By Shahul Hasbullah –
In the recent history of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, the month of October signifies exodus, having witnessed two major conflict induced displacements in the 1990s. This article is the Part I of a four parts series which compares the two mass expulsions of people in Sri Lanka in the month of October.
The first exodus was in October 1990, the second one in October 1995. These two expulsions directly affected more than 500,000 people, increasing the total number of displaced people during the three decades long war and conflict of this country to three millions. Both streams of refugees originated from the Northern Province and both were largely instigated by the same agent. Although the two expulsions have different histories and affected different ethnicities, Muslims and Tamils, the plight of these two groups of refugees exhibit many commonalities in terms of duration and suffering.
Let us commemorate the two exoduses of this October 2015 with the hope that they are to be helped to recover from the harsh experience of displacement to have normal life. This year’s commemoration of these exoduses is especially necessary and timely because of the hope for seeking justice to those victims of ethnic conflict raised high with the change of political situation in the country recently.
In 1990, the entire Muslim minority of the Northern Province was forced to leave their homes in the third week of October. Their total number at that time was about 75,000. They lived in nearly a 100 settlements in the five districts of the Northern Province. On October 23, 1990, the LTTE announced through the loud speaker in the streets wherever Muslims lived to leave the north in 48 hours time or otherwise face death. At the same time, on the 30 of October, in the Muslim Settlement of the Jaffna town, people were given only two hours ultimatum to leave their homes. Diagram 1 shows the flow of Muslim refugees from the Northern Province in the last week of October 1990. They sought refuge mainly in the North-Central and the North-Western Provinces of Sri Lanka.
In October 1995, about 400,000 people fled Jaffna peninsula to seek in refuge in Vanni. Diagram 2 shows the direction of refugees during this period. They were all Tamils of Jaffna peninsula. According to independent reports, they too were forced to leave their homes by the same agent, LTTE, as the Sri Lankan army were marching towards Jaffna Town during this period. Like the Muslims, the Tamils were also compelled to leave their homes at short notice.
The suffering of people displaced in such trying circumstances can not easily explainable. The Tamil Times capture the nature of this suffering of the Tamil people in the following words. “Never before have so many people at such short notice been so cruelly uprooted from their homes and compelled to turn themselves overnight into refugees”. This tragedy struck the Muslims five years earlier in the same province and by the same armed group. We should study the exodus of the Tamils in tender with the expulsion of the Muslims. We might arrive at a better understanding of the complexity and multiplicity of the nature of displacement what had happened in recent decades of the country due to war and ethnic conflict. Also it is time to take stock of the status of the displaced and nature of recovery of those who were forced to flee. Unfortunately the country does not have clear understanding of the status and the impacts of the displacement.
People became destitute as a result of sudden displacement. They had to leave their homes with empty hands. They suffered mentally and physically during and after the displacement. Several people died while they were fleeing. Many others have died afterwards because of disease and of other reasons. They had to move from one place to another. They have lived poor facilities of shelter. Some even spent their days of displacement under trees. They starved. Majority became weak and dramatized when they became destitute. This is common to both groups of refugees. But such suffering is not only specific to those who have undergone mass exodus but also to other displaced people.
Many Jaffna people who had become Wanni refugees as a result of the 1995 exodus could not go back to their homes for a long time. Many have caught up and suffered in the war and displacement of Wanni including in the last war in 2009. One part of this paper deals with the suffering of those people. Till 2009, they have been moving from one district of Wanni region to another because war in Wanni kept on chasing them from place to place. Those, who have returned to their homes in Jaffna peninsula before and after 2009, found their homes empty and destroyed. Many after return continue to suffer from their experiences of displacement. Those Jaffna displaced who had chosen live in Wanni are now faced by numerous and serious problems with the return.
For displaced Muslim, “returning” has become a dream still. Till the end of LTTE, they were fear of returning. After the end of war in 2009, their return and resettlement have been haunted by many challenges resulting only a fraction had the courage and ability to return home. Surviving others live with the dream of return to which the change of political situation in the country has given a hope. They aspire whether the change could replicate in the northern political frontier as well.
Finally, the displacement of people as a result of the ethnic conflict has become a major feature in Sri Lanka. More than 3 million people have been displaced during the last three decades. So far, the issue of displacement has been treated independently from the overall ethnic problems. Such a policy has resulted in keeping many displaced people in the status for a long-time internally and outside the country. There is a need to have a comprehensive policy on displacement and return. Appropriate changes that could incorporated in those policies would help to resolve problems.
*To be continued..