A large part of what I know about the 2018 anti-Muslim riots in Digana and how the government has responded – or failed to respond – has been through Mr. N’s eyes. His case might not be the same for every person or every locality that was affected, for multiple reasons. It is, however, one that is painful and infuriating.
I’m not going to make it seem like Mr. N and I are great friends, because for all I know he just sees me as another media person who shows up to talk about what he experienced during the riots and how he has been coping since. I met him first in May 2018, again in late February 2019 and last in early February 2020. This is about that last meeting.
It is 9.59am on a Sunday morning, and Mr. N’s shop in Diyabubula is closed.
Strange. Having always visited him around this time to see business at full swing, this was unusual, and something strange lingered about. I call him, and he says he’s spending time with a daughter who’s just got out of hospital, and has been coming to the shop late these days – “I’ll be there in an hour”, he says.
He rings back at 10.56am to say he’s now at the shop.
Mr. N greets me with his usual big smile and bright eyes. When I ask him how he is, his face changes – “I am completely finished now”.
My eyes take in the shop; nearly three quarters of the shelves, the glass cabinets and the fridge are empty.
For the hour I spend with him, there are two customers, one of whom is a man who lives just opposite the shop. During our visits in the previous years, we’d sit in a corner of the shop to get a quick word in while he was between serving customers, such was the turnover and demand.
Mr. N always said he gave a lot of items on credit to people who couldn’t afford to buy from him. Those same people would, in 2018, be among the mobs that burned his original shop down, and looted all his stock.
After April last year, after Easter, he says people stopped paying back the credit they owed him.
“I got so little from the government, I could barely buy this furniture. This new shop space, all the items, I paid from my own money. And now I am in debt. How will I pay that off now?”
Such is the decline in customers and business that he now plans to sell the shop and use his three-wheeler to earn an income. He leads me from the dull inside – he hadn’t turned any lights on – to the bright sunny outside, and points at the row of shops down the road.
All of them have closed, gone out of business after Easter.
I ask about the mosque across the road, the one that was plastered alongside several headlines even as the fires still raged.
“Do you want to see it? Let’s go inside. It doesn’t matter, no one’s coming to the shop anyway.”
I remember the mosque in 2018, its inner walls darkened with soot from the flames, shattered glass still sitting under the windows. They had only just received a small round of compensation, barely able to cover the cost of paint. This was three months after the attacks.
I remember the mosque in 2019, its roof and upper level removed for reconstruction, just the framework remaining, sunlight falling directly onto the kiblat, as if from higher above than we can know. After a series of hoops and dead ends, they’d just got approval to build the new mosque. This was a year after the attacks.
I take in what used to be the bottom floor of the mosque. As Mr. N opens the temporary takaram outer wall, I notice everything that is now no longer there – the long, low wells of water for the washing of feet and hands, the staircase leading up to the upper floor, and pretty much the entire bottom floor, kiblat and all, is gone. Instead, three roller doors stand in line. Mr. N unlocks and slides up one of the doors.
“We are going to give this section as shops now, to whoever will take it, but for now we are using them as a temporary mosque.”
The colourful rugs and digital clock I know from previous visits create a familiar space in a new place.
He them skirts to the edge of the building, and we are making a small ascent up a sandy, path to what used to be the top floor of the mosque. Soot-darkened walls, still standing, mark the old perimeter.
The blinding sun is falling on piles of new sand and rocks, on new pillars just being put up, the iron rods in their structure still visible mid-way.
“6 lakhs of compensation for the mosque was passed by Cabinet, but we have not seen any of it. Now, a Muslim politician is helping get this done. He sent men to start all this construction just recently” Mr. N says, motioning around.
“You saw the plans when you came no? Yes, there’ll be a few changes but this is going to be a bigger mosque than before.”
I sit with guilt remembering how quickly two of the three churches were built after Easter last year. Army, Navy, CSD support – in three months time, two were complete. How fast you rebuild, and how much help you get, depends on who did the damage.
I ask how long it will take. Mr. N tells me to check back in a few months, and he’ll let me know the progress.
As we’re heading out, he points to another familiar place. From 2018, I remember the old man watching as young builders laid the foundation and structure of a new house, to replace the one that was damaged in the fires, that was haunted.
“You met the old man last time no? Shall we go see him again?”
I watch the clothes hanging to dry from the railings of the new upper floor, and say no, not wanting to bother them.
“Just as well. He has had an operation, had to have most of his leg amputated, and now just stays in bed.”
He is talking of Mr. Samsudeen, who is the father of Abdul Basith, the one casualty of the 2018 attacks.
We cross back to the shade outside his shop.
He tells me of the small, low-intensity violence that erupted in the area after Easter, that somehow everyone missed, or didn’t look toward in the ensuing chaos. A few houses were damaged, he said, and women were initially wary to leave their homes.
Mr. N’s house is surrounded by Sinhala families, among those the homes of men who destroyed his shop. He pointed them out to me on my last visit, from his sitting room – five in a full circle all around him.
“They live all around us, as protection for us!”
He laughs at the audacity of his own joke.
When Mr. N is speaking about something he’s angry about, his voice is loud, his intonation incredulous, and his eyes wide.
When he talks about the people responsible for the violence, and the lies being told, he leans a little closer, his voice drops in volume and pitch, and his eyes wider still.
He remains, as ever, distrusting of politicians and the false promises. False promises that came their way during the last election, that they roundly rejected, despite their district going red in the polls.
He is uncertain about how things will become, and any hope they have for hope under the current leadership.
Mr. N’s eyes sweep the empty fridge and cabinets.
“There’s nothing that I can offer you to drink here also. Can I get you some tea? I’ll call and they’ll send it from home.”
I refuse, saying I’ve only just eaten and not to worry. I think about how, on my previous visit, my friend and I took fizzy drinks from the fridge, checked the price on them and handed the money to Mr. N, and how he physically fought my friend off so that he wouldn’t have to take the payment, but which we snuck into his drawer later anyway. He looks at me closely, and I confirm again.
Where to now?
While he might not keep the shop, he won’t sit around doing nothing, he says. One daughter is smart and doing well in school, the other married with a kid and living away from home. He shows me all their photos – children, grandchild – on his smartphone. The same screen on which in previous years he has shown me photos and CCTV footage of people destroying their mosque, and burning his shop.
I can’t write in words the exhaustion on his face, or the exhaustion in his words.
“I’ll be doing something when you come again, that’s for sure. We just have to wait and see, only God will provide.”