By Latheef Farook –
Northern Muslims continue to rot in refugee camps; Ignored by successive governments, their own politicians and international community
The unfortunate plight of northern Muslims refugees, abandoned by Muslim politicians, the successive governments and even the international community speak volume for the bankrupt nature of the Island’s Muslim politics and even the community.
Muslims were part and parcel of northern soil and society. Over centuries this was their only place and their Tamil neighbors were the only people they knew. Most of them often felt alien when they visited the island’s south as they found it somewhat uncomfortable there due to the different social environment especially when it came to speaking in Sinhala.
Even around the late 1980s, the bulk of their concentration was in Jaffna city where they lived predominantly in three densely populated areas, namely Sonaka Theru, Ottumadam and Bommaively which were collectively known as Muslim ‘vattaaram’ -zones.
Their main activities were retail and wholesale hardware trade, lorry transport, jewellery and tailoring besides agriculture and fisheries. They owned houses and properties besides paddy lands and fishery boats. Muslims dominated the trade at one stage to such an extent that two-thirds of the blocks in the new market in Jaffna, built by the Mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappah, and was monopolized by them.
They avoided getting involved in the ethnic crisis. Yet the ethnic crisis had its devastating impact on the Northern Muslims as their traditional life was disturbed. Every time fierce fighting broke out between the security forces and the LTTE, there was intense shelling and mass scale bombing, compelling residents, both Tamil and Muslim, to flee their residences and business houses. They would suffer great losses and would only return when the fighting subsided to rebuild their lives and their businesses.
Even while massacres were taking place in the East, Muslims in the north lived peacefully with the Tamils, but, according to reports, Karikalan was all out to destroy this harmony and take revenge on the Muslim community in the North in spite of the fact that they had nothing to do with the developments between the two communities in the East. As part of this plan, he was reported to have brought pressure on Prabhakaran suggesting harsh measures against Muslims in the North to send a message of warning to Muslims in the East.
In the subsequent months one after the other, under a well-calculated scheme, Muslims were expelled from Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Mannar districts, all part of the Northern Province. Years later it was revealed that an eastern contingent of Tamil Tigers in the north under Karikalan was, to a very great extent, responsible for these expulsions.
In this regard the quarterly magazine Nethra, [April-June 1998 edition, Volume 2, Number 3] had this to state in an article:
“Just like the government, the LTTE fed the growing antagonism between Tamils and Muslims to strengthen their own position in the east. Subsequently they used this polarization to carry out their ethnic cleansing in the north”. The Tigers knew that unlike the eastern Tamils, the northern Tamils most probably would not collaborate with their aggressive policies towards the Muslims. Therefore, the LTTE used Tamil cadres from the east who forcibly expelled in October 1990 the entire Muslim population from the north.
Even while Muslims were being expelled in different parts of the north, Jaffna Muslims felt safe. They thought that what was happening to Muslims in the other parts of the north would not affect them. They thought of themselves as an integral part of Jaffna society and could not even imagine that the LTTE would come after them. Such was the degree of trust and faith they had in their Tamil friends and neighbors and even the Tamil militants. Little did they realize what the LTTE had in store for them?
It didn’t take long for them to face the reality. They woke up on 30 October 1990 and went about their routine life. Muslim traders went to their shops and other business establishments; children went to school, while housewives were busy with their household work. Their hopes were shattered around 11.30 in the morning when armed LTTE cadres arrived in vehicles fixed with loudspeakers. They went around densely populated Muslim residential areas asking all Muslims to assemble at Jinnah grounds of Osmania College within half an hour – by 12 noon.
Shocked and frightened Muslim men, women and children, not knowing what was in store for them, rushed to the Jinnah grounds. There the senior LTTE Leader Aanchaneyar, the LTTE Jaffna Commissar who called himself Ilamparithy, addressed them at 12.30 pm. He delivered a brief but terse message declaring in no uncertain terms that “the LTTE high command had decided that all Muslims should leave Jaffna within two hours. This was an order and failure to abide by it would mean severe punishment”.
Some Muslims tried to question Ilamparithi to clarify their doubts. But Ilamparithy lost his temper and started firing his gun in the air shouting loudly that “Muslims should simply follow the order or face the consequences”. His body guards also began firing their guns in the air, terrorizing the already-frightened Muslims who yet thought that they would be able to return to their homes once the situation was normalized. But the Tigers surrounded them even as they rushed to their homes to collect their belongings, valuables, cash, jewellery and clothes, and reach the buses made available by the Tamil Tigers. The Tiger plan had all been pre-arranged.
Then came the second shock. There was a fresh order asking all Muslims leaving their homes to queue up at “Ainthumuchanthi” junction where the LTTE cadres, both male and female, demanded that Muslims hand over all their belongings including their valuables, jewellery and money. They were allowed to take only Rs 150 per person and one set of clothes. Among the Muslims were wealthy people who owned large businesses; wealthy farmers and those who owned fleets of Lorries. They were all forced to wait in a queue with an enamel plate for a meager meal of rice.
Some Muslims resisted. But were silenced by the LTTE weapons. The Tigers then began grabbing everything from them including all documents and national identity cards. They also stripped Muslim women and girls of their jewellery. The LTTE women cadres wrenched the ear rings from Muslim women and girls in so brutal a manner that blood flowed from their torn ear lobes. Even the children were not spared, and not even the wristwatches they were wearing were allowed to be taken away. This senseless pillage, which also included the abduction and detention of 35 Muslim businessmen, was supervised by Karikalan.
That was not the end of the ordeal. The LTTE cadres wanted to know where the Muslim jewellers were hiding their jewellery and money. To extract information many Muslim jewellers were beaten and tortured. One of them was beaten to death in the presence of others. The LTTE demanded huge sums as ransom to release the detained Muslim businessmen. Some, who could afford it, paid up to three million rupees to get their loved ones released while in the case of others they were released after several years. There were cases where detainees were never released and never returned. Perhaps they were killed by the LTTE.
Thus the entire Muslim population of the Northern Province (Estimated at around 75000 persons in 1990) was forcibly driven out from their traditional villages and towns in the following manner.
After driving out the Muslims, the LTTE cadres began looting Muslim houses and grabbing almost everything from cash jewellery and other valuabes to doors, windows and wooden frames. They also looted the Muslim owned commercial and industrial establishments. They even stripped Muslim-owned houses of their roof tiles. The looted furniture and all other items were sold to Tamils in the LTTE shops called “Makkal Kadai” — Peoples’ Shops. The LTTE also sold Muslim-owned houses and Muslim-owned vehicles to the Tamils. Elaborating the atrocities committed by the LTTE and the sufferings of the Muslims further, columnist Sharika Thirangama had this to say in an article in Himal Magazine which was reproduced in the “Daily Mirror” on 7 Monday January 2008 and continued on Tuesday the 8th:
“In 22 October 1990, throughout the five districts of Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu, Mannar, Vavuniya and Jaffna, the LTTE announced that all Muslims living within the Northern Province must leave within 48 hours. On Mannar Island, the LTTE announced that all Muslims must report to the LTTE office by the 24th of the month, and leave by the 28th. Despite protests by a delegation of local Tamils and the Catholic clergy, the LTTE sealed off Erukkalampiddy town in Mannar on the 28th, and forbade all further dealings between Tamils and Muslims.
“ This was an LTTE-only military operation, and there is no evidence of civilian collusion; no ordinary Tamils participated in the eviction.
“Certainly, the eviction order from LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran caught many local northern LTTE cadres by surprise. In many places, cadres were moved from their home area to other areas to carry out the exercise. One man told of the young LTTE cadre, who he had known all his life, crying as he instructed the family to depart. The rebel leadership obviously feared that its cadres could disobey the eviction order.
“The Jaffna Muslims made their exit through a route carefully laid out by the Tigers, which took them through LTTE checkpoint after checkpoint. At each they were searched and more and more of their possessions removed. Jewellery was taken from the women. The thefts form some of the bitterest recollections of the Jaffna Muslims.
“Muslim evictees were also stripped of land deeds, electrical goods, bicycles and even thermos flasks at the checkpoints. According to a 1991 report by the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), dozens of rich businessmen in Jaffna were held for further ransom, as were the well-to-do in other districts. The final estimate puts the collective loss of the evictees at around US$ 110 million. In Jaffna, after the Muslim eviction, the LTTE made further profits by holding a massive sale of Muslim goods.
“As such, one of the most common memories that the evictees have is that they all arrived in refugee camps with nothing. Indeed, the eviction had a tremendous leveling effect, with more or less the entire population being impoverished overnight.
“By November 1990 the, Muslims were gone from the north; the LTTE had succeeded in converting the area into the Tamil-only territory for which it was fighting. This ethnic cleansing has since come to be known as the Eviction, and the community of Muslims created by this act, formally known as Internally Displaced Persons, refer to themselves as ‘northern Muslims’ and ahathi, or refugees. The Eviction created a whole new demographic pattern, in the aftermath of an unthinkably traumatic event that broke one set of communities in the north and created another – that of the refugees.” [Courtesy, Himal Magazine].
Bulk of them initially went to Kalpitiya and Pulichakulam areas while the largest numbers found refuge in Thilliyady in Puttalam district. Some of them also went to places like Vavuniya, Colombo and Negombo where they were forced to start life from scratch.
That was the end of Muslim life in Jaffna. The tragedy is thought little of by the successive governments, NGOs and Human Rights organizations including Amnesty International which ignore the fate of the unfortunate Jaffna Muslims who were not even treated as refugees.
While all remained silent President of TULF Mr. V Anandasangaree condemned this crime time and again. Addressing the opening of Call of the Conscience—a human rights art exhibit on the conflict in Sri Lanka—held at Roy Thomson Hall in downtown Toronto Mr Anandasangaree had this to say on 23 August 23,2008;
“Championing the cause of the Tamils the LTTE even drove every Muslim out of the Northern Province. The Muslims, merely because they are Muslims, had to leave all their possessions and the land where they lived peacefully with the Tamils for several generations. They are now languishing in refugee camps for more than 17 years in the south, with the Sinhalese, in Puttalam and Anuradhapura Districts, without privacy and their basic needs met. As long as refugee camps exist in our country, whether the inmates are Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims or of any other group, we have no moral rights to boast of democratic principles.With one section of our people undergoing untold hardships, being deprived of their democratic fundamental and human rights, we can’t boast of our country as one enjoying full democratic rights. Loss of democratic rights, fundamental rights and human rights amount to slavery. Should our youths, be they Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims or of any other group, continue to shed their blood unnecessarily and die in vain at the battle front? I am convinced that the time has come for the country to find a solution reasonable enough and acceptable to the minorities and the international community.”.
Ignored by all, including their politicians, their community and the government, a quarter century later today these unfortunate Muslims continue to rot in the refugee camps where they try to rebuild their lives within their means.