In October 1990, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) expelled the entire Muslim population of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Within a period of 2 weeks the LTTE systematically chased out close to 75,000 Muslims residing in the districts of Kilinochchi, Mullaiteewu, Jaffna, Mannar and parts of Vavuniya.

The LTTE expulsion of Muslims has not been adequately integrated into any mainstream historical narrative in Sri Lanka. Most commentators routinely get the date of the expulsion wrong and few give it the status of a highly significant historical event that it warrants. This is unfortunately true of most events involving Sri Lanka’s Muslim community.

The Law and Society Trust (LST) in partnership with the Rural Development Foundation (RDF), the Community Trust Fund (CTF) and the Peoples’ Secretariat (PS) and an advisory group of prominent Muslim civil society actors conducted a two year long truth seeking initiative in the form of a Citizens’ Commission. The objective of this exercise has been to produce authoritative documentation of the expulsion and its consequences that is sanctioned by the community, and to list the community’s grievances through a document endorsed by the Commission consisting of eminent civil society actors. The Commission’s broadly defined terms of reference looked at a) the history of the expulsion, b) two decades of displacement, and c) the resettlement experience.

The Commissioners are eminent persons from civil society who are outside the Northern Muslim Community. The nine commissioners are Dr. Devanesan Nesiah, Dr.M.S.M.Anes, Dr.Catherin Brun, Dr.Gameela Samarasinghe, Dr.E.Santhirasegaram, Dr.Nimalka Fernando, Mr.Javid Yusuf, Ms.Chulani Kodikara and Judge.U.L.Abdul Majeed.

Shreen Saroor Juwairiya Mohideen and Jensila Majeed have assisted the commission process as members of the advisory group.

The commission has been conducting its inquiries since September 2009. Desk research has been done to collect newspaper reporting on the expulsion and scholarly articles that have been written on the event and the northern Muslims’ displacement experience. Commissioners have held 22 sittings in Puttalam, Negambo, Colombo, Mannar, Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya.  Several of the Puttalam sittings were especially designed to elicit the participation of representatives from all five districts in the North, women from the Northern Muslim community, young people from the Northern Muslim community, and representatives from the host community in Puttalam. The commission has also collected 390 testimonies and 13 focus group interviews. These include 26 testimonies from host community members.

The Commission Report is now complete and was launched at the International Center for Ethnic Studies auditorium on the 3rd of November. The report was very favorably received. The commentators were Manouri Muttetuwegama, Barrister, Attorney-at-Law, former Commissioner of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, Chaired the Commission of Inquiry into Involuntary Removal/ Disappearance of Persons (All Island 1998- 2000) and member of the Commission of Inquiry into Alleged Serious Violations of Human Rights 2007 and Seelan Kadirgamar, former Senior Lecturer in History, University of Jaffna.  Both commentators praised the nature of the initiative and the quality of the report. They also stated that it was an important precedent that highlighted the voices of those who were affected. Kadirgama stated that it was one of the few documentation projects of the kind and hoped it would serve as a precedent for other such projects.

The report is comprehensive and consists of 11 chapters. The report was written in order to give as much prominence as possible to the voices of the northern Muslims who spoke to the commission, and also to give as much social and political background to the particular conditions of the northern Muslim experience. Therefore a section of the report is devoted to capturing the experience of the expulsion and also a sense of northern Muslims everyday lives within the war zone, and in the context of displacement. (Chapter 4, 5 and 9)These chapters mostly contain narratives from the testimonies. These narrative most poignantly capture both the time of war in the north as well as the shock of having to leave their homes with no notice.  The following two quotes are from Chapter 4 of the report- Life in the North During War Time.

My mother was not very interested in associations etc but she was a popular person. She will help a lot for matters related to young girls and others. She would go forward for anything. Once 32 people died as a result of a shell attack, and she bathed all the ‘Janasas’ (all were female ‘Janasas’) alone. All the houses that came under this attack were destroyed. The army was on one side and the LTTE were on the other side and shells attacks were happening here and there. It was my mother who bathed them in a hurry and buried them. It was a very difficult time. They were in the mood to shoot anyone they saw. (p. 47)- The quote is from the testimony of R. Faiza of Moor Street Jaffna

The following quote captures the moment of the expulsion in a different location- this is from Sameena of Puthukudiiruppu on Mannar Island.

We left on the 25th of October 1990 at 5 pm. The LTTE came to the village and announced through loud speakers that we had to leave immediately by the route they  showed us. About 40 cadres came into our village and came to all our houses and demanded 10,000 rupees or 10 sovereigns  in gold or to give them the house and leave. They came at the time my husband was having lunch. When they asked me where he was I said he was not at home as I was afraid they would take him away so I did not let them come in. Then I heard from the other people that they came and robbed the houses in the night so I removed all my jewellery  and put them in a tin and buried the tin.

They came again later that day and asked for my jewellery.  I told them I don’t have it with me now and told them to take the things from the shop and leave. They said it was there in the morning and how come its not there now? One of them got very angry and shot at the table in the shop and broke all the things. They behaved in a violent manner.  From next door they took all the sacks of paddy they had. Then the mosque leaders gathered and decided that we should all leave together and so we left.

Sameena later stated that they were able to recover the jewellery that they buried when the husband came back to the village in 1996. (p.62)

The other chapters trace the social and political background to the expulsion (Chapter 4) the state’s minimal attention to the issue (Chapter 6) and the northern Muslim in the context of Muslim politics.  Chapter 6 refers to the particular manner in which the northern Muslims featured in the political agenda of the SLMC under Mr. Ashraff, and the many developments both positive and troubling that occurred in Puttalam after Risharth Bathiudeen was made minister of Rehabilitation.

The northern Muslim displacement experience has lasted now for twenty one years.  At the time of the expulsion people thought they would go back in a matter of weeks, months—sometimes two years. No one expected it to last two decades.  I would like to read one quote that speaks to the initial moment of displacement.

A.Kuriza from Muslim College Road, Jaffna provides a narrative that amply illustrates the  pathos of trying to live in a place that was unfamiliar.

We reached Zahira School. Puttalam people were very helpful. We were expecting to return back. We were searching for a house for rent. We got a house for six months. But we said we do not need for that long, we want to rent only for a month. My son found a house which did not have doors, windows or grills. My children started to cry, when they saw the house. Then we did not take that house. My son took us to another house even this was not pleasant to any of us. Everyone started to cry. Then my son was angry that we did not like any of the houses he was showing. He was asking us if you all do not like anything I show what I am going to do. Later we went to a relative’s place in Kalpitiya. They used to come and stay in our place, when we were in Jaffna. We stayed with them for three months. (p. 103)

The fact that they were sent out of their district of displacement into a new province had consequences for them. In some ways they did not have the same restriction and security threats as those displaced in the north. However, they were not considered residents of the places that they lived in and this posed many administrative problems that affected their displacement experience. It affected their ability to vote, access to employment opportunities, and also lead to maintaining the distinction between hosts and displaced and obstructed integration and the increase of tensions between the communities.   Also while some displaced were very enterprising and managed to rebuild their lives many still languish in Puttalam in conditions similar to that which they arrived in to twenty years ago. This is covered in chapter 7.

Chapter 8 is devoted to the Puttalam host community’s perspective on the northern Muslims’ long sojourn in the four DS divisions of Puttalam—Puttalam town Kalpitiya Mundel and Vanathavillu.  The northern Muslims were compelled to over stay their welcome due to no fault of theirs. The Puttalam community has been forced to share their already insufficient resources with a community that suddenly arrived and almost doubled the areas’ population. And these people’ did not go back for twenty years. Chapter 8 looks at the host community’s perspective on the influx.

Almost all the northern Muslims that the commission spoke with referred to their northern homes with great love and sadness – even when they didn’t have plans to return. The report has one chapter –chapter 9 entitled The Loss of a Way of Life that explores this element of pain and nostalgia for a lost time and a place. This chapter also records testimonies about the way of life in the north – festivals, religious gatherings and lifecycle rituals that are no longer practiced.

The vast majority of persons that we spoke to wanted to return. And all northern Muslims that the commission encountered in the north were uniformly happy to be back. They spoke about the sense of freedom and independence that they had regained by returning to their own land (sontha uru) and the fact that they were no longer crippled by their language inabilities.  But they faced huge problems with lack of attention from the government, lack of infrastructure facilities, minimal interest of NGOs, and indifference and sometimes hostility from administrative officials.  Sometimes hostility was experienced from the local Tamil leadership in the north. This was particularly true of Mannar where there are a several conflicts among returning Tamils and Muslims over land. The report attempted to capture the problems of return in the 10th chapter.

A review of the most important scholarly works dealing with the northern Muslims has also been done.

The expulsion, displacement and return experiences of the northern Muslims are particular and somewhat different from other experiences of protracted displacement. The Commission wanted to capture this difference and draw attention to it.  For instance one of the “problems” of Muslim return is that as one NGO person described it —one foot in the north and one foot in Puttalam. The act of ethnic cleansing by the LTTE compelled the northern Muslims to live outside the north for twenty plus years. This is the reality of their displacement and such feet in different places is a strategy that is necessary for their survival. The literature on displacement refers to this process as trans-local strategies of survival. Those designing programs have to take note of these strategies and not expect the northern Muslims to forget twenty years of living outside the north.

Chapter 11 contains a series of conclusions and recommendations. These are divided into recommendations to the state, the NGO/INGO community and the Muslim leadership.  The northern Muslims need assistance to return,  we have heard that due to lack of transport to school and poor facilities, children are dropping out. Some people who went to the north are returning to Puttalam due to the lack of a house and facilities for fishing and cultivation.  We also know of sections of the population that are not going back and will register as residents of Puttalam and elsewhere. However the situation in Puttalam is fairly tense and much work needs to be done there as well. And this work needs to address the needy of those areas in Puttalam without differentiating between the displaced and the host.