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Sri Lanka’s forgotten displaced Muslims

[BBC, Tuesday, 23 June 2009 20:36 No Comment]

_45958538_zawana As the world focuses on displaced Tamils in northern Sri Lanka, a large group of Muslims forcibly ejected from the north by Tamil Tigers 20 years ago are finally contemplating a return home.

There are more than 100,000 Muslims living as refugees across Sri Lanka .

Many are in Puttalam – a small fishing town on the north-western coast of Sri Lanka.

They vividly remember the day when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) forced them to leave at gun point.

"On 27 October 1990, I was working in the fields. LTTE cadres came and asked us to leave the place within two hours. We took a few clothes in plastic carrier bags and walked a long way," says an elderly man now living in a Puttalam camp.

The entire Muslim population of Sri Lanka’s northern province moved out fearing brutal attacks by the LTTE.

The overwhelming majority of Sri Lankan Muslims speak Tamil as their first language. Yet they are regarded as a separate ethnic minority in Sri Lanka .

The LTTE’s eviction of Muslims from the north was preceded by a massacre in the east. Suspected Tigers opened fire at two mosques near the town of Batticaloa, killing more than 100 people.

The LTTE accused the Muslims of allying with the Sri Lankan government.

Difficult life

Many Muslims living in Puttalam are happy about the fall of the Tamil Tigers. But they are not sure about going back.

"We are happy that LTTE is defeated. This gives us hope that we can go back. But we can go only if the government helps us. We want assurances about our safety," says Nawaz.

Local Muslim leaders want government help in tracing back properties to original owners as many people were not able to take their documents when they fled the area. They are also worried about security.

Amir runs a shop amid the rows of houses built by the displaced people. He says he wants to go back to Jaffna .

"I am 51 now. I would like to go back to Jaffna and spend the rest of my life there. Here the conditions are not good," he says.

People here say there is an acute shortage of water. They say successive governments have done little for them.

But others have developed a liking for Puttalam.

Zawana came here as a child and had her children here. Her mother and other relatives are keen to go back. But she feels Jaffna would be alien to her.

Mohamed Kabir, a leader of the Muslim Front, says people are yet to be convinced that the LTTE is fully destroyed.

But a Muslim MP from the pro-LTTE political party, the Tamil National Alliance, says these fears are baseless.

"The LTTE has realised its mistake and even asked the Muslims to come back. So I can say with 100 percent confidence that no harm will be done to them," says Mohammad Imam.

Bitter return

The LTTE has made a few overtures towards Muslims in recent years. A few Muslim families returned home under the auspices of an agreement reached during the Norweigian-backed peace deal.

Syed Mohammed Akbar decided to go back to his native Killinochchi and opened a tea shop there in 2006.

"When I went back to Killinochchi nothing was there. I have built everything there. I even dug up a well. The LTTE was running the government there. We paid taxes to them. We had good relations with the Tamils.

"When the LTTE came to know that my elder son knows Sinhala, they took him away and used him as a radio announcer against his will. He was forced to work for them for two months. Then they let him go because he suffered from fits," he says.

With great difficulty he left Kilinochchi shortly before it fell to government forces. However, when the police back in Puttalam got to know that his son had worked for the LTTE, they apprehended his son and his brother who he says had nothing to do with the rebels.

"They are in prison for the last six months. No one is willing to help us," he says.

Sri Lanka’s relief and rehabilitation minister, Risath Badiuddeen, is a Muslim from northern town of Mannar. Like others he too left his home and lived as a refugee for five years in the Puttalam area.

He says once the land mines are cleared, the process of re-settling of displaced Tamils and Muslims will take place.

"It will be much easier to resettle Tamils, because they moved out recently. Many of their houses are damaged but with some repair they can live there. On the other hand many houses which once belonged to the Muslims are completely destroyed. Some will even find it difficult to locate their ancestral lands. The government will help them to get necessary documents. It will also help those who have decided to stay back," he says.

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