By Latheef Farook –
Muslim settlements in Mannar dates back to more than one thousand years. In her book “The Muslims of Sri Lanka” eminent historian Dr Lorna Dewaraja explained that by 9th century Muslim settlements were established in the coastal areas including Mannar.
Muslims in and around Mannar area were descendants of early Arab traders who came for trade. They settled down and integrated well with the local people and continued their life in peace and harmony as traders, fishermen and farmer.
This situation continued uninterrupted until racism of the two major communities, Sinhalese and Tamils, began raising their ugly heads which later turned this paradise of a country into one of the worst killing fields in Asia.
Sandwiched between these two communities Muslims remained the most peaceful people in the island and the Mannar Muslims were no exception. They lived in harmony with their Tamil neighbors. These centuries old traditional lifestyle was disturbed with the advent of Tamil militancy especially the LTTE, the so called freedom movement turned into one of the worst fascist killing machines in modern history.
From the very inception Muslims kept out of this conflict between the two communities. However they were dragged into the conflict to pay a heavy price. Mannar Muslims, around 7600 families with more than 36,000 people, were subjected to immense hardships and difficulties by the LTTE gangs. These atrocities climaxed on 30 October 1990 when the LTTE driven them out of their homes and lands together with rest of the Muslim population in the north at very short notice. In the north Muslims were given two hours while Mannar Muslims were driven out within two days. This was an unprecedented crime in modern history and even majority Sinhalese never resorted to such heartless ethnic cleansing of Tamils in the south despite merciless LTTE atrocities.
In their extensive report on the plight of evicted Mannar Muslims activist Anberiya Mujib pointed out that they were stripped of their belongings, lands, and houses and permitted to take only Rupees 500 with them. They were not permitted to take any document including their birth certificates, title deeds to their lands and houses and other such valuable things. This has caused severe hardships to them in claiming their properties.
The plundering of the possessions from their homes followed soon after their enforced departure. The physical, economic, social and psychological suffering to which the entire Northern Muslim population was subjected was immeasurable.
Northern Muslims claim that the Government was aware of the imminent eviction but failed to take action against the LTTE despite the presence of the Army. The International Non-Governmental Organization and local Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) were also silent observers of the eviction process. Following the expulsion majority of the Forcibly Evicted Persons (FEP) travelled to Puttalam where they were sympathetically received by the Muslims who provided them space for shelter, food and other basic needs during the initial days of displacement. According to well-known researcher M.I.M.Mohideen about 82 % of the Northern Muslims ended up as refugees in Puttalam district. A small minority went to places such as Anuradhapura and Kurunegala. Then President R. Premadasa did not want the Northern Muslims to settle in Colombo District.
Their sufferings during the past two decades in the refugee camps in appalling conditions were immense. They survived on the paltry dry ration provided by the government.
With normalcy returning in the aftermath of the crushing defeat of LTTE in May 2009 Mannar Muslims started returning to their neglected lands and abandoned homes in small numbers only to see their property being destroyed and the lands turned into thick jungles. There is hardly any basic facility to start with. Most of them needed assistance to clear their lands and rebuild their houses.
They needed government assistance to restart their lives. However in a shameful decision the UNHCR, a wing of United Nations which legalizes wars against Muslim countries worldwide, declared them as old internally displaced people, IDPs, and started rehabilitating the Tamil war victims. Thus the Mannar Muslim’s hopes were dashed.
It is worthy to remind that British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs David Miliband and French Foreign Minister followed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon rushed all the way from London, Paris and New York to see the conditions of Tamil IDPs in the aftermath of the LTTE defeat. However none of them went to see the plight of Muslim refugees in Puttalam. This speaks a lot for their indifference towards the plight of Muslim refugees not only in Puttalam but the millions of Muslims who were made refugees by their so called war on terrorism.
However Mannar Muslims started returning to their lands, but the Government was not supportive. There was no mention of the return of Northern Muslims, or for that matter ‘old’ IDPs at large, in the 180 day resettlement plan of the government. On 18th August 2009 Government published an advertisement calling for all Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)– including Northern Muslims – wishing to return to register, but there is no information about the modalities of the resettlement process. To-date the State has not given any policy direction based on the replies to the advertisement.
According to a report prepared by Dr Hasbulla and his team “Muslims formed 68 percent of the population, before they were evicted, in the Musali Divisional Secretariat of the Mannar District. There were 22 prominent Muslim settlements spread over an area of 486 square km. Musali was blessed with land and sea resources. A major irrigation system, which was somewhat equal to the Giant Tank called Agathimurippu was the base for agricultural activities of the Muslim farmers of the area. This irrigation system had 65 minor sub tanks supplying water through a 12 km stretch for major canals that sufficiently irrigated a total of 5800 acres of agricultural land. Needless to say, a strong socio-economic and cultural infrastructure sprang from this economic base. However the entire system of civilization in Musali is now in a state of ruin. The region is now fully covered by secondary forest. No traces of any permanent buildings are found in this area. Tanks and irrigation canals have been silted and damaged almost completely. It is a shock to see the enormity of the devastation in Musali. They took a great deal of risk to return to their places of origin in Musali despite threat of wild animals and landmines (e.g., Chilawathurai). Now almost all the Muslim villages have some returnees .These returnee have already begun to encounter a host of problems including shortage of food, inadequate shelter, lack of medical facilities, poor schooling for their children and bad infrastructure.
Mannar Island Muslims
In the Mannar Island, most of the former Muslim concentrations are limping back to normalcy with Muslim refugees returning. Only about 15 percent of the total displaced Muslims have returned to date places such as Puthukuddiyirrupu, Erukkalampiddy, Uppukulam, Tharapuram, Karisal, Talaimannar, Kataspathiri (Pesali) and Moor Street of Mannar Town. Surprisingly, the cease-fire agreement did not encourage the Mannar Island Muslims to return home as they do not have shelter for immediate occupations and most of the remaining houses are not in habitable condition while others are occupied. Landmines in Talaimannar remain yet another problem. The returnees feel insecure and vulnerable because only a small number had returned compared to the number of Muslims who lived there before they were displaced. In the midst many of Muslim residents of Mannar Town sold their houses and other properties. Returnees have also reported fears about possible restrictions on religious and cultural practices as well.
Commerce and Industry Minister Rishad Bathiudeen explained in detail the present plight of Mannar Muslims in an interview with Ceylon Today.
He explained that United Nations Human Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, has termed those displaced prior to 2008, as ‘old IDPs’, resulting in them losing much of the humanitarian assistance currently provided for IDPs by various groups. Since the end of the conflict, hundreds of Northern Muslim refugees started returning to their lands. They face series of problems and there have been little recognition of the issues involved in the resettlement process.
The UNHCR is providing assistance only to ‘new IDPs’, whereas 90% of the Muslims do not fall into such a category. Even the NGOs provide assistance to ‘new IDPs’. Under this program none of the Muslim families receive livelihood support, shelter and sanitary facilities. No Muslim school was reconstructed. Villages still look like jungles.
He added that even the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report suggested the need for policy decisions to resettle the Muslims in the North, but the government has not taken any initiative.
He explained that it is three years since the present Resettlement Minister assumed duties, but shame to say, that he has not visited north, which need to be resettled. The minister should take up this resettlement issue seriously. After the war, no meeting on this issue was held in those areas. Why is the government not paying any attention to this? It is only when you visit the areas that you really understand the suffering of Muslims there.
Minister Bathiudeen also accused “the Bishop of Mannar of blocking the resettlement of Muslims and even written to President Mahinda Rajapaksa against the Muslims. It’s quite shocking to hear that the Bishop has asked the Catholics not to sell lands to Muslims during resettlement. I spoke about this in Parliament. When I was the Minister of Resettlement, I resettled all the Tamils in the North. By the time I was to resettle the Muslims, there was a change in the Cabinet of Ministers. After that, no one took any initiative to resettle them. Now I am taking the initiative but the Bishop is obstructing them. My only expectation is to resettle my people. They are all my relatives. I was also an IDP. It is with their votes that I became a Minister”.
He said seventy nine mosques in the North were demolished during the war. No one has taken any initiative to re-construct these mosques or houses which were demolished during the war.
“This issue can only be sorted out with the help of the government and the NGOs. I have decided, if these issues are not addressed accordingly, I will quit politics and not contest in the next general elections. If President Mahinda Rajapakse takes pride in saying that he won the war, he also needs to resettle the people” said Minister Bathiudeen
The government is silent perhaps they know Muslim politicians who sold their souls for positions and perks and dropped the community would not raise these issues.