A walk in Colombo’s Somalia

By Shaahidah Riza

imagesWeligoda slums, also known as ‘Somalia,’ is just behind the Colombo Harbour in Mattakkuliya, walking distance from the Madampitiya Cemetery, where over 3,500 families live congested, more than two families sharing a small shack. Ceylon Today paid a visit to Colombo’s Somalia.
“These people live in abject poverty and are not disturbed by all the nefarious activities that take place here. It is a haven for drugs and similar crimes. They are immune to arrests and prisons,” said a social worker who greeted us.
The director of an NGO, a social worker, who wished to remain anonymous and is committed to transforming the lives of slum-dwellers, introduced us to two others, who were born and bred in the area; Ryan and Rilwan.
Escaping drugs and violence
They had gone through an immense struggle, to escape drugs and violence, and were currently working with the social worker to provide a better, dignified livelihood to these people. The duo, along with a few others, had set up a welfare organization: Hikma Welfare Society (HWS), which work towards promoting education among children and parents of the area, to combat the rampant use of drugs. The organization has been in operation for the last three years. So far, nearly 60% of the children are enrolled in nearby schools, but their attendance is very poor.
We climbed the rather precarious staircase of the HWS centre which leads to a single room with a few tables and chairs.
“Most girls in the area are unmarried, stigmatized due to area they are born in to. These residents are mentally dejected. Relatives don’t visit them, and are also not encouraged to visit, due to their poor living conditions. They are stigmatized by others due to the area they live in. They don’t even have chairs to offer visitors. Proper housing will give them some sort of a social status which is an incentive to improve on other factors such as getting an education or finding a decent job. Children are sometimes not sent to school because their parents don’t have the means to provide them a packed lunch or money to buy something from the school canteen,” added the social worker.
Political pawns
Residents from this area were used to fill up buses to attend SLFP rallies, said Rilwan, and went on to explain, “They have no political allegiance to anyone. They go for the rice packet and money; it feeds them and their kids for a day. The men were lured with alcohol bottles. The free blue cap and T-shirts are clothes for them. Those who use these people, neglect them afterwards.”
These children need help
The HWS committee has organized, classes to help the children in the area with their education and also skills training programmes that would provide alternative employment to the drug trade. Those who enrol were charged Rs 100 per month, a sum which wasn’t even enough to pay the instructors.
“We charge an amount to instill a value, so that it will not be taken for granted. We pay the instructors out of our own pockets. The people here are used to getting things for free; they don’t attempt to think further than that. Several people approached us, asking whether we were giving out free items. The parents are completely uninterested. The children lack ambition. They don’t know that another world exists out there, where their lives can be changed.”
A concerned Rilwan, further explained the plight of the children,
“They are trapped in this vicious cycle. Children go to work immediately after school. They work in pavements assisting their parents business, which earns less than 300 per day. Some are actively involved in the drug trade as young as 10 years. There is no distinction between male or female, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Hindu. They are all involved. In fact, it’s a pickle because they inter-marry. A family will have members from all faiths, but only thing they have in common is drugs.”
“They are in dire need of help. We hope people will take an active interest and contact us” Rilwan said, adding “Sometimes the parent will hide drugs in their children’s school bags, instructing them to keep it safe. The whole area is controlled by underworld gang leaders who wield their power, intimidating people. These ruffians ruin the chances of those who wish to rehabilitate themselves, by intimidation and threats. The community is completely desensitized by this. They are highly influenced by the Tamil movies that promote gang violence and drugs. This brainwashing starts at a very young age, especially at school, where they are driven by a need to dominate those around them and this continues in to adulthood.”
These ruffians have links with the police. Sometimes the police are given an assignment to arrest a certain number of individuals, as a routine measure in the eradication of the drugs, so they contact the gang leaders who will earmark few individuals and the police will make the arrests. “These arrested individuals are generally those who were introduced to drugs by the very ruffians that turn them over to the police,” he said.
Women and children are peddling
The physical transactions of drugs were carried out by the women and children of the area. They operate undetected, on the pretext of their conventional naivety. Ryan led us towards the window which overlooks a ground where children were playing. These children were no older than seventeen. They should be in school. Around the grounds there were several men who were in conversation, some were setting up a card table and a few were playing carrom in a corner.
These are very able men who are capable of finding employment. Their wives work in the Middle East and send a monthly allowance home and the men are complacent living on their wives money, neglecting their children, gambling it all on drugs and games,” said Rilwan.
We left the centre, walked through a very narrow passage- a width of about two and a half feet, on either side of which were wooden shacks. We stopped to speak to a woman carrying a five-month old baby. Her face was scarred with burnt marks.
“I tried to commit suicide. Set fire to myself. It was after a fight with my husband. He was drunk. He is involved with drugs. We are neglected. I have four children. We hardly have a single meal a day” said the woman drearily, as her teenage daughter looked on, her eyes soulless and empty.
Our next stop was a ramshackle nursery where 48 students were enrolled. The nursery was run by a young teacher, Dilrukshika Edirisinghe who wasn’t from the area, but chose to work in Weligoda.
“Although there are 48 children enrolled here, only a few of them actually attend the nursery. They are not encouraged by their parents. Most of them are in prison. If they don’t attend, I personally go to their houses and bring the kids in. I work with the HWS to ensure these kids enter school after they finish nursery,” she said. She also added that the current government turns a blind eye. The former government gave them a glass of milk every day last year; it provides at least a few of the nutrients they severely lacked. This year, that was stopped.”
We continued walking further in to the camps through another narrow path, dodging carcasses of dead animals, open drains and lavatories which were in extremely unhygienic conditions. A group of children as young as three years old were playing there.
“Mosquito borne diseases, illnesses caused by unsanitary conditions, diseases caused by regular use of drugs and venereal disease, are all rampant here,” said, an elderly woman whose son was an active member of the HWS. The diseases spread rapidly and the people in the area have learnt to live with it.
One shack two or more families
The shacks, which these slum dwellers call home are very small, the kitchen utensils, beds and toilet commodities were crammed into one single room where at least an average of two families reside. They all sleep in the same room- an obvious cause for sexual abuse and incest.
“Sexual abuse and incest is widespread. A relative of mine, a young girl of 12 years was befriended by a 24 year old man who later took advantage of her. Two days ago her mother discovered that her daughter was missing. She had left her child at home alone to talk with the neighbours. We managed to find the girl. We are currently working on a solution. We hear of at least six such cases of sexual abuse per day,” she added.
Most of the women in this slum leave their young daughters, in the care of male relatives, seeking employment abroad. The girls are repeatedly sexually abused by their fathers, uncles, brothers or cousins. Some even bear children. On the other hand, the girls also seek entertainment of the same kind elsewhere befriending boys in the area, their drug usage skyrockets as well as the number of children born out of wedlock. Most of these girls were below seventeen.
Broken promises
She lives in a small shack, with her children and their families.
“We were promised flats. There is no electricity here,” she added, pointing towards the kerosene lamp in her house. “The authorities told that the flats were made for us. But it was given to other people. We don’t know if our house would be broken or not. Where will we live? We don’t have an alternative house”
We reached a demolition site where many houses were pulled down. This area is called Nawa Henamulla. As we approached a few vehicles with forklifts and cranes arrived to continue the demolition. Residents of the area surrounded us. Nearly all of them live on rent.
“Our water and electricity supply has also been cut, to make us leave. Where can we go? We live in this area for rent. How can we find another place to live for just 1000 or 2000 rupees? We will be thrown on to the streets. Not a single politician inquired after us,” said one woman sobbing.
“We can’t go to work, leaving our women alone. Our houses will be demolished any moment with our belongings inside. Some houses were broken while the family was still inside,” added a man, worry apparent in his voice. He pointed towards a garbage dump. “They keep filling the area with rubbish that comes in truckloads hoping we will evacuate. We can’t. Our children play there.”
A further investigation into the matter revealed that the original owners were given flats by the former government. These individuals have given their former dwellings on rent. “These shacks are illegal. They cannot be rented. Those who took those shacks should have known better. But it was extreme poverty that reduced them to such circumstances,” Rilwan explained.
On our route towards another labour site, we passed a man who was preparing to move in to a flat. He told us that he plans to sell his wooden shack. We also passed a group of men, sitting in a semi-concealed dilapidated shack. They were surrounded by young boys not more than 15 years of age. Their loud laughter drew our attention to them. They were snorting drugs.
“We have to turn a blind eye sometimes. Our organization is still new. These people are a threat to those who wish to reform,” an HWS member informed us. The HWS had recently organized a sports tournament for the youth in the area. Those who emerged winners were the ones who had the least involvement with drugs. It is not hard to imagine the intense use of drugs by those who didn’t win” he added.
Work going waste
We arrived at a site where women and children were working laboriously separating foil from large paper bags. These bags will then be transported to companies that will find further uses for it. A woman who was ripping the foil apart said,
“We do several kilos of bags per day. But we earn less than Rs 500, we have to do more to earn more. Some of us take this home to work on it. I have been working on these for nearly 30 years.” These paper bags and foils were stacked in an open shack. Some have them stacked up at the entrance to their houses. On rainy days these bags get drenched, all their hard work rendered futile, leaving them bereft of their daily earnings.
14 year old Sumithkumar had been working there, for some time now. He had been helping his parents when he got back home from school, eventually he had to stop school, opting to work fulltime. 17 year old Umar who was also working there had started at the age of nine. He had to quit school to earn money in order to take care of his ailing mother. There were many children working there, blissfully unaware that they were employed contrary to labour laws, denying their right to education. These people’s living conditions were contrary to the fundamentals of the UN charters, against the laws of the country, where they were easily susceptible to disease, drugs, abuse and violence and not provided with essential amenities such as proper housing or clean drinking water. Somalia, is not the only over crowded slum, sullying the city of Colombo, but one of many.
*HWS can be contacted via phone-011 3012015