Minuwangoda – A wounded town tries to heal
ECONOMYNEXT – Most residents of the town of Minuwangoda remember the night of May 13, 2019, vividly as that was when mobs rampaged through the streets attacking, looting and finally setting fire to Muslim-owned businesses.
A year later, the scars of that horrific night still remain in the form of burnt out buildings and fractured relationships in this prosperous area, a short distance from the International Airport at Katunayake.
The town’s Methodist Priest Rev Nadira Fernando remembers being called by a parishioner who had said that mobs were attacking shops in town.
“I went there and saw a mob attacking and looting a shop. It looked like it was an organized group,” Fernando told EconomyNext in an interview.
“They were targeting the Muslim enterprises but businesses owned by others were also damaged,” Fernando said.
The attacks began around 6 pm and the first establishment to be damaged was the landmark Fawz restaurant right at the entrance to the town.
The 24-hour eatery is a popular stop for trippers passing through.
On that fateful night, the mob of mostly young men who arrived on motorcycles first raided the cash and then went outside and attacked the place with stones.
“They pretty much destroyed the place,” Tuan Hisham, the co-owner of the establishment told us.
The mob then went through the streets.
“I saw them attacking the shops, but they did not attack mine,” Chandima Mahipala, Owner-Manager of Ekko, a multistoried clothing shops said.
“Then about an hour later we heard there was a fire,” she added.
The blaze swept through most of the main market area, Mahipala’s shop also caught fire causing more than Rs 5 million in damage.
“The tragedy of this incident is that Minuwangoda has never had a reputation as a place where there has been any kind of ethnic violence in the past,” Fernando said.
He said that when the annual procession of the local Buddhist temple was held “it was the Muslim businessmen who paid for the elephants.”
Immediately after the attacks tensions were high between the communities.
Fernando said that Sinhala shopkeepers refused to sell to Muslims.
He said that his parishioners had collected packets of milk powder to distribute to Muslim families.
Most people we spoke to said that they received very little help from the government in reparations.
Fernando said “the government has not done its part, it is an allegation that I make as a religious leader. Until now less than twenty per cent of the people who suffered damages have been compensated.”
Mahipala said that the Muslim community, however, stepped forward. “They ensured that their own people are looked after,” she said.
In fact, it was the Mosque societies from Mount Lavinia, Dehiwela and Kirulapone in Colombo which collected money and helped build more than a dozen shops on Municipal land.
These shops are being distributed to both Sinhala and Muslim businessmen who lost their premises.
But the new location is still not popular with shoppers. One of the businessmen, M M Nazir said that there were hardly any shoppers coming to the locality.
“I can’t do even half the business I used to do in my former place,” he said.
The Fawz restaurant meanwhile has been completely rebuilt with the added luxury of an air-conditioned space as well.
Hisham says he and his partners took loans to do the reconstruction.
“Nobody helped us,” he said.
What of the future, we asked.
Fernando says there are “deep scars from the wounds, but, most people believe the mobs were organized by people from outside of this area.”
Hisham is very optimistic that that type of racial violence will not erupt again.
“I think that here in Minuwangoda such a thing will not happen again because people have realized something very wrong happened,” he said.
“Even today people who come to us ask our pardon, they say sorry we were not involved in these attacks.”
But he said many people, particularly the employees of the establishments that were damaged are suffering.
“ They must be helped,” he said. (Colombo, June 9, 2020)