Sri Lanka’s war-displaced Muslims want to return home
Mohammed Ashraf I Arab News
PUTTALAM: Syed Mohammed, 56, was driven out of his northern Sri Lanka home when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) started ethnic cleansing in 1989, killing scores of Muslims, looting their homes, taking over their farmlands and attacking places of worship.
He was a prosperous businessman, with an average daily income of 50,000 Sri Lankan rupees (approximately $435) from his Hotel Taj Mahal and his guests included UN officials. Like tens of thousands of fellow Muslims forced to leave their homes, he has been living in camps for nearly two decades.
One of his sons, S.M. Jinnah, 28, is helping him to make both ends meet by working as a casual mason though jobs are a luxury for the camp dwellers. His other son Shahjahan, 24, and daughter Fasoorya, 20, were in the custody of the Sri Lankan army for the past two years on charges of collaborating with the Tamil separatists. Their release remains uncertain-even after four months since Colombo announced capture of the rebel territories.
Though the war is over, several members of the Muslim families are still in the custody of the security forces, accused of collaborating with the LTTE forces during the war.
Last week, hundreds of Muslims were out on the streets of Colombo protesting police atrocities and “encounter” killings while the authorities branded those who got killed by the security forces as “gangsters.”
This reporter met several people at the camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Puttalam district, where parents and close relatives of Minister for Resettlement Disaster Relief Rishad Bathiudeen, 37, also live. Some 80,000 people are living in the Puttalam camps alone.
A couple of years back his ministry had initiated an ambitious project to rehabilitate 18,240 families living under inhuman conditions in these camps, 90 percent of them Muslims.
Funds started pouring in from Gulf countries and international aid agencies, thanks to his relentless efforts.
As the LTTE menace is over, most of these people want to return to their native towns and villages vacated by the LTTE fighters despite the government offer of descent two-bedroom houses in the newly-built townships like the Al-Qasimi City (funded by the ruler of Sharjah Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi) with good roads, sanitation, utility services and schools.
The city was opened in April and the residents enjoy all the basic amenities there.
Five hundred houses under the project have been handed over and another 500 are getting ready. “We plan to build 14,000 houses in a phased manner,” said a confident Bathiudeen, adding that it would take many more months to clear tens of thousands of land mines planted by the LTTE.
“I want to go back and start my business all over again,” says Mohammed. “I also want to secure the release of my other children picked up by the government troops. We’re trapped between the deep sea and the devil.” Mohammed returned to his hometown with his family in 2003 when the slain LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran formally apologized for the expulsion of Muslims and asked them to return. Then the Sinhalese forces started targeting them as suspected collaborators.
“My children were left with no option when the armed men came and asked them to get into their vehicle at gunpoint. They were branded as informers and ultimately they landed up in jail. Life was miserable once again and I had to leave with the rest my family,” he said. Similar is the case of Madeena, 36, who lives with her jobless husband and six children in a nearby tent in the Salton Sairam 1 camp along with 118 more families. Her brother, Hussein Kasmi, is in jail for the past one year and three months. She wants to return to Jaffna to secure his release.
“They were asked to leave within 48 hours or face death. They took away all our jewelry and money and whatever valuables we had. We were reduced to begging,” says Madeena who came from Vavuniya.
But going back is not that easy. A few families who went home during the peace talks between 2002 and 2005 had to come back to this camp as they could not have access to their lands which were now occupied by Tamil families. Others left because their homes were turned to rubbles by the three decades of war. “During the summer of 1990, the LTTE started the ethnic cleansing by launching mass killings in the North and East and forcing us to flee. Numerous mosques were attacked and dozens of pilgrims returning from Haj were killed,” S.R.M. Mohamed Irshad, a Gulf-returnee who works as a community volunteer in Puttalam, tells us. But the actual human casualty is believed to be much higher. Even the authorities could not provide the total number of dead and missing from all communities. The number of missing persons from the families in Puttalam camps alone is estimated to be 178. The parents of Bathiudeen was among the families who were driven out from Vavuniya in Northern Province by the LTTE. The young minister heads the influential All Ceylon Muslim Congress which has four ministers in the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. His ministry last week sent back 10,000 war-displaced Tamil people in the former LTTE strongholds back to their villages in the north and east and vowed to return 80 percent of the 280,000 recently displaced people being held in refugee camps soon.