Photo courtesy of Abdul Khaleq

“And home isn’t here and home isn’t there” – Deborah Landau, The Last Usable Hour

Every story of ethnic cleansing is heart breaking. Some of them have been almost forgotten, overlooked in favour of others that were on a larger scale but they were just as driven by hatred and unsettling prejudices as any.

In the larger context of the many humanitarian crises that beset Sri Lanka during and after the long, bloody ethnic conflict, it is unfortunate that the well-orchestrated ethnic cleansing achieved through the forcible expulsion of the Northern Muslims from their traditional homeland three decades ago is virtually forgotten. This destitute community remains voiceless, with their struggle for justice shunned by both Tamil and Sinhala nationalists, being marginalised the Muslim community and put on the back burner by central and regional political powers. A “nakba” in the true sense of the term.

Nakba means catastrophe in Arabic and is an apt term to describe the humanitarian disaster that occurred because of the expulsion. The people who were affected reject the perception of the displacement as an event that concluded and continue to see it as a way of life. Thus, to the Northern Muslim community, a group identity that arguably did not exist prior to the expulsion,this nakba has been “an ongoing journey of pain, loss, and injustice. They (Northern Muslims) have been named, framed and formed by their experience of expulsion.”

Forced evictions constitute a violation of human rights and are generally discriminatory or lead to discrimination, therefore states have a responsibility to ensure the protection of rights and lives and the return of the displaced. As Shagul Hasbullah argues, “The Muslims who lived for centuries in the northern province have the right to return and resettle in their traditional villages. Continuously neglecting to help them resettle is a denial of their right to live in their lands.”

Black October 1990 began in the Jaffna peninsula with the expulsion of the Muslims of Chavakachcheri on October 15 and ended with the Muslims of Jaffna town on October 30. Some 75,000 Northern Muslims from five districts were dragged into Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict when they were forcibly expelled from their Northern homeland by the LTTE under threat of death. They were given 48 hours (in some instances only two hours) to leave their homes, being allowed to take only Rs. 300 per family and some clothing. Everything, including packets of milk powder for toddlers was confiscated. The abruptness of this warning and the severity of its decree characterised LTTE operations, for they neither entertained any pleas nor accommodated questions.

After expelling the Muslims, the LTTE cordoned off their homes with ropes, giving the impression that it was only temporary and that their property would be protected until they returned, which proved to be an illusion. Many of the victims walked for as long as three days, only being able to get transport when reaching border towns further South. Estimates of the economic loss were colossal (around Rs. 5,000 million) in properties and livelihood. The locals in Puttalam (not only the Muslims but also the Sinhalese) were great hosts. However, an environment of tension, hostility and sometimes violence arose between the displaced Muslims and the host population due to resource shortages and other compelling factors.

It is also shameful that this systemic injustice has not been adequately incorporated into any mainstream historical narrative in Sri Lanka. The Citizens’ Commission of Investigation articulated their story, concerns, expectations of and encounters during return in its report, “The Quest for Redemption: the Story of the Northern Muslims.” In so doing, it sought to legitimise the claims to suffering of Northern Muslims in a country replete with different and competing notions of victimhood.

Consequently, an entire generation of Muslims was born and raised in refugee camps. While some of the territory where their homes had been located came under state control in the years following their eviction, fear kept most of the Muslim population away from the North. The return of the expelled Muslims became complex as they are characterised by not just a separate religious identity but also a separate ethno-cultural identity. Shattered by the trauma of eviction and languishing in the squalor of camps for years, they yearned for a return home. However, this proved a bitter experience. There appeared to be a collective resistance to their return. Only a few registered Muslims were able to return, and they faced difficulties in regaining their lands and rebuilding their damaged houses, properties and other basic facilities.

Abandoned by All

Northern Tamil leaders and political leaders in the South chose to leave the Northern Muslims in the lurch. Radical nationalist forces within the Sinhalese Buddhist community openly challenged resettlement of the refugees. Even the Muslim community was found wanting in taking up their cause seriously, although they lent emotional and material support through various charity initiatives.

It was a pity that the harrowing eviction of Northern Muslims and its consequences are seldom discussed in Tamil politics in Jaffna, let alone any meaningful action taken to remedy the injustice. Tamil civil society institutions hardly expressed their opposition to the eviction or voiced sympathy toward the Muslims. However, the TNA condemned it during the ceremony in 2015 to mark the 25th anniversary. The lack of Tamils’ support for the return and permanent resettlement of Northern Muslims showed the absence of trust between the two ethnic groups even though they shared many common features and practices.

There was a lack of visible bitterness against Tamils. The Muslim victims realised that it was the LTTE that was responsible for their predicament and the reasons for it. In fact, some Muslims had passed their valuables such as title deeds to trusted Tamil neighbours. However, the public voices were drowned in the face of LTTE tyranny and the silence of the political leadership. The expelled Northern Muslims constantly reminded the Tamils that “The North is our Homeland too.”

Indifference of the Government

At least one third of Muslims live in the conflict-affected North and East and thus had a significant interest in the outcome of the war. However, the Muslim factor was ignored in the conflict resolution; they had no representation at the peace talks. The 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was a disappointment to the Muslims. The end of the war in May 2009 brought some hopes for a return but the absence of a resettlement policy, an unwelcoming Tamil bureaucracy and severed relations with the Tamil community crippled the process. The government failed to protect the Muslims in the government controlled areas in the face of the expulsion orders of the Tigers. Even President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s promise to appoint a Presidential Commission to inquire into the expulsion was never fulfilled.

The Northern Muslim IDPs have always been a low priority for the government in respect of their return and resettlement assistance. The government and the NGOs did not establish any concrete programme to facilitate the settlement of displaced Muslims. Assistance for displaced Muslims was scant. Without a credible resettlement policy, there is little support from the state for these families to return. To make matters worse, hardly any Muslims in Jaffna were beneficiaries of the housing project sponsored by the Indian government, amidst strong allegations of an unsympathetic local Tamil bureaucracy blocking the grants. When these Muslims attempted to acquire the deeds to of their lands and to settle there, they faced difficulties from local bureaucrats, public and politicians.

Going Forward

The Northern Muslims have been compelled to assert their victimhood in order to qualify for assistance within a narrow field of possibilities. A society will be judged on how it treats its poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Merely remembering the nakba of the Northern Muslims will be meaningless if a new plan for post war resettlement, ethnic reconciliation and a political solution that is recognised nationally and internationally is not formulated and implemented. It is time for the political elite – both Sinhala and Tamil – to evolve a more inclusive resettlement framework. It must accommodate diverse concerns and grievances, including socio-economic ones, on the permanent resettlement of the Northern Muslims.

There is also no single, precise, durable solution to end displacement. Belonging to two homes, not just return to their place of origin and even integration in the present place of displacement may become the preferred durable solutions. But the victims should be able to freely choose among them. Any measures undertaken to provide durable solutions should be identified and prioritised through appropriate consultation with those affected by the displacement. In an environment where reconciliation is being talked about nationally and globally, there is an imperative need for rapprochement between the Tamils and Muslims of the North.

In the context of the challenges posed to national reconciliation with the rise of majoritarianism and racism, post Easter Sri Lanka has much to contend with. However, unless honesty, sensitivity and understanding from all communities and stakeholders are practiced in post war development and reconciliation in dealing with minority issues, including the permanent resettlement of Northern Muslims, there is no hope for Sri Lanka to move forward.