Sri Lanka continues to maintain its policy of mandatory cremations for COVID dead, which has deeply distressed the Muslim community whose faith prohibits cremation. The science, the faith, the politics, all of this has been talked about at length, by me and many others.
Even though official data is not available for the number of Muslims being cremated, speaking to families and community leaders, it seems that over two thirds of those cremated are Muslims. As of today, 4th February 2021, the official COVID-19 death toll in Sri Lanka is 330.
Here are the voices of these families who have been subject to this pain, and the memories they carry of their loved ones lost.
Each person here is holding something that reminds them of their loved one who was cremated – something that belonged to them, or something that was gifted to them. Names indicated here are those of the deceased. All stories recorded and photos taken with the consent of the family members.
There is a little child asleep on the living room floor when we arrive, placed under the fan on a pillow, with more pillows as a barrier to keep him safe. His young father and even younger aunts are watching him as he sleeps.
Their mother was admitted to hospital for another illness, but authorities said the family needed to be quarantined as she had tested positive for COVID. They were taken to the Kandakadu quarantine centre – the little child too, who was just a baby then – and held there for just one night, when they were told she had died, and had been cremated.
The two girls are in the early and mid-teens but are now the women of their small house. Their mother used to do everything for them, they say. Now as schools reopen and they are going back into a routine that she was very much a part of – waking them up, helping them get ready and taking them to school – they feel her absence even more. The older girl even wonders if she will be able to go to school, that it is her responsibility to take care of the house now.
Their father is rifling through a shopping bag filled with forms, certificates and medical reports. Reports that clear the whole family of ever having had COVID, which makes him wonder how she could have gotten it. The death certificate which bears two damning lines – one, that she passed of ‘COVID-19 pneumonia’ and that she was cremated at the Kuppiyawatte cemetery. Her post-mortem PCR test said she was COVID negative.
The man says he himself has helped clean so many janazah during his lifetime, but he is distraught knowing he couldn’t do that for his wife, that he couldn’t give her the last rites she deserved.
The elderly lady is the matriarch of her extended family. Relatives who live with her and in nearby units rally around her – physically and otherwise – coming to take phone calls, give her updates and wait for her guidance on something.
My brother didn’t like being in pictures, she says. The one most valuable reminder she has of him is the land deed which he transferred to her name. This is pulled from another bag of documents, some creased and ageing, that her grand-daughter hands to her. They lived most of their life in the Henamulla camp, most of which has been demolished now and residents like her, moved to the new ‘high-rise’ structures nearby. Their brother wrote the three perches he owned to her name. When the time for relocation came, she was given two flats in the new building because she had claim to two houses in what was the camp.
He had been ill, and passed away at home. The health authorities took nearly a day to come and take the body away, and then spent another two days in the hospital running tests on it. By the time she was asked to identify the body, as he had apparently tested positive for COVID, she could barely do so because it was in a terrible state of decay.
Authorities asked them for Rs. 30,000 for the coffin, and another Rs. 8,000 to carry out the cremation. They paid this, worried about what they might be subject to if they didn’t.
I wonder if there’s something to be said that both the previous families live in one of the UDA high-rises, made for those whose homes were demolished under its beautification plans, and that the next two families live in the watte surrounding them, which is also slated for demolition soon.
Something about how the cruelty of forced cremations is disproportionately falling on Muslims in historically underserved areas of the city; geographically ‘Colombo’ but so close to the district border that many forget it is, the many for whom ‘Colombo’ is a shiny, comfortable bubble.
As we walk to the small home, an upbeat Hindi song playing from another street. ‘Chale jaise hawaiyen’, like the winds blow, its energy even more jarring given the weight of the stories we are hearing.
The father is telling us how he has lost his job since the pandemic started and has been working as a three-wheeler driver to support the family. He looks through a steel cupboard for the few things they have that were for the baby; a plastic mat, soft cloths, and a carry-box stocked with cologne and baby powder. The mother leaves the room as he takes this out.
They had waited six years for this baby, the father says. Even though he was just 20 days old when they lost him, they couldn’t bear to lose him that way. He was growing, he was smiling at them, and he was the furthest from a sick child, he says.
After he puts the baby’s things away, the mother returns. She says the doctors, kitted out in full PPE, didn’t even touch her baby, since they were coming from a ‘lockdown area’. She, however, tended to his needs. Their story of a positive rapid antigen test and a denied PCR test made was met with anguish when it made the news.
As a mother who was still feeding her child, she says she put all her trust in the doctors. After what she endured, she asks, how can she trust them again if her other child gets sick?
The other child, a little girl, wanders in, industriously opening a plastic ‘study’ desk looking for her books and colour pencils. They have moved to this house in this locality to give her the chance to attend a good school. She is too young to understand, the mother says as the little one concentrates on drawing on a book. She has told them that since they took thambi to the hospital and he never came back, that she would never go to a hospital, and they were never to take her to one if she got sick.
Two roads away, a family is still searching for answers. Their mother was admitted to hospital for another illness. Since she tested negative for COVID on admission, she was not sent to the special ward for it. Her son visited her one evening, when he fed her and tied her hair neatly. He was not allowed to see her again.
Following his visit, the hospital told him that Fawsiya had tested positive for COVID-19. They assured him that she would be transported to the Divulapitiya hospital and brought back home once her treatment was completed. But Divulapitiya hospital denied that anyone by that name had been admitted. As they made some frantic calls, they learned that Fawsiya had been taken to the Mulleriyawa hospital. That is, her body was there – they had transferred her from Colombo base hospital, and she had died on the same day at the Mulleriyawa hospital.
They bring out a letter on a creased white paper, and ask me to read it – they speak and understand Sinhala, but not its written form. It has been written by the local police as if from the family, laying down the details of the woman’s case and saying that they request the state cremate the body at its own expense, and that no one in the family has any opposition to it.
One son, sick and ailing, had signed it after the police kept harassing them to do so. The other son, the one who saw her last, is distraught; his mother once took care of him, and now he can’t perform the last rites she is due.
At the time of them telling this story, her body is still in a freezer at the hospital. When and how it will be cremated, along with how many others, is still unknown. No one in the family was ever asked to take PCR test or placed under home quarantine. Fawsiya’s daughter-in-law, who looked after her, volunteered to take a random PCR test done in the area a few days ago and tested negative. They firmly believe that if Fawsiya indeed got COVID, it would have been from the hospital.
Yoonus and Nazly
Walking up to the next home, the Lotus Tower looms on the skyline ahead. Two families are gathered in the small yet cozy space. To say goodbye to one relative must be difficult enough. To lose two loved ones within the same extended family must be even harder.
Yoonus was receiving treatment at Sri Jayawardenepura Hospital when a PCR test showed he was positive for COVID. He was put in an ambulance with his two sons to accompany him and sent to IDH for further treatment. Despite being in close contact with him, especially during the ambulance ride, his sons were not allowed into IDH. Due to an administrative miscommunication between the two hospitals, Mr. Yoonus was kept in the ambulance for two hours after reaching IDH.
He died soon after admission. His son shows us the photo of him in those last moments, taken from the other side of a glass wall, beyond which he was not able to pass to be with his father as he died. The family did not consent for him to be cremated, but were forced to sign the note from the authorities stating that they did. In the final indignity, they were also made to pay for the coffin and provide transportation for it to the crematorium even though they had not consented to it.
A good father and grandfather, whose children turned to him for comfort even as they grew older and who adored their grandchildren, the loss is felt across generations.
The second death was of an aunt from their in-laws’ family. On her death, her family was told that her body had tested positive for COVID. In this case, the family refused to give consent for her to be cremated. To this date, they still do not know what happened to her body.
Her nephew holds onto a gift she gave him a few months back. He says that no one in this country should ever have to bear the pain that his family has been put through.
The tassels on the edge of the old man’s prayer mat flutter under the ceiling fan. His son recalls a generous and charitable soul, who would go the extra mile for people that most others would not acknowledge.
The man would serve water and cool drinks to cleaners, construction workers and anyone who came to help in their house; he would treat them all equally. He was extremely healthy, even up to his last days. This is something his son can’t quite get his head around and makes his sudden demise even more difficult to bear. The last photos they have of him are at a birthday party for a young child in the family where they say he was enjoying himself.
The son still can’t forget the circumstances of losing his father, and the lack of clarity that persisted. He himself admitted his father to hospital as he was unwell, and had to call them himself to get an update on his condition only be told that he had died. A few hours later, despite them making arrangements to bury him at the local mosque, he was hastily cremated by the authorities.
His father was cremated while burial was still legal, and the gazette making cremations mandatory was issued only ten days later. Their helplessness was amplified when the family was sent to quarantine centres in Welikanda, where they spent more than 40 days. Multiple PCR tests done on them came back negative, despite having spent time in close quarters with the man before he died.
There are still so many questions, the son says, and so much that remains unclear about what actually happened.
Never once has the government meaningfully reconsidered this policy, despite the outcry and grief that the Muslim community and allies have expressed. Orders to look for burial sites are given, but that topic quickly disappears off the agenda. Experts refuting the claims on which the policy is based, and providing reliable scientific claims that allow burial, are ignored, and the unscientific, racist policy remains in place. The highest court in the country refused to hear the petitions of those who wanted this policy halted.
For many of these families, even exploring all these avenues has grown exhausting. Judges and doctors, ministers and the media, all of these have let them down. These memories are what they will always have.
The truth, they say, remains with God.