Photos by Ama Koralage

In October 1990 some 75,000 to 100,000 Muslims in the Northern Province, about five percent of the province’s total population, were forcibly expelled from their homeland by the LTTE. In some places, they were given only about 12 hours to leave. Beginning in Chavakachcheri on October 15, all the Muslims were evicted throughout Mannar, Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi, Jaffna and Vavuniya by October 30. Families were allowed to take only Rs. 500 and some clothes; some were forced to flee without any belongings. Unable to get transport until they reached towns further south, many walked for more than three days.

“The community’s sufferings have not been recognised officially and there has been no adequate support for return or reparations. Over three decades of abandonment, neglect and misunderstanding by local residents, government officers, Muslim politicians and international human rights community have left northern Muslims feeling there is no one they can trust,” wrote Shreen Saroor on Groundviews.

“The suffering the two communities experienced during the civil war, instead of alienating them from one another, should lead them to empathise with one another and commit themselves to pluralistic coexistence. Delaying or discriminative treatment in addressing northern Muslims collective return and meaningful reintegration will inevitably delay the much needed long term reconciliation and relative peace to the region,” Ms Saroor pointed out.

“Since the civil war’s end in May 2009, northern Muslims started returning in substantial numbers but the challenges are many folds. Political and economic rivalries between the Tamil and Muslim communities is a major reason for it. Senior government officers, for instance, are said to under quote Muslim returnee numbers, which significantly reduces the allocation of resources and the development support required for resettlement,” she said.

The plight of returning Muslims can be seen in stark reality in the village of Periyamadu in the Mannar District where 500 Muslim families are struggling to survive with very few basic facilities. Most of them are men who are working as labourers on other people’s land after having lost access to their own. Their families are back in Puttalam where there are schools, hospitals, roads, houses and mosques.

Periyamadu came into existence as a Muslim colony in 1956 and the community lived there peacefully with its Tamil and Sinhala neighbours until that fateful day in 1990 when they were summarily evicted by the LTTE. The end of the civil war saw them returning to a shattered village with crumbling public buildings and bullet riddled homes. The area had a heavy military presence. They slowly identified their land and started clearing it with the help of some NGOs and diaspora well wishers. There was no government assistance. International organisations came to clear the area of landmines.

The number of families belonging to the village has grown from 550 in 1990 to 2,500 families now. However only 500 families have returned from Puttalam and other areas where they were housed in welfare centres and in the homes of relatives.

“We have no schools, hospitals, proper roads or employment opportunities. If these basic facilities are provided all the families including young people would be willing to return. But now they don’t want to come because of the lack of resources,” said Secretary of Rural Development Foundation Abdul Ramees, pointing out that most of the displaced were not comfortable living in Puttalam where they had to compete for scarce resources and employment opportunities with the local population.

“In Puttalam the young people are exposed to drugs and alcohol. They don’t have these problems in Periyamadu so parents prefer that their children live here,” Mr Ramees added.

A major difficulty facing the returnees is the access to land. They are besieged by government officials from the Department of Wildlife, the Forest Department and the Survey Department as well as the security forces preventing them from clearing the jungle, which had overrun their village, and returning it to a habitable place. There was 1,000 acres of land of which the Forest Department is now claiming 450 acres as belonging to it.

“In the beginning we lived in tarpaulin shacks provided by the UN. Little by little we cleared the land with implements given by NGOs and started cultivating paddy. Now suddenly government officials are saying we can’t have access to our land,” said 70 year old M. Rasmeen, who came back to Periyamadu in 2009 after a 30 year exile. His five children joined him initially but returned to Puttalam because there were no amenities.

Mr Rasmeen is facing legal action from the Wildlife Department for clearing his own land for paddy cultivation despite being able to produce deeds that say he is the owner.

Abdul Fareed Ariff is forced to cultivate land belonging to his wife because his own fields are inaccessible. “The land in this village belonged to my father and he passed it on to me. The Survey Department is now saying it’s part of the Wilpattu reserve and that I can’t cultivate it,” he said.

The Muslim quarter in Jaffna city was once a bustling place of well-maintained homes and thriving shops and restaurants. Today it is almost deserted as the people who were evicted are reluctant to return. Some of those who did come back live an area further away where the houses are collapsing and rubbish is strewn around.

“My home is Jaffna, it has always been Jaffna where I lived peacefully as part of a community of Tamil and Sinhala people. When we were evicted I went to stay with relatives in Matale and came back 15 years ago after Prabhakaran invited us back in 2002,” said B.S.M. Sharafulanam, who had to start his jewellery business from scratch upon his return.

“Some people don’t like us being here because they think Jaffna should only be for Tamil people so we are afraid to speak out,” he said.

Despite their difficulties, the Muslim community in the north is determined to stay and fight for their rights and to live as part of the community.

Click on the link below to watch the full interview with Abdul Ramesh.

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