COLOMBO: The first disturbing sign of communal backlash surfaced in grief-soaked Negombo, a picturesque coastal town on Sri Lanka’s west coast and north of Colombo, when several Pakistani refugees were violently attacked by locals. Hundreds of them started fleeing Negombo on Wednesday on buses organised by community leaders.
At least 800 men, women and children, all asylum seekers living in small rental homes on dole provided by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) were asked to get out of their temporary homes by their Sinhalese, Christian and Muslim landlords, who feared they may have terrorist links.
Sri Lankan authorities, meanwhile, revised the death toll from the Easter bombings down to 253 from 359. They said all autopsies had been completed and that the reconciliation of autopsy and DNA reports showed that some bodies had been double-counted. “Many of the victims were badly mutilated… There was double-counting,” the health ministry said.
Facing persecution from the Sunni majority in their country, the refugees belonging to the Ahmadiyya sect fled Pakistan five years ago. Sri Lanka provides transit for refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan until they are rehabilitated in Australia or New Zealand, or whichever country provides them refuge.
On Wednesday, even as distraught family members of the more than 100 victims of the bombing at St Sebastian’s Church took part in the mass funeral, a mob armed with iron bars began attacking the houses where the Pakistani refugees lived on the edge of the town. They barged into houses, pulled down doors and windows and dragged out the men.
“We heard that on Wednesday the Pakistani refugees were in major conflict with the host communities,” Muslim Council of Sri Lanka vice-president Hilmy Ahamed told TOI. Even as the mob went on the rampage, some managed to flee into the Negombo police station.
With the landlords instigating the violence, most of the 400-odd families are now being relocated to other places. “Around 60 men, women and children are in the Negombo police station,” said Young Muslim Men Association president Nawaz Deen, adding, “The UNHRC has to take a decision on what to do with these families.” His association has offered to help them.
As communal tension simmered, quite unusual in Sri Lanka, which has been caught up for decades in ethnic war, in Madampe, in Puttalam district in North Western Province, an Arabic lecturer from the world-renowned Al-Azhar University, Cairo, faced a slightly different problem, He was picked up by military personnel from a local madrasa and detained for staying without a visa.
“It was a misunderstanding and due to the unrest in the wake of the bombings, the emigration office has not been functioning, so his visa was delayed,” a government official said on condition of anonymity. But officials intervened quickly and the academician is likely to be released soon. He had come to the country in January. The university has been providing Arabic lecturers as part of a 50-year-old agreement, said the officer.
Until this week, Sri Lanka didn’t have much history of Christian-Muslim violence. The country is about 7% Christian, 10% Muslim, 13% Hindu and 70% Buddhist.