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For about 21 years, more than 100,000 Internally Displaced People from the Northen Province of Sri Lanka have been languishing in camps.  Mainly from the Muslim community, these people were forced out by the LTTE for crimes of not being Tamil.  In the wake of post conflict debates about reconciliation and rehabilitation, there are now challenges for future resettlement and rehabilitation of this affected community.

June 20th was World Refugee Day.  For many it is about remembering the plights of many people the world over, who today are without rights, a state and an identity.  You can picture the Palestinians or the Rohingas or the Kurds.  Over the past week, in Sri Lanka, international attention has turned once again to the 300,000 refugees (or internally displaced people) after the end of the conflict in 2009.  Despite all this attention, very little is said about the plight of the other major victims and refugees of the 30 year old conflict, and that is the Muslim refugees in Puttalum

For centuries, the Muslim community has been scattered around Sri Lanka living in co-existence with the other two main ethnic communities (Sinhalese and Tamil) with very close socio-economic interactions among them. Despite the seeds for the minority rights crisis being planted at the time of Independence, the ethnic conflict that began to emerge at the end of the seventies only engulfed engulfing the Muslim community in the eighties.

In the north and east of the country, Muslims and Tamils coexisted with Muslim and Tamil children attending the same school and taking different roles in cultural displays and sporting events.  However as the ethnic crisis developed into armed conflict with Tamil youth taking to arms and the LTTE (Liberation of Tamil Tigers for Eelam) being formed, it became apparent that in the early eighties, in the east of Sri Lanka, there was a conflict of interest between Muslims and Tamils.  Whilst this was initially at a manageable and political level, it slowly disintegrated in 1990 as the LTTE massacred worshipers in a mosque in Batticaloa and other attacks on Muslim civilians (for further details you could read SRI LANKA’S MUSLIMS: CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE” by International Crisis Group).  The LTTE based in the North, gave its presentation of developments. It became an unspoken cliché that Muslims were ‘traitors’ as a result of many Muslims joining the government forces and setting up their own political parties. A number of intellectuals and the printed word began to break a  35 year old tradition which had previously categorised Muslims as part of the Tamil speaking  nation and now identifying the Muslims as different.  There was a total breakdown of communal relations in the East.

In the north however there was a different story. In every way Muslims and Tamils in the North had been traditionally totally integrated into local life as interdependent communities. There were Muslim traders, tailors, iron mongers, labourers and scholars. Several of them had even taken to farming in the Killinochchi area. The Muslims in Jaffna had lived next to each other and therefore densely occupied a small part of this town. As part of the arena of culture and scholarship, Muslims formed an important component of the historic University of Jaffna.

All this was to change on the 23rd of October 1990, when at about 8am in the morning, a voice blasting through the loudspeaker mounted on a moving vehicle declared that: “Muslims are given 24hrs[i] to exit from the ‘Tamil land’ and they should leave all their possessions behind”. Armed LTTE cadres had gone round every village and handed over letters from their district leaders forcing the chief trustees of all mosques to read out the letters over loud speakers. The letters ordered all the Muslims to vacate their respective villages within 48 hours and hand over all their belongings such as vehicles, radios, sewing machines, water pumps etc to LTTE cadres at a particular village school.  They said the orders were from the LTTE high ranks and anyone trying to disobey would have to face the danger of losing life. Twenty four hours passed, and armed juveniles came round to push the Muslim residents out of their homes: men, women and children were herded through a narrow passage and, at the point of exit from the village they were bodily searched for valuables. Metallic cutters were used to remove jewellery that could not be easily removed, and each family was only allowed to take about 200 rupees (5 US dollars at that time). In some cases, even a change of clothes was not allowed to be taken out.  All possessions were deemed by the LTTE to belong to Tamil Eelam.

By the 26th of October, it had become apparent that Muslims from Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi (other parts of the Northern Province deemed as land for the Tamils) as well had suffered the same fate.  Approximately 75,000 men, women and children were expelled. (For more details about this, please see UTHRJ; Report 6, Chapter 3, and

In 1989, Mohamed Lateef (name changed) had just got married and had taken ownership of a rice farm and was looking to settle down to a quiet life of farming and raising his family.  That dream quickly shattered in 1990.

We were summoned to the mosque where we were greeted with this shocking news of the explusion ultimatum. Most of the people wanted to leave the place on the next day (Saturday). It was a nightmare and we were unable to sleep the night thinking of the agony of leaving the village we were born, keeping behind all our belongings, the junctions that created love and affection, the roads that told us many stories, the schools that taught & gained us employments, the mosques that made us humans, the Madarasa that taught us, books, exercise books, the burial ground that was keeping many of us, the play ground that gave us encouragement and the library.  The following day we started the journey with our children, grasping whatever little things we could carry in our hands. We were refugees. All the roads were full of our people from 9 days old baby to 95 years old man spread at a distance that could not find its end. We wandered aimlessly not knowing where to go and how long it would take us.  All that mattered was a safe place and even that in the current circumstance was uncertain”

Without knowing where they were going, these desperate people moved south in whatever mode of transport they could find. Most of them trekked miles and miles (those from Mannar braved the sea) for days, and those who could not stand the strain perished on the way and the rest reached Puttalam, the biggest Muslim settlement outside the Northern Province.

21 years on, and  Lateef is still in Puttalum with his family, living in the makeshift refugee camp, in  a coconut-leaf hut affording little respite to the elements, relying on daily wage earnings to support his family which has now grown to include 3 children, all born in the Saltern Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp in Puttalum.

I don’t think about the past.  It just makes me sick.  There is no future for me to think about. I gave up thinking about the future a long time ago.  I just think about the present and how I can give my family at least two square meals a day,” he says wearily.

This incident has been largely forgotten in the annals of the Sri Lankan conflict.  Successive governments have failed to provide adequate reprieve and support for the displaced who find themselves in a political wilderness without much of a voice despite having representation in the government.  Problems with education, proper shelter and sanitation plague the camps and so the displaced people are dependent on menial jobs or handouts from philanthropists or the government and humanitarian organisations.  Unemployment is a massive problem for the majority of them who rely largely on seasonal demand for labour such as work in the salterns and various other odd jobs. They live in Cadjan huts, very often with two to three families crouched into one little hut.   On top of this, it has also become a delicate commercialized, criminalized and corrupt political scene.

Yes we get support” remarks A.B. Niyas, the camp leader of the Saltern IDP camp, cynically.  “Every so often we get the refugee tourists, who come and see us, take photographs, give us some money, promise additional help and disappear.

The order of expulsion had shocked the country with the forcible eviction creating a new dimension in the ethnic crisis distancing the three communities in their coexistence and wellbeing. What the Muslims from the north had experienced is a deliberate act of ethnic cleansing carried out by the LTTE.  However the questions to ask of that time are

  • Why didn’t the government of Sri-Lankan armed forces move in to protect its citizens (these Muslims) against such an act of ethnic cleansing?
  • What didn’t the Sri Lankan population react to this?
  • Why did the international agencies keep silent when Muslims were being sent out of their homes on ethnic grounds?
  • Why were the Tamil Diaspora silent when this was being enacted in their name?
  • Why was the rest of the Sri Lankan Diaspora also silent when this was taking place?

And now, why do the same Diaspora who talk about responsibility and accountability for the end of the conflict, fail to mention these groups of forgotten people?

Puttalam still houses approximately 100,000 displaced persons across 141 welfare centres, from the five districts of the Northern Province. What were then considered to be temporary settlements have now become permanent abodes for these unfortunate victims of the LTTE’s horrific programme of ethnic cleansing.   Over the recent years, Puttalam has also played host to some Tamil and Sinhala IDPs who have been driven away from their homes in Batticaloa and Trincomalee.  The town is beginning to buckle under the pressure of hosting a large IDP population.

As some studies have pointed out, hosting a large IDP population has placed a great deal of pressure on the local services as they were not proportionally developed to meet the needs of the populace. Moreover, it has had a negative impact on the relations between the IDPs and the host community who originally welcomed the displaced people.

Recent incidents in the town have exposed these cracks.  There is now  a new fear that tensions between  the area’s original Muslim inhabitants, who have grown tired of the newcomers taking their jobs and, increasingly, buying their land, could lead to further crisis.

We did all we could for them when they first arrived,” says Naleer, an amiable businessman and Puttalum Resident. “But they’re placing an unbearable strain on resources. They work cheap, so they’ve taken people’s jobs. They take education, healthcare, too.  They are supported by the government and INGOs on top of this.  We do not get anything from them. The situation has created a lot of hate.”   Many critics go on to say that the refugees are perpetually in this situation of desperation without doing much to help themselves, since they know that there will always be sympathetic support. “ This is a charge that M. Rahman, an activist from a local CBO set up by the displaced people refutes.  “We just want to go back home.  We don’t want to live anywhere else.  We are from Jaffna or Mullaitivu.  We lived side by side with our Tamil neighbors without much problem.  We want to go back to that

After the Ceasefire Agreement was signed in February 2002, following what amounted to a public apology by the political leader of the LTTE and an agreement signed between the LTTE and main Muslim political party,  a number of these displaced families did  return to their homes in the North only to find their houses  occupied by displaced Tamils, or rebels, or destroyed. Those who stuck it out once again returned to Puttalum when the security deteriorated.

21 years after the evictions, the displaced Muslims still speak affectionately of their old Tamil neighbours and given the chance would return back to their home towns.  34-year-old Fatima Shafeek, a mother of two, vouches for this. “I was born in Jaffna and that will always be my home.  If I am given the chance I will go back“.  There are some though who are adament that they will not go back because they have stopped trusting the Tamils.  It is these who need greater support for healing to begin.

In any return for the displaced people, there are a couple of issues that would need to be considered such as:

  1. Safety – Safety and security for the life of the displaced people and the dignity as well as recovery of lost properties to be appropriately discussed and  proper assurance given that this will be dealt with  during resettlement.
  2. Basic Needs – Many people returning back would face shortages in basic needs such as water supply, adequate sanitation, basic health services, basic educational facilities, dried ration, compensation and opportunities to recreate employment for unemployed people.
  3. Property Rights – As a result of  the expulsion in 1990, all documentary evidences in the government records have been destroyed such as ownerships of the properties etc. In any resettlement, positive and immediate arrangements need to be made to hand over the possessions of properties whilst returning land and compensating for this.  Any planned resettlement of outsiders in lands owned by these northern Muslims would need to be stopped forthwith The Government  to consider that  state lands adjacent to the lands owned by evicted Muslims  should  be given to them in keeping with the increasing demand due to an increase in population.
  4. Relief-All relief, compensation, rehabilitation, reconstruction and resettlement activities should be done by a task force which includes district representatives of northern Muslims.
  5. Education – Many of the schools have been damaged and destroyed due to the war. Special concessions would have be given to Northern Muslims in Education, government employment and livelihood programs.

In this delicate balance that has pervaded the war, there is now a call for restorative justice.  A period of healing has to be honoured.  People have to learn to trust one another. However in the politics that is ensuing, this is quickly being overlooked.  The real plight of people like this is being compromised by a failure to understand the process of restorative justice by all concerned.

Resettlement and rehabilitation of these Puttalam refugees are still major issues that need to be resolved.  It is no doubt that the internally displaced people would like to resettle in their original places, and therefore mechanisms for their right to return should be a major question answered by the government. The Government so far has failed to properly address these aspirations.  Likewise the communities (and the Diaspora that represent these communities) should also be working together to identify solutions at all levels of the spectrum.

There is however now a new generation among the refugees which has no affiliation with the parental roots to their villages in the Northern Province. They would prefer to continue living where they are now

As for Lateef, what does he make of the situation? Well just ask his ten year old son Mujeeb where home is.  He will reply that home is the coconut-leaf shanty in a camp in Puttalam


[i] In some cases despite the 24 hour ultimatum in other Northern townships, those in Jaffna were given just two hours to leave or face extermination