MULLAITIVU: At least the Muslims of Ichchirapuram in Sri Lanka’s Mullaitivu district, consider the en masse expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in October 1990, as a “blessing in disguise”.
Abdul Gafoor, a 64 year old farmer, who had to flee with his family carrying nothing but the clothes they were wearing, told Express: “ We lost all our possessions and property but because we quit the area as early as 1990, we did not experience bombings, shelling and multiple displacement unlike the Tamils, who went through hell as the war intensified over 25years. Above all, we were not caged in Mulliwaikkal in April-May 2009 to be slaughtered as the Tamils were. In retrospect, the trauma of expulsion at 24 hour’s notice was a blessing in disguise!”
After the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in March 1990, the LTTE quickly filled the vacuum in the Northern Province. And when Eelam War II broke out in June 1990, the LTTE suspected that the Muslims amidst the Tamil population, were spying for the Lankan forces. It promptly ordered the Muslims to get out leaving all their properties behind.
Approximately, 14, 000 families or 72,000 Muslims fled to seek refuge in various parts of South Lanka. But the majority were accommodated in refugee settlements in Puttalam, North of Colombo. Although living in squalor, the industrious Muslims got an education, started doing businesses and acquired properties.
When Eelam War IV ended in May 2009 and refugees were allowed to return and claim their lands and properties, many Muslims who were earlier farmers and fishermen came back to the North in 2010.
“Since we did not have any quarrel with the local Tamils as such, but only with the LTTE, we were welcomed back with open arms. The Tamils gave back our lands they had been cultivating in our absence,” said S.M.Nashar and Naseem, both middle aged paddy farmers.
However, out of the 730 families which were there in Ichchirapuram in 1990, only 230 have returned, and out of the 6, 500 families in Mullaitivu district, only 1500 have come back.
Explaining this discrepancy, Gafoor said that the character of the community and the needs of its members had changed radically due to relocation in the more urbanized South Lanka. Many families did not want to get back to rural and undeveloped Mullaitivu district, badly devastated by the 30-year war.
The well-settled Muslims of Ichchirapuam have two mosques. Nearby Neeraavipatti has one and Thaneerootru, one. There are exclusive Muslim Vidyalayas in nearby Neeraavipatti, Kumarapuram and Mankulam. Some Muslims students who want to pursue the sciences, go to the predominantly Hindu Vidyananda College in Mulliawalai.
However, Gafoor and his fellow Muslims complain that land is in short supply.
“ Government should give land which is in its possession,” Gafoor said.
Land in Sri Lanka is largely owned by the Central government ,and is given out on an yearly lease to families.
“Each family needs a plot for housing and at least three acres for cultivating paddy. Not many of us have adequate land. And many of our paddy lands are seven to 12 kilometers away,” Gafoor said.
The Muslims of Ichchirapuram also complain that they had not been given any house under the Indian Housing Scheme.
However, a local Tamil official said that the Muslims should not complain because they do not depend entirely on Ichchirapuram’s undeveloped economy.
“Over the last 25 years, many of them had built houses and established businesses in Puttalam, unlike the Tamils who stayed put in Ichchirapuram, lost every thing in the final phase of the war, and are now destitute,” the official said.