The adhan call resonates. The residents of Marichchukkaddi in Musali stop speaking and bow their heads in prayer. For five minutes, peace prevails. The only sound is that from the green banners fluttering in the breeze. A sign, inked in on bright yellow cardboard, says “28.”

For 28 days, this group has sat in this shed by the side of the road in Musali, demanding that their voices be heard.

“We have used this land for hundreds of years. This area has a rich history. Close by, you could dive for pearls,” resident Subhiyan Kamil Ali Khan says. Now, these residents are facing the prospect of losing access to the land they have lived and farmed on for generations.

Marichchukkaddi’s location on Google Earth

Much of the discourse around Wilpattu has centred around the need for removal of people illegally encroaching on forest land. There have been large-scale campaigns, often including social media, exhorting people to ‘protect Wilpattu’. This narrative is what has dominated the discourse on Wilpattu in English mainstream media – with the only counter-narrative being provided by Rishad Bathiudeen, then Minister for Resettlement. Hardly any have featured the voices of the residents themselves.

According to “Empire of Nature,” Wilpattu was declared a forest reserve in 1938. Following this, the Government had gazetted a certain section of the surrounding land for cultivation. This is how the residents of Musali made a living, through farming, fishing, and the breeding of livestock.

That is, until the war. In 1990, the LTTE ordered the Northern Muslims to leave, giving them just two hours notice. “Around 80% of us went to Puttalam [to the camps]. Some of us went to Colombo, or Anuradapura… we settled all over the country,” Ali Khan explained.

Photo by Amalini de Sayrah

In doing so, the Muslims became IDPs, cut off from their hometown for 25 years. The 300,000 Tamil IDPs received priority in terms of resettlement, by the admission of then Minister of Resettlement Rishad Bathiudeen.

In 2012, then Minister of Environment Anura Priyadarshana Yapa signed a gazette notification declaring forest reserves, using flawed GPS coordinates. One point fell in Marichchikatti, another point was located in Anuradhapura district, while another pointed to the sea off Galle.

Maps courtesy Hilmy Ahamed

It was only in 2013 that the Presidential Task Force allocated land to resettle the Muslim IDPs, according to Mannar Divisional Secretary S Ketheeswaran, including in the Marichchukkaddi area in Musali.

This move was blocked by the Bodu Bala Sena, Musali residents said. It is a matter of public record that a court order was filed against Bathiudeen in 2015, about ‘illegal forest removal of forest cover and illegal settlement’ using the flawed coordinates given by Minister Yapa in 2012. In a statement, Bathiudeen said that the controversy was “total fabrication made by racist elements” adding that environmentalists had been misled as to the origin of the controversy around Wilpattu and had joined the campaign as well.

Photo by Amalini de Sayrah

Throughout these political moves, including the demarcation of these lands as forest reserves, the residents say they were never consulted or informed. “We only knew when Forest department officials came. They promised that they would give us compensation or jobs.” That never materialised, nor did any alternate lands, due to pressure from the Bodu Bala Sena and environmentalist groups.

In the end, it was these families, an estimated 73 in total, who had no place to go. Seeing no other choice, they settled in Musali.

Despite the claims of illegal forest clearance, the residents insist that they only cleared the limited tree and shrub growth that had overrun some of the buildings, left empty during the war.

Photo by Amalini de Sayrah

They built shops, houses and began trying to resume their normal way of lives. In doing this, they say, they were also assisted by the military. “There are 6 tanks near this area. The Government cleared the land for the tanks. The military helped direct the water. How can they do this without knowing this is our land?”

In fact, they claim that most of the forest clearance that took place was done by the Forest Department. More pertinently, the residents insist, they never settled on land that was declared part of the Wilpattu forest reserve – particularly the stretch of land along the Puttalam river.

However, on March 24, 2017, President Maithripala Sirisena signed a gazette notification declaring some 435,000 hectares of land (according to residents) as falling under the Mavilu Forest reserve. This new reserve covers Marichchikatti as well. “We want that gazette revoked. We have not settled in Wilpattu. We only want our houses, our land on which we farm. That’s all we want,” a resident of Musali said.

This is by far not the only issue that these people face. Currently, the Navy occupies some of the land that the residents say is theirs. They have constructed a Naval farm, an estimated 8 kilometres away from where the residents are protesting. In total, around 1500 acres is occupied by the Navy, who have also constructed a camp, they say. “They take around 30 to 35 litres of water in bowsers. There is hardly any left for us, although it is our land and our water,” Khan says.

This is evident in the arid nature of the land itself. One farmer, M H M Lareef said, “We can do nothing to make a living here. The land is too dry,” gesturing at the dry grass surrounding him.

The protesters have to wash their hands and feet in the lotus-filled lake opposite their tent before going to the mosque for prayers.

To add insult to injury as many as 120 Sinhalese families are currently settled inside the borders of Wilpattu, in an area called Pookulam, the residents say. “There is not a single Muslim family settled there. We cannot even go there because of the river. Even now, they are building brand new houses.”

Many of the residents expressed anger at Sirisena for signing the gazette notification in Russia, adding that they had personally canvassed to ensure his victory at the January 2015 Presidential elections. “We went door to door and in some cases even showed the people which box to tick. We expended so much energy in making sure he came to power, because we thought he would help us,” Khan said. “This is a big injustice.”

“The President should know the history of this place,” another resident said. They added that they were willing even to go to Colombo to publicise their cause. “We will go on hunger strike in front of the President’s house if need be.”

Photo by Amalini de Sayrah

Conservator General of the Forest Department, Anura Sathurusinghe said that a meeting was being held on April 27, organised by the Musali Divisional Secretariat. Forest Department officials too would meet with the residents to assure them that there would be no impact on human settlements. “They will not be asked to move,” Sathurusinghe said.

Upon being asked whether the community had been consulted when drawing the borders of the forest conservation area, he said, “The borders of the conservation area had already been drawn. What happened was we have corrected the boundaries now. Earlier their settlement fell within the boundary of the forest. Now we have released that land.” There have been a number of meetings, including at the President’s office, with relevant parties, he added.

However, he said, there could be no farming within the boundaries marked as conservation areas. This means that the residents of Marichchukkaddi could be cut off from land essential to their livelihood, be it farming, fishing or livestock breeding. With no way of sustaining themselves, and particularly with the shortage of water, these people face the prospect of living like refugees on land they once considered their own.

Readers who enjoyed this article might find “The struggles of the Muslims of Musali” and “Denying the Right to Return” enlightening.