I have been living as an asylum seeker in Sri Lanka for the past two years with my wife. We have been living peacefully in the town of Negombo, but unfortunately this town was hit by the worst terrorist attacks in Sri Lankan history on Easter Sunday 2019.
After these attacks, the small island nation has been in a state of utter shock. People are clueless about the reasons for this violence and hate, which has affected them in such an adverse way. I myself never in my wildest dreams thought such a horrific incident would happen in Sri Lanka. Pakistan is the country where suicide bombings happen on a regular basis, mobs gather and kill minorities and people who think differently, houses and settlements are attacked, and people are forced to leave their houses. I had already left my house once before in the state of fear that someone could kill me, or I could be imprisoned because an allegation of blasphemy was brought against me. Pakistan was no longer safe for me. I was scared, sleepless, hungry, and unable to go back to my home. All was lost in just a matter of a few hours, and then in fear and extreme shock, my wife and I left Pakistan and came to Sri Lanka, leaving everyone behind: friends, family, relatives, our jobs, and our house.
But now Sri Lanka has become the same. We have been forced out of the house we lived in because today at noon a mob gathered outside our house and a few people were violently kicking at the door. I knew the inevitable had come to pass; it had already happened with many people. So, I opened the door because I knew resisting would only aggravate the situation and increase chances of a violent attack. A person who was about six-and-a-half-feet pushed me aside, slapped me, and grabbed me by the collar asking, “Why not open the door?” and telling me to get out. I was in a state of disbelief. He pushed me and I barely managed to stay on my feet. There were two policemen behind him, and they said, “You have to go to the police station.” This guy and another one came in. Their eyes were red and so full of rage it seemed as if they were totally drunk. Then this other guy started to curse me in Sinhalese. He moved toward me, but our landlord’s wife stepped between him and me. I had not even noticed that she had entered the room. Then she had an argument with these people in Sinhalese; she also said something to the police officers. Then another guy entered the house saying, “Who did these attacks?” I said I am not a Muslim; we are Christian. He said “But you are Pakistani. Who did this attack?” At this point I realized that there was no point in arguing with these people. Some people were roaming in the house like raging bulls looking at things. One of them was shouting at my wife and she was crying. I told them we will go from here, don’t worry.
Then the police officer told us to gather our things and get to the police station. We took our passports and other important documents and put the small amount of money we had in my wallet. A guy was following me through the house like a shadow, but now our landlord had come inside and told this guy to calm down.
We gathered our things, whatever we could, and came outside of the house. When we came to the police station, it was like a fish market: all the people were crammed in the small parking area. People had chosen different spots for themselves and were afraid that someone else would take their spot to sleep in the night, and more people were pouring in every hour. Children were here and there without shoes; pregnant women, the sick, and the old were all sitting in a hopeless condition. No one knew what would happen and how long we would be in this situation. I was wondering if it rained how people would cram under this small shed because the sky was overcast. It was an impossible situation. No one can live in such a way or even spend a night.
When I talked with different people, everyone had a story to tell, from being beaten to dragged by the hair, robbed by the mob, and even robbed by their own landlords and neighbors. Even these people who had come empty-handed from Pakistan fearing for their lives because extremists wanted to kill them were victims of violence. There are Christian women who have been raped in Pakistan and fled to save themselves and their families. There are Ahmadis who are non-Muslims according to the Pakistani constitution; they cannot identify themselves as Muslims in Pakistan, and ironically here they are being persecuted and thrown out of their houses for being Muslims. Catholic Christians who are persecuted in Pakistan for being Christians are being kicked out for being Pakistanis; even the Catholic Church cannot convince Catholics to protect these Pakistani Catholics. It’s chaos; no one knows what will happen to them.
Terrorism has succeeded in creating an anarchy in Sri Lanka. People don’t know how to get their anger out and on whom, so the most fragile and weak people, who are Pakistani refugees, are the target. This is the same as in Pakistan. In Pakistan minorities are easy targets, and likewise it is happening in Sri Lanka.
So many human lives have been lost in these attacks. Negombo has been hit the worst, with more than 200 dead, but are the refugees who have been victims of extremist violence in Pakistan the ones to blame? We would never have chosen to come to Sri Lanka if it was safe for us in Pakistan. And now Sri Lanka has become like Pakistan. But will mob justice and mob mentality stop terrorism? I think not.
UNHCR’s refuge and resettlement process is a tiring and difficult wait. People become psychological patients during this wait, and most of the refugees have traumatic experiences from Pakistan. Now all the horrors are coming back. I haven’t been able to sleep well since the problems I faced in Pakistan; even my wife has suffered from depression and is recovering slowly. There is a similar story in every family; people have died in poor and helpless situations in Sri Lanka. It takes at least three years for a refugee to be relocated to a safe country; getting there any sooner has not been possible.
The life of a refugee is very difficult. It’s not possible for an ordinary person living a peaceful life to understand the horrors refugees face. Hope is difficult to come by, and it comes in shattered pieces that shatter you into a thousand pieces. One day we are worried about financial difficulties, the next day for sickness, then there is anxiety, children who are sick, old people who are in pain, wives who are pregnant, children who are not getting education, no work, feeble community support, and long wait times. Difficulty after difficulty is too much to bear. Even sometimes people pray for death, but even prayers seem to become impossible.
What can I do besides wail and cry for help, hoping that some calls will catch a kind ear? Maybe no one else will be able to understand what they are saying or what they want, like we are not able to make other people understand our problems. We need peace in our lives; we are living in fear.
I urge the UN, other countries, and humanitarian organizations to take steps for the safety of refugees in Sri Lanka. I think relocation to a safe country quickly is the permanent solution. In the short term, the Sri Lankan government should at least run an awareness campaign for the safety of refugees and make it known to the masses that these refugees are already victims of extremism. They can understand what this pain is. Hopefully then refugees will be a bit safer. There are many other vital steps in this situation that should be taken. I hope soon Sri Lanka again becomes the island paradise that it used to be, and terrorists are caught and brought to justice.
I urge the international community to take refugees stuck in Sri Lanka quickly to avoid the humanitarian crisis that is developing.
Cover Image Courtesy of Dumi Jay