The Daily Anachronism: “We Left With Food Still Cooking On The Fire”

This is the story of the Muslims of the North who were banished by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam over 20 years ago. Theirs is a story you will not often hear in its entirety, or even its significance. We speak of unity in this country, use heavy words like patriotism and sovereignty. And yet, we have allowed for our own citizens to feel alienated, displaced. I chose to work on this topic after hearing an infuriating comment from the Minister of Resettlement who told me his ministry was no longer concerned with the Muslim IDPs. The article appeared in Sunday’s edition of Ceylon Today.

By Imaad Majeed

In October 1990 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ordered the expulsion of the Muslim population residing in the Northern peninsula. Over 60,000 Muslims were chased out from five districts in the Northern Province. “Those in Jaffna were given only two hours notice to leave their homes. Some of them left with food still cooking on the fire,” Project Manager at the Law & Society Trust (LST) Dr. Farzana Haniffa told Ceylon Today.

Dr. Haniffa has worked closely with Muslim IDPs for the past 8 years, three of which were spent working on the LST’s Citizen’s Commission To Investigate The Expulsion of Muslims From The Northern Province. The commission makes recommendations for the resettlement of Muslim IDPs and draws conclusions on their expulsion, displacement and return.

“We have heard different stories and different experiences from those who were forced to leave,” Dr. Haniffa said. Those on Mannar island had never used boats for transport, and yet thousands had to resort to this at the time. They did not even have jetties to board the boats. Sick, pregnant, young and old alike were forced into this horrific experience.

Those in Mullaitivu had to go through jungles as Tamils would not even give them a drop of water as per the orders of the LTTE. They arrived in Puttalam in the masses. It was the Muslim community in Puttalam that arranged for temporary shelters and schools for the displaced. “At the time the government did nothing,” she said.

They were asked to leave as far as Vavuniya and so they chose to take asylum in Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Negombo and Puttalam. Organizations such as Oxfam funded infrastructure projects in Puttalam in aid of the Muslim IDPs. The government soon began to distribute dry rations. “As there was no infrastructure in place for this at the time, services had to be brought in from outside,” she added.

“They survived because of the help rendered by the NGO’s, foreign and soon local. The government did not do enough to offer medical services and basic necessities for a decent life. Over the years the population has more than doubled, and diseases such as cholera and typhoid are at epidemic proportions,” she said.

Five years after the expulsion late parliamentarian M.H.M. Ashraff became the Minister of Resettlement. He took on the initiative to introduce a housing program for those Muslim IDPs who had acquired land. “This was controversial at the time as it went against the idea of ever returning to the North, which at the time the Muslim IDPs still called ‘home’. People were languishing with no dignity of life, lacking a sense of privacy in their sheds – the cultural patterns of the Muslim community were destroyed,” she said.

“They had settled on land deemed unfit for cultivation and inhabitation. They had given up fertile soil for arid, saline land. They had their wells and their toilets in the same compound. The conditions were highly unsanitary,” she added.

Those who came from Mannar island settled in Erukalampiti, a village in Nagavillu, where they set up cooperative stores, schools, and even a community centre as part of a model village. There was a certain amount of interest in building schools for Muslim IDPs at the time. Yet a whole generation lost out on higher education and employment opportunities as they had no documents to sit for examinations.

“Towards the year 2000 we experienced an aid-fatigue as international NGO’s began to lose interest. This is when small local NGO’s emerged. At this point the government’s ration program was corrupt and there had been no revisions. During the ceasefire talks the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) completely lost interest in the Muslim IDPs,” she added.

Rishad Bathiudeen was then appointed as Minister of Resettlement and took on the initiative to bring in funding from the North to establish clinics in Puttalam. Up until 2007 it was only the existing medical facilities that had been developed. 4000 families were given housing by the World Bank housing project. However, one was required to be in possession of land in order to be given a house. Many fell into debt and lost their property as there was little income generation. “There is a striking problem of unemployed youth that lack any exposure to industrial activity as they lack the necessary infrastructure,” she said.

After the end of the war most Muslim IDPs were willing to return to the North. However, having houses in Puttalam precluded government assistance in the North as the Indian Housing Scheme specifically did not allow for this. Many registered as returnees in the Northern peninsula at this time. “The government had cut off the ration program with no prior warning, though the program was always irregular,” she added.

Those registered as returnees received rations for six months which they would travel to the North to collect. The consequence of this is that the local administration at Puttalam does not recognize them and therefore does not issue gramasevaka chits which are required to go to the North. “No one knows how many resettled in the North, or how many are in Puttalam, or even how many are willing to move,” she said.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees gets a list of Muslim IDPs from the gramasevaka and yet experiences an 80% no-show when conducting their operations. “They have called it ‘insincere relocation’. They recommend the Muslim IDPs resettle in Puttalam as it is cost-effective and less troublesome. The aid community has little sympathy for the Muslim IDPs, and this is not their fault,” she added.

That is the current situation. Now it is up to the government to step up and do the hard work, especially after 20 years of neglect. The logic of reconciliation is that budgetary constraints should not hold back these issues from being resolved. For reconciliation to take place they must be facilitated their return. They want to go back and cultivate their land, but first infrastructure must be brought into those areas. “The government must take affirmative action and override archaic rules that inhibit such development,” Dr. Haniffa firmly stated.

Senior Researcher at the Center for Policy Alternatives Mirak Raheem said there is a general problem in that there is no accurate compilation of statistics on Muslim IDPs at the moment. The government statistics focus on the Menik Farm IDPs. “There are various sets of figures on Muslim IDPs that create a lot of confusion.”

“The whole idea of Muslim IDPs is distorted as it is considered a Northern issue. This is not the case; those who moved from Batticaloa in the 90’s are still trying to get their land back. This requires a holistic approach. All IDPs, including those from Sampoor and those affected by military occupation, are facing serious issues,” Raheem said.

According to Raheem there has been a significant shift between 2009 to now as the government focuses on the new IDPs. Southern Mannar was the first area opened up for resettlement. It took a few months for Muslim IDPs from Puttalam to get permission to resettle, while new IDPs from Menik Farm were assisted by the government.

In general the rule is that new IDPs receive facilities such as transport, a basic assistance kit with 6 months of dry rations and a shelter grant of Rs 25,000. “There were discrepancies as to whether Muslim IDPs were eligible to receive such benefits. It was not government policy to provide equal treatment to all returnees,” Raheem said.

There is a distinction between relocating and resettlement, the former being a highly political matter while the later considers the need to reestablish a functioning society.

Recently, there has been a push within the government for Muslim IDPs to be allowed these facilities. This has proved problematic as no one knows how many want to return or settle down in Puttalam.” Some are still tentative about their return due to the attitude of the government in the past. People come to Mannar for the assistance that is provided, but we do not know how many actually stay there. There is a cloud of unknowing that surrounds the issue,” he said.

Local NGO’s such as Community Trust Fund and Muslim Aid have worked towards offering relief to Muslim IDPs among other international NGO’s. However, there have been political issues amongst these organizations that have hindered any fruitfulness of their efforts.

The major issue is that of land. When Muslim IDPs return they are often unable to get back their property as there has either  been a house built on it or a field running through it. They cannot simply ask for their land back. In the cases where military occupation is involved it becomes more complicated as politics come into perspective. “They want to preserve their constituency and at times it comes into conflict with what they want with their life. They are caught in a political trap,” he added.

The Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province has come to the following conclusions regarding the expulsion, the displacement and return:

  • The Expulsion seemed to be in response to the SLMC’s actions against LTTE ideology. The LTTE may have tried to undermine the SLMC’s political strength through this act. But it seems to have strengthened it instead.
  • The response of the Sinhala leadership and the state was inadequate. From the failure to respond to the expulsion in Mannar even though a large army camp was located in the Silawaturai area, where a majority of the northern Muslims lived, to the manner in which assistance was provided during the displacement, and the resettlement process is being undertaken today, it is clear that the state has not acted to prioritize Muslim interests.
  • The northern Muslims did not expect to be displaced for so long. Many seem to have expected to return within a short period – some said a matter of weeks. Others a couple of years. None anticipated a twenty year period of exile.
  • The Northern Muslim community has grown considerably since 1990. There is an inadequate appreciation of the natural increase of the population at the policy level and the necessity of accommodating the larger numbers in planning for northern Muslim return and resettlement.
  • A generation of northern Muslims lost out on their education and the possibility of a future of some economic prosperity and status due to the expulsion. Parents lost the ability to educate their children, government servants were compelled to give up their jobs and their substantial pensions due to the expulsion.
  • The economic losses suffered by the northern Muslims are staggering. There have been two attempts at calculating the losses. The first was the Refugee Survey of 1991 conducted by Research and Action Forum for Social Development (RAAF) and the more recent was the survey conducted by M.I.M. Mohideen in 2004. According to Mohideen the losses of residential properties, commercial and industrial establishments, agricultural lands, religious institutions, gold and jewellery, livestock, and so on amounts to around US $112 million.

The Commission identified the following as issues to be addressed by the government:

  • Northern Muslims are facing difficulties in identifying their lands –boundaries of some are not traceable.
  • There are others occupying lands owned by Muslims unlawfully. In some cases ownership is being disputed.
  • Many northern Muslims have lost ownership documents for their land and are finding it difficult to obtain copies or attestations as to their ownership from local land registries and the Grama Niladharis and District Secretaries.
  • Some northern Muslims were compelled to sell their land by the LTTE.
  • In some areas, land belonging to Muslim villages have been claimed by persons of neighbouring Tamil villages. Such claims have been endorsed by the local administration. This is leading to tension and mistrust between the Muslim and Tamil population.
  • Some were compelled to sell due to hardship faced in displacement and expect compensation for property sold at low prices. (some want to buy back their lands)
  • Tenants have lost their rented premises.
  • There are land disputes between the Catholic Church in Mannar and the displaced Muslims of Mannar Island in particular. Muslims fear that their claims may not get an adequate hearing even in court due to the power that the church holds in Mannar. The Commission spoke with representatives of the church and it hopes that amicable resolution can be made of such issues in a manner that is fair by all concerned.
  • There needs to be a better usage of social media to make the issue more prominent nationally and internationally.



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