IT WAS a group of local Muslim youngsters that first raised the alarm about the terrorist safehouse near the coastal town of Kalmunai in Sri Lanka’s eastern Ampara district, leading to a raid by security forces Friday night killing 15 people inside, residents told The Indian Express.
The alert was sounded by one of the youths who was passing through a street near an iron bridge in the Sainthamaruthu locality when he “saw a man standing with a rifle inside the house”, they said. Within minutes, residents said, they gathered at the house and demanded the IDs of those inside. When they were rebuffed — one of those inside tried to fire in the air — the local masjid committee was called, they said. Soon, someone in the house started throwing fistfuls of currency notes at the crowd, they said.
It was then that the police and Army were alerted. The episode lasted about one-and-a-half hours late Friday evening, they said.
At least 15 people, including children, are believed to have been killed in the raid, including the father and two brothers of Zaharan Hashim, the suspected mastermind behind the Easter Sunday blasts that killed over 250 people in churches and hotels across the country.
While police and Army intelligence officers said Hashim’s wife and four-year-old daughter were rescued, a doctor at the district hospital claimed that the two had “only suffered 10 per cent burns” and were treated in the burns ward.
On Sunday, The Indian Express reached Sainthamaruthu, a Muslim-majority area, and found that the entire locality was under Army watch. But the residents were eager to speak out against the “worst thing” that has happened to their country.
“We were all deeply upset about blasts on Easter, especially the killing of so many people at their places of worship. This made us angry, and cautious too,” said Mohammed Sulfikkar, a local resident.
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Detailing the events after the tip-off, he said: “The youth who saw the man with the rifle alerted others and all of us went to the house. We were suspicious because they rented that house only 10 days ago, and had no contact with anyone in the area. When we asked them to show their IDs, they were evasive. One of them got angry and said they were Muslims and it was unfair to suspect them. But we told them that we were also Muslims. When the argument got heated, one of them took out a rifle and tried to fire at the air… many of us ran.”
Soon, say residents, the masjid committee near the iron bridge was informed. “When we reached the house, the situation had escalated. One of them started shouting at people and called everyone ‘betrayers’. In between, he promised they would not harm Muslims. But we were adamant that we wanted to search the house,” said a committee member, speaking on condition of anonymity.
What happened next was bizarre, according to the residents.
“One of the youths inside started throwing currency notes at the crowd. He abused us in Tamil and shouted at us to ‘eat the money’ and leave them alone. All this happened in less than 30 minutes. We alerted a traffic police officer in the neighbourhood and soon the Army arrived,” said the committee member.
“The problems started at 7.30 pm and ended around 9 pm with a huge blast. I heard firing later, too, till around 11 pm. I am staying alone here and fled when it all started,” said Aamina Umma, pointing to the bullet-marked walls of her house. On Sunday, a senior police officer monitored the safe house along with forensic experts. At the Ampara district general hospital, a senior medical officer said the condition of Hashim’s wife, who is said to be in her 30s, and her daughter “is stable”.
“Both of them are in the burns ward. The mother is cooperating with doctors but hasn’t opened her mouth since she was admitted on Saturday morning. The child is being treated by a special team, considering the trauma she had undergone that night,” the medical officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
“All the 15 bodies, except one, were damaged beyond recognition. One body had no burn injuries and was found outside the home,” he said. With most of the shops closed and Army vehicles on patrol, several youths — many of them had returned after job stints in various Gulf countries — gathered at Kalmunai and Sainthamaruthu to talk about that Friday evening.
“Our life is back to square one, like in the LTTE days 10 years ago. Today, I have to think twice before going somewhere since I have a beard. I need to make sure that my ID is with me at all times. The government is not troubling us, but the entire community is suffering due to the worst crime done by a few lunatics among us,” said Rahuman A S, a resident.