Strangers In Their Own Land

By May Jeong—Moment Magazine—September 27, 2017—

The end of the long civil war between Tamil and Buddhist forces promised peace. Instead, Buddhist nationalists found a new enemy: their Muslim neighbors.

One morning in 2006, Amal Mohammed was preparing tea in her family’s home in Aluthgama, a coastal town some 50 miles south of the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, when she heard a terrible noise outside. The din drew her to the balcony. From there, she saw houses in flames and a throng of masked men approaching.

She rushed back to the kitchen and alerted her husband, Janan, who was in the living room watching a cricket rerun. Next she went to fetch her daughter and son, then seven and nine, and put them inside the pantry cupboard and shut its doors behind her. “Is this the end of the world?” her daughter wanted to know. Amal told her no but wet herself out of fear. In her soiled clothes, she prayed.

The men were a mob of extremist Sinhalese Buddhists searching for Muslim homes. With her children in the cupboard and her husband guarding the gate, Amal considered her neighbors. Most of them were Sinhalese, members of Sri Lanka’s predominant ethnic and religious group, while the Mohammeds were Muslim, descended from families who had long lived on the island. But her prayers were answered: The men passed by the Mohammed home in the belief that Buddhists lived there.