019 a series of coordinated bombings of churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, claimed by little-known Islamist group National Thowheed Jamath, killed 253 people and wounded more than 500 others.

Over the following weeks the Sri Lankan security services came under intense scrutiny as it emerged that they had failed to act on highly specific intelligence on the activities of National Thowheed Jamath passed on from the Indian authorities. The terrorists’ possible connections to Islamic State were also investigated. Meanwhile mob violence, largely carried out by Buddhist nationalists, swept through Sri Lanka.

In Kiniyama hundreds of people stormed a mosque and burned copies of the Quran; in Puttalam a Muslim carpenter was stabbed to death in his workshop; in Hettipola, Muslim-owned shops were burned down. One newspaper published unsubstantiated rumours of Muslim doctors sterilising Buddhist women and a mass boycotting of Muslim-owned businesses began. Meanwhile, a prominent Buddhist monk went on a hunger strike to demand the removal of Muslim lawmakers he claimed had links to National Thowheed Jamath. All nine Muslim government ministers resigned on 3rd June, saying Muslims in the country were “terrified” and “feared a bloodbath”.

New emergency laws passed after the attacks meant that hundreds of Muslims faced arbitrary arrest and detention and in May the country’s Human Rights Commission concluded that the government had failed to protect Sri Lanka’s two million Muslims during the mob attacks.

But it was members of the country’s small refugee community, who had fled persecution in their home countries, who were most vulnerable to the mob’s ire.

“We don’t feel safe anymore,” says Abbas Ahmadi, who escaped ethnic persecution by the Taliban in Afghanistan with his family and moved to Colombo. “When we walk on the road people see us as suspicious”. “Local people see us as terrorists,” adds his wife, Hakima. “We are victims of terrorism ourselves and left our country due to persecution and fear. We have always been against violence and condemn terrorism. It’s not fair that people judge us without knowing the truth”.

Monks protest at a hospital in Kurunegala on 28th May 2019 after rumours spread of Muslim doctors sterilising Buddhist women

A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard by a damaged shop after a mob attack in Minuwangoda, 14th May 2019

A new enemy

The anti-Muslim violence that followed the terror attacks did not emerge from a vacuum. Buddhist nationalism, promoted by extremist monks and largely ignored by politicians, has been on the rise in Sri Lanka in recent years. And of course the country is no stranger to ethnic tensions. The Easter attacks came weeks before the country commemorated the tenth anniversary of the conclusion of its civil war, which ended amidst allegations of war crimes being perpetrated by both sides.

“The religious tensions that caused the war came from a majoritarian mindset which hasn’t changed”

Ruki Fernando, a renowned activist at Colombo-based NGO Inform, spends most of his time investigating rights abuses committed during the 26-year conflict. “The civil war was about the rights of the ethnic minority Tamils who felt they were discriminated against [by the largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority],” he says. “That transformed itself into an armed struggle. The religious tensions that caused the war came from a majoritarian mindset which hasn’t changed. But now [the aggression] is mostly against Muslims and evangelical Christians.”

Joshua Harry Brown, a documentary photographer and filmmaker who has worked for Inform, believes that the government fostered hatred towards the country’s Muslim minority through its tone and rhetoric after the terror attacks, and made little effort to protect them from mob violence. “You could hear the propaganda on TV,” he says. “It was all ‘be wary of your Muslim neighbours’ and ‘there are more Muslim terrorists out there’.”

“After the terror attacks, landlords fearing mob violence kicked refugees out of their homes, so there were loads of people on the streets,” Brown continues. “Even when the landlords were sympathetic the police would put pressure on them to evict the refugees.” Brown had flown to Sri Lanka a few days after the attacks with a plan to make a documentary for Inform about working conditions on tea plantations. But when Fernando leapt into action to help the displaced refugees, Brown began making a quite different film.

Over the next few weeks he documented the efforts to help people displaced for a second time, while observing what he characterises as a “shift back towards the mindset of war” in the country. “For the refugees it was a perfect storm,” Brown explains. “They were mostly renting from landlords in Colombo and Negombo, which saw the biggest loss of life from the attacks. They weren’t tarred as terrorists just because they were Muslim, but also because they were foreigners from Pakistan and Afghanistan, countries that people in Sri Lanka associate with Bin Laden and the Taliban.”

Many of the evicted refugees had lived in Sri Lanka for several years in the hope of eventually being resettled in another country by the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR). A significant number are from the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, which has been persecuted in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “The people in Pakistan attacked us and said we’re not Muslims,” a 58-year-old refugee who fled his home told the Associated Press. “Then in Sri Lanka, people attacked us because they say we are Muslims.”

In search of shelter

Some of the Muslim refugees in Sri Lanka attempted to see out the storm that followed the Easter Sunday attacks in their rented homes, too scared to go out on the street.

“Before the attack we were living alongside Sri Lankans happily,” Atecati Nazari, an Afghan refugee living in private accommodation with his young family, told Brown. “Now the president of Sri Lanka says we cannot protect the refugees any longer, that makes me very worried. We have not gone outside for 25 days.”

“The government doesn’t have the ability to control the situation. It is not safe for Muslims in Sri Lanka any more”

Nazari and his family survived thanks to their landlord bringing them food and supplies. “My house owner is a symbol of kindness,” he said. “When I see him I don’t feel like a stranger. I don’t feel like I’m from Afghanistan.”

Abbas Ahmadi and his family were less fortunate. “I got a letter from my landlord [three weeks after the Easter Sunday attacks], it was a termination of our house agreement,” says Abbas. “I went to speak with him and he said it was not his decision. He was under pressure from the local police and the local people. The government doesn’t have the ability to control the situation and protect the people. I think it is not safe for Muslims in Sri Lanka any more.”

Unless an alternative living arrangement could be found it seemed the Ahmadi family’s only option was to be placed in one of three refugee camps controlled by the army. Brown visited one of the camps at Pasyala mosque, 40km east of Negombo, to deliver essentials including mattresses and mosquito nets with Fernando and other activists. He was shocked by what he saw. On his smartphone he filmed residents of the camp saying they were too scared to sleep, that they didn’t have any access to clean water and that there were mosquitoes everywhere.

Almost everybody in the camp, including the children, had become ill. “The camp was just tarpaulin tents in the mosque garden,” he recalls. “The living conditions were horrific.” Fernando began working to get refugees rehoused with sympathetic families in the Tamil-dominated north of the country, where they should be safe from mob attacks.

Rather than enter a camp, the Ahmadis volunteered to travel north. The activists and the family began the 11-hour journey to Jaffna, and were stopped nearly 20 times at checkpoints en route. They brought with them a lawyer, who helped them avoid any trouble from the army. “By the time we reached Jaffna, a family had offered to take them in,” recalls Brown. They registered with the local police and moved in to their new home, delighted to be safe.

“Everybody was jubilant and feeling relaxed after our arrival,” says Brown. “Our test-run had worked and Ruki began making plans to transport another 200 families to homes in the north. They thought they had completed a tough journey and it felt like the start of a new life. But within 24 hours all hope was lost.”

The Ahmadis were woken at 5am and taken to the police station for questioning. There they were told that mobs would attack them in their home if they stayed and that the police would be powerless to stop them. Distraught, the family returned to Colombo. “We took them to an activist’s home where they stayed for a few days in the cellar, but they eventually went to a newly opened refugee camp because the government ruled that even if you could find a family to take them in, at no cost to the state, the first stop for refugees had to be in camps,” says Brown.

A Muslim woman passes through a checkpoint in Colombo, 30th April 2019

Abbas Ahmadi’s son, Ali, en route to Jaffna on 20th May 2019

After the storm

The refugee camp the Ahmadis were sent to is in Vavuniya, in the north,
where people suspected of being members of the Tamil Tigers were interrogated and tortured during the war. It is run jointly by the Sri Lankan government and UNHCR. “There is armed protection, sick people get taken to hospital and families get cubicles of their own,” says Fernando, “but people are not allowed to come and go from the camp so it is like a prison. And people like me have not been allowed to enter the camp, although I have asked many times. People can apply to leave, but if their application is granted they cannot return.”

When the situation had begun to calm down, the Ahmadis received permission to leave the camp. As of September they are renting accommodation in Colombo and trying to get their lives back on track. Fernando says that at the peak of the crisis around 1,200 refugees were in camps; by early September that number had dwindled to around 100. The threat of mob violence against refugees, says Fernando, has significantly decreased. But the refugees worry that it could be reignited at any time.

Brown believes Sri Lanka will remain a tinderbox until the country properly addresses its tragic recent history of religious and sectarian violence. Sri Lanka, he says, suffers from a culture of impunity. No one has been held accountable for the mass killings of Tamil civilians during the war, and there has been no truth and reconciliation process. Ten years on, Sri Lankans have not been given the opportunity to heal and to forge a new identity based on a multiethnic society. This, believes Brown, has helped create an environment in which a cycle of violence is likely to continue. “Unfortunately it feels like Sri Lanka has returned to a kind of situation in which religions and ethnic tensions are the norm,” he says.

Abbas Ahmadi and his family meanwhile, just want to feel settled and secure. “We need freedom, we need safety, we need peace,” says Abbas. “All we want is just a place to live.”

Ruki Fernando of the NGO Inform believes that at the peak of the crisis around 1,200 refugees were held in camps

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