by IRIN News
COLOMBO, 3 March 2011 (IRIN) - The government of Sri Lanka has renewed its pledge to resettle Muslims evicted more than two decades ago from the war-affected north.
In 1990, during their struggle for increased autonomy, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels forced out the entire Muslim population, estimated to be at least 70,000, from northern Sri Lanka, suspecting them of collaborating with government intelligence services.
Since then, between 8,000 and 10,000 have returned, according to the government.
Ismail Ahmed, 61, was in his early forties when LTTE cadres announced over loud-hailers that all Muslims should immediately leave Jaffna district in the Northern Province, a rebel stronghold.
"We did not have time to get ready. We left the north within less than 24 hours. I took my wife and daughters [aged 12 and 10] and fled," Ahmed told IRIN from Mannar Island, separated by a bridge from mainland Sri Lanka, where he has resettled.
"I have lived as a refugee for almost 20 years. I want to go back to my home," Ahmed said.
Rishad Bathiudeen, a senior minister from the ruling government party, told IRIN that while no timeline had been announced, the government was now making an "all-out" effort to resettle displaced Muslims.
"It is an urgent need to resettle the Muslims and we are treating it as a major priority."
Since the return process began in August 2009 for the overall displaced population, more than 300,000 have left Menik Farm - the country's largest camp - and some dozen others hastily set up in the final days of the conflict between government forces and the defeated rebels.
"We have successfully completed the resettlement of most IDPs [internally displaced people] who were displaced by the last stages of war in 2008 and 2009 so now we are also shifting our focus to resettlement of Muslims who were displaced decades ago," said a senior military administrative official, who spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity.
About 80 percent of the displaced Muslims now live in Puttalam - a small fishing town on the north-western coast - with the rest scattered throughout the country, he added.
But for at least one resident of Puttalam, the returns are not happening quickly enough. "Now the war is over and there is no LTTE, I do not know why we cannot go back to our old lands," said Baiz Lebbe. He said authorities "are not paying enough [attention] to facilitate the return process of Muslim IDPs".
IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.