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Northern Muslims: Where do they go from here?

Aug 3, 2010 6:16:01 AM- transcurrents.com

by Anushka Fernando

On our way to the first scheduled hearing of Northern Muslims who were expelled by the LTTE in 1990, we spotted a group of men working hard out in the open, under the midday sun, and we stopped to have a conversation with them.

Eight days ago they had made their way from Puttalam to Marichchakatty with the goal of initiating the ‘journey home’ after the expulsion almost two decades ago. Happy to leave their landless status in Puttalam and their livelihood as daily wage laborers, they were looking forward to reclaiming their lost lives as farmers and fishermen in their native villages. Although the end of the war heralded a new era and sparked hope of ‘returning home’ the people are caught in a quagmire of challenges and obstacles.

The absence of permanent structures and conditions conducive to living has compelled the women—their wives and daughters-- to restrict themselves to temporary visits. The distressing lives of the displaced indicate that the frequently touted benefits of post war are sluggish in its pace. Twenty years is a significant period in a human’s life, and for people who have sacrificed that many years under harrowing circumstances, patience is a virtue that is difficult to preach. Without ownership of the trophy, a race has only been completed, not won, similarly, in the absence of normalcy in the lives of the people, the war has only ended, not won. True victory in war lies in the blossoming of the people, and blossoming, by their definitions.

Currently, villages are completely decimated, with almost no trace of the once robust and lively dwellings. Where once tall buildings stood and people mingled, trees have grown, and elephants and snakes have made their dwellings. As in the case of the men we met, the onus of restoring their lives is on those returning, even though restoring translates to transforming a jungle into a village. Assistance from the government is meager and slow in delivery. Institutions move at a slow pace and are handicapped in resources and efficiency. Therefore, severing links with Puttalam, the ‘mother’ that embraced the Northern Muslims when they were ‘orphaned’ has to be postponed. Sometimes, people have to earn in Puttalam to support agricultural work in Mannar, and until the ‘men’ of the families build suitable structures that are comfortable and secure for living, the women have to remain in Puttalam. In this regard, the opening of the road connecting Puttalam and Mannar, has been a great support to the Northern Muslims.

However the opening of the road has become a controversial issue. Prior to the war, access to this road was restricted to private vehicles, and was commonly used by residents of Musali and Mannar as it significantly reduced travel time between Mannar- Musali and Puttalam. The direct road shrinks the distance from Puttalam to Mannar from 210 km to 143km, from Puttalam to Musali from 185km to 100km and from Puttalam to Marichchukaddi from 235km to 77km. Moreover expelled Northern Muslims from other districts will also benefit from this road, as it also connects to the Jaffna Road. Citing the need to preserve the Wilpattu National park, through which this road passes, wild life enthusiasts argue against the opening of the road. While conservation of wild life is an important consideration, the welfare of a marginalized group of people who have suffered immensely for over two decades needs immediate attention. As stated above, the road would greatly reduce the inconvenience the returning Northern Muslims would have to undergo when travelling to and from Mannar and adjacent areas. In the context of the potential harm to the wild life of the national park, the commission appointed to probe into the expulsion of the Northern Muslims recommends a mechanism where access is granted by special permission to residents of adjacent areas for private vehicles only. Additionally, they suggest that access could be granted on a limited basis and that too at a cost, which would further restrict the use of the road. If entry to the road is barred, the people from Musali ( an area immediately North of Wilpattu National Park) especially would have to travel North to Medawachiya and then travel back South to their area (Daily Mirror 25.06.2010).

The Northern Muslims were expelled with barely 48 hours notice in Mannar and just a couple of hours notice in Jaffna. They arrived in Puttalam with at most, a shopping bag full of possessions. Along with the psychological trauma of being expelled, they had to endure much hardship during their time in Puttalam. Two decades later, some of them are happy with what they have accomplished in spite of the suffering they underwent as displaced people; their hardwork and efforts have yielded material assets for themselves, as well intangibles such as hope for a better future for their children through good education. However, for some, home is still in the North. Therefore, whatever may be their material possessions in Puttalam, they are still longing to return and resettle in their original places. The lack of assistance, both financial and non-material, is a significant barrier. Having invested their money in assets in Puttalam, they do not have cash to spend on starting life a new in the North. Building a second or third house during their life time, is not an option for them, although housing remains an essential requirement. Therefore aid from the government or other organizations is a great need at present.

For some others, home is still the North, yet, the attachment, at this point, is only emotional. The assets they have acquired, and the lifestyle they have adapted in Puttalam, are too much to abandon. The thought of starting life from ground zero in a place where war has razed all signs of human habitation, is enough to eliminate the option of returning. Poor quality of schools and availability of teachers, severe scarcity of water, dearth of economic opportunities add to their decision to stay back. Furthermore, some evicted Muslims are wary of their Tamil neighbours whose supposed representatives evicted them, in an act of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and assert that they do not want to make themselves vulnerable, and ‘at risk’ of being hurt again. Social dynamics that play an important role in a society, have been severely disturbed and shattered. Trusted neighbours and friends who formed the community are no more. Even if people resettle in the presence of suitable infrastructure, the absence of a community that they could trust, make people wonder if resettling is a wise decision.

The twenty years that have lapsed since the expulsion has changed the landscapes in many different ways. For the displaced and the officials concerned, solving land issues is a major challenge. At the height of the war when there were no signs of peace, and life in the camps was cruel, some of the Northern Muslims sold their land, for much needed cash with the hope of a better life. Since the war is history now, those who sold their land are landless, and realize that the prices at which they sold their land are way below the actual value. However, they are unable to reverse the transactions and reclaim their land or obtain a better price for their assets already sold. They feel, therefore, that they sold their land under duress, and feel entitled to compensation. In the last two decades, the population has expanded and as a result, a shortage of land in the North is inevitable, and this creates a road block for ‘return’. A filtering process of some form is necessary to determine who returns and who stays back. The people also request that the government distribute land to enable them to make an easier transition to the North.

Some who own land in the North find it difficult to claim it because of the lack of deeds and because physical boundaries and landmarks have erased or blurred over time. Due to the adversities faced during the expulsion, the journey from the North and life in displacement, some have no documents to prove ownership. Some that had permits and the promise of deeds at the time of the expulsion are unsure of their status. In some cases, authorities abuse their power and manipulate ownership and boundaries of land according to their personal interests thereby giving rise to conflicts among the communities. Many Northern Muslims felt that other than in exceptional instances, many local level representatives of government authorities were unsympathetic to their aspiration to return.

Although the practice of giving dowry was not common to Muslims of all Northern districts, as a consequence of the expulsion and the blending of various groups, it has become a popular practice. This increases the need to solve problems related to boundaries and ownership of land as marriages are dependant on dowry.. Some, are adamant to resolve the resettlement process, not for their own return, but to have clear ownership of land, so that they can offer the land as dowry and arrange a marriage for their nubile daughters.

Due to security reasons, the state has claimed land in various parts of the North and demarcated ‘high security zones’. Some of this land is private land, and some of it is state property with important public institutions within its boundaries. For example, in Silavatura, the hospital, school and Pradeshiya Sabha building are trapped in the high security zone barring access to civilians.

The state policy for return and resettlement is not clear, it varies from district to district, and provides no structured framework within which all institutions and people can act. Government officials of some districts have been instructed to give land to those displaced in the recent years, neglecting groups such as the Northern Muslims who were displaced much before that. The expelled people sometimes compare themselves to those affected by the Tsunami. They feel that their suffering was of a similar magnitude, yet, the compensation and assistance was much less.

In the last twenty years only two housing projects have been in place for the displaced; the mid 1990s initiatives under Minister M.H.M Ashraff and the current World Bank housing project. Communication lines between the state and displaced civilians are also very weak. In some instances, the people are unaware of the status of their original land in the North (whether or not it is demined and if it is ready for habitation). The lack of assistance from the government for resettlement is one of the biggest complaints the people have.

Rations, which is the only form of stable assistance they have had from the government, since expulsion, has also come to indicate the ‘status’ of the people. There are currently many problems associated with return and the access to rations. Those who are interested in returning have been informed that the first step is to discontinue rations in Puttalam. After they cut off access to rations in Puttalam, accessing rations in the North has become a huge problem. Some who followed these instructions complain that it has been a year since, and they are yet to receive any form of alternative assistance in their hometown in the North.

Living with disappointment, hurt, betrayal, sadness and despair, the end of the war ignited a spark in the hearts of the displaced Northern Muslims and offered them a light of hope. Yet, the flame is faint and quivering. The people who fill themselves with the grandiose plans and miraculous transformation of lives that politicians spew generously on podiums become frustrated when the corresponding institutions stay mute. In the presence of inaction on the part of authorities, the people take it upon themselves as the men I spoke of in the first paragraph did, and utilize the remnants of energy, hope, and resources that are left after twenty years of suffering.

Words of hope are not sufficient for people who have grown old, and have lost their childhood/youth in war and displacement. Action is needed, and it is needed now. Pointing the arrow of the compass towards the North, and claiming that it is ready for resettlement is not sufficient. The three phases of their lives need to be reconciled; the first phase of life in the North, where they belonged, followed by the life they were forced to adapt, and the new that is yet to come, either in their original place of birth, or elsewhere where they can begin roots for their futures and the generations yet to be born need to have smoother and more comfortable transitions. Caught between the old and the new, with no comfort from either, their present is insensitive. The war is over, but where do they go from here?