Cut off: tens of thousands continue to live in the refugee camps of Puttalam
Photo: Humanity Ashore
As Sri Lanka continues to teeter on the edge of all-out war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state, it is hard but necessary to believe that the country does not need to endlessly repeat the same cycle of events. Roads within the war-zone areas of the north, and even more so the east, have once again been crowded with thousands of shelter-seeking Tamils and Muslims – continually pushed this way and that by warring parties. But this is a war for homeland on one side and for a sovereign state on the other, and neither actor will provide ordinary people with homes or lands or the basic rights of citizenship.
Largely forgotten in this conflict’s long years has been the fact that, 17 years ago, all 75,000-80,000 Muslims were evicted from the island’s north. A group of people who, like the Tamils who the LTTE claimed to be fighting for, had considered the north their inalienable homeland, suddenly found themselves on the other side of a border that attempted to sever their pasts and futures from their homes. About 65,000 northern Muslim refugees now live in camps in Puttalam District alone. These events need to be remembered in Sri Lanka, not only because acts of large-scale forced movement of ethnic minorities continue to be a feature of today’s conflict, but also because both observers and participants need to make constant links between these events and the forms of state or quasi-state power that are being claimed and put into effect.
The 1990 eviction of Muslims and the 1995 exodus of Tamils both were major one-time events of displacement in the north. The nature of both events help us understand the contradictory faces of Tamil nationalism, as well as the paradox that the situation represents: how one group of people, Tamils, has the freedom to belong but is without the freedom to speak; while the other group, Muslims, is without the right to belong but has retained the freedom to speak, because the community is not subject to the LTTE’s focus. It is necessary to grapple with this paradox if we are to understand what democracy could look like for those living in the north and east.
In October 1990, throughout the five districts of Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu, Mannar, Vavuniya and Jaffna, the LTTE announced that all Muslims living within the Northern Province must leave within 48 hours. On Mannar Island, the LTTE announced that all Muslims must report to the LTTE office by the 24th of the month, and leave by the 28th. Despite protests by a delegation of local Tamils and the Catholic clergy, the LTTE sealed off Erukkalampiddy town in Mannar on the 28th, and forbade all further dealings between Tamils and Muslims.
Muslims from Puthukudiruppu, Tharapuram, Uppukulam and Erukkalampiddy were subsequently assembled on the beach without food, water or sanitation facilities, and forced to begin their outward journey. On the Mannar mainland, on 25 October the LTTE announced that the area’s Muslims must surrender their possessions, register with the LTTE office, and leave the following day. They were allowed to bring five travel bags per family, one gold sovereign and 2000 rupees. At the final checkpoint leading south, in Vavuniya, all additional items were removed.
The orders for the Muslim eviction came from the highest rung of the Tigers. This was an LTTE-only military operation, and there is no evidence of civilian collusion; no ordinary Tamils participated in the eviction. Neither was any reason for the operation ever offered. Did the LTTE, faced with a numerically and politically stronger Muslim minority in the east, simply decide to evict a much smaller and more politically vulnerable Muslim minority in the north? Precise reasons are difficult to establish. What is certain is that this was a decision to remove an entire community, and without any attempt to legitimise the action through popular campaigns.
Few commentators have systematically reflected on what this means for the LTTE’s relationship to both the Muslim and the Tamil communities, or even to its own local cadre. Certainly, the eviction order from LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran caught many local northern LTTE cadres by surprise. In many places, cadres were moved from their home area to other areas in order to carry out the exercise. One man from Mannar told this researcher, “We did not recognise the faces of those who came to evict us.” Another man’s story told of the young LTTE cadre, who he had known all his life, crying as he instructed the family to depart. The rebel leadership obviously feared that its cadres could disobey the eviction order.
In Jaffna town, Muslims were summoned to the grounds of Osmania College on 30 October for a 7.30 am meeting. The meeting ended by ten o’clock, with the order that they would have to leave by noon. “They told us that the man coming would say just two sentences,” Nachiya, one of the evictees recalls. “‘Everyone must leave in two hours.’ There was no talk. That’s all he told us. He was a big guy in the Tigers … he didn’t sit on a chair, and he didn’t even stop the motorcycle.”
The Jaffna Muslims made their exit through a route carefully laid out by the Tigers, which took them through LTTE checkpoint after checkpoint. At each they were searched and more and more of their possessions removed. Jewellery was taken from the women. The thefts form some of the bitterest recollections of the Jaffna Muslims. Tareek, a former resident of Jaffna, tells a common tale:
People believed you could take what you could carry, but at every junction the LTTE took things from us. At that time my eldest son was not even one year old, and they took even the milk packets that we had for him. As they did so, they told us, “If you ever talk about this, we will shoot you.” In the end, we had only the clothes we were wearing … My younger sisters couldn’t even keep the jewellery they were wearing; they even took earrings from their ears. For us Muslims, it’s a big thing when these young men are touching our women’s ears and necks to take the jewellery off. When the women cadres searched our young women, they took them behind a screen … Inside, they took all the money … We came here with bare pockets. That’s like everybody behind us.
Muslim evictees were also stripped of land deeds, electrical goods, bicycles and even thermos flasks at the checkpoints. According to a 1991 report by the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), dozens of rich businessmen in Jaffna were held for further ransom, as were the well-to-do in other districts. A 1991 survey by the Research and Action Forum for Social Development, an organisation that works with northern Muslims, sought to calculate the financial loss suffered by this population during the eviction. The final estimate puts the collective loss of the evictees at around USD 110 million. In Jaffna, after the Muslim eviction, the LTTE made further profits by holding a massive sale of Muslim goods.
As such, one of the most common memories that the evictees have is that they all arrived in refugee camps with nothing. Indeed, the eviction had a tremendous levelling effect, with more or less the entire population being impoverished overnight. While this has changed over the last 17 years with the emergence of considerable internal hierarchies within the refugee communities, the eviction did intertwine lives in ways that were unimaginable before.
By November 1990 the Muslims were gone from the north; the LTTE had succeeded in converting the area into the Tamil-only territory for which it was fighting. This ethnic cleansing has since come to be known as the Eviction, and the community of Muslims created by this act, formally known as Internally Displaced Persons, refer to themselves as ‘northern Muslims’ and ahathi, or refugees. The Eviction created a whole new demographic, created in the aftermath of an unthinkably traumatic event that broke one set of communities in the north and created another – that of the refugees. Through peace processes and ceasefires, the right of Sri Lanka’s northern Muslims to return – together with an LTTE guarantee that they will not be evicted again – has never been given adequate priority.
Vasantha, a young Jaffna Tamil woman, was 11 when she watched Muslims being forced to leave Jaffna. “I remember we were all standing outside … They were walking down the road with their two bags, which were all they were allowed to take. Sometimes they went past in vans, looking out of the window.” Five years later to the day, on 30 October 1995, it would be the turn of Vasantha and other Tamils in Jaffna to make own their long walk down the Chemmani/Kandy Road. When the exodus did occur, Rajan, who was 15 at the time, remembers that suddenly many of his neighbours began to talk about the northern Muslims. ‘The Exodus’ was the Tamils’ fate, Rajan and others felt, because they had not prevented the Muslim eviction. The connections were clear to them, as were the ramifications: in the end, no one was safe.
In 1995, after the breakdown of peace talks, the Colombo government began a new military offensive designed to dislodge the LTTE from the north. In July, there began an indiscriminate and brutal bombing campaign. The LTTE began to make arrangements for the transfer of the local population and of itself to the Vanni area, which would be its new headquarters. On 17 October, the Sri Lankan Army began its advance to Jaffna town, and from the 20th many Tamils began trying to leave Jaffna. Those who had paid the LTTE the demanded ‘National Defence Fund’ (two sovereigns of gold or SLR 10,000) were given free transport over the Jaffna lagoon to Vanni. Others, the remaining 300,000-450,000, began to prepare to make arrangements to stay in Jaffna, moving from private homes into places of refuge.
Rajan remembers that on the evening of the 29th, the LTTE came around to collect the National Defence Fund from those who had yet to pay. As the army closed in on Jaffna town, the LTTE announced, by loudspeaker, that the following day their troops would be doing battle with the Sri Lankan military, and that all must leave Jaffna immediately. LTTE officials also told the Tamil diaspora and the international community that the people had chosen to leave of their own volition, being unable to face living under the Sinhalese. By evening, the Chemmani/Kandy Road was crammed, as Jaffna’s 450,000-strong population began to leave at the height of the northern monsoon. Vasantha remembers walking painfully, pushed along with the crowd as they moved.
The [Navatkuli] bridge has been divided, half is occupied by the LTTE and half by the people. So the people are going on bikes, little motorbikes, and bullock carts, and walking with bags on their heads and all the things they could take. They don’t know where they are going, to a school or whatever it is – they are just moving there. And then, we see the LTTE’s cars and vans and all the things they confiscated from the people, and they are filled, filled with stuff. They were using us as human shields. They were moving faster than we were because they had vehicles. I remember we were passing [them], and then [saw] trucks and trucks of the LTTE filled with kerosene oil. So it was clear that they had all this all this time. They are not just leaving, they are taking all the things they had.
Outside the town limits, in Chemmani, the LTTE ordered the crowds to keep the road clear for LTTE vehicles, and to walk instead through the floodwaters. As resistance to its orders grew amongst the people, the LTTE cracked down harshly on the protesting voices. The road soon became littered with the bodies of those too weary to carry on. Rajan was travelling with his parents and his three younger siblings:
There were dead bodies all along the road … Old people couldn’t walk this distance … These people [the LTTE] really forced us, they were very rough. They wanted first place for their vehicles. When their vehicles were coming, they wanted us to get out of the way … There was also nothing: there was no water, there was no food. My little sisters were not yet one [year old] then. For milk we had to draw plain water from the well and put a little flour in it, and give it to them. There was no hot water, we ate just biscuits … In two days we had become displaced, and in those two days the difficulties we suffered had not been seen under this sky … First we stayed in a temple, and then we found friends … Other people stayed in the temples and the schools, there was so much difficulty in the schools. A school only had two toilets. Hundreds of families were staying in them, and there was no food or water.
As the humanitarian crisis received international attention, the Sri Lankan government attempted to forestall criticism of the bombing raids, as well as their previous failure to send rations to Jaffna, by forbidding journalists from entering the area. Meanwhile, some in Jaffna were still resisting the forced movement. It took the LTTE nearly two weeks to clear the recalcitrant population out of Jaffna, and they finally brought in buses to move out the remaining stragglers. Among the last to leave were some doctors and nurses in Jaffna Hospital, and some refugees hiding out in schools.
On 12 November 1995, the LTTE broke down the gates of Chundukuli School to remove Christians and Hindus who were hiding there. One elderly man had left in October with everyone else and, unable to bear the conditions in Chavakachcheri, 10 km from Jaffna town, had come back with his family. He recalls pleading with the LTTE cadre: “Little brother, because of you we went to Chavakachcheri and suffered there in the rains with no water or shelter. We came back. You say that if we stay here we will die. I don’t mind dying here in my home.” Such appeals notwithstanding, all of the refugees were quickly cleared from the school and put on a bus, which was playing loud Tamil songs. When the army entered Jaffna on 16 November, for the first time in more than six centuries the town stood empty.
After the event
In 2008, the displaced Muslims are still unable to return to their homes in the north. While a few families have taken a chance and made it back, the LTTE has refused to give a guarantee that no eviction will ever happen again. In contrast to the Muslim experience, even though Jaffna’s dispersed Tamil population was forbidden by the LTTE to return, less than a year after the exodus around 200,000 had already defiantly done so. Unable to prevent the return, the LTTE instead had to make allowances – albeit grudgingly – for a Tamil population upon whose support it depends. The different experience vis-à-vis the right of return for the two communities demonstrates the distinct positions of Tamils and Muslims within Tamil nationalism – one obviously the very centre; the other, equally obviously, the excluded.
There is another, extremely significant difference. There is not a single northern Muslim home where the larger story of the eviction as personal and social loss is not narrated. Eviction, its perpetrators and its impact are given public space. In contrast, Tamils in Jaffna and Colombo, living in fear of the LTTE and ‘informers’, do not talk about their experiences in the open. One man, Suresh, recalls that immediately after the exodus stories of the experience began pouring in from all over, particularly from Tamil returnees in Jaffna and refugees in Colombo. But very soon thereafter, these stories subsided. The exodus became just another smouldering ‘secret’ within the Jaffna Tamil community.
Given the stark dfferences in the post-eviction experiences of the two communities, this researcher began to think of the research as divided between ‘indoor’ and ‘outdoor’ ethnography – contrasting hushed interviews with individual Tamils in private houses, versus discussions with groups of Muslims who talked openly while standing amidst dense refugee settlements. Understanding the secret histories that tie Tamils and Muslims together, along with understanding these crucial differences, are both key to why we need new visions of life for the minorities in Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, neither of these events, two of the largest forced movements in Sri Lankan history, are discussed or remembered within southern Sri Lanka or larger Sri Lankan society. This continues to demonstrate the indifference of the Colombo government towards its Tamil and Muslims citizens alike. This indifference has translated into continuing brutality, as evidenced by the forced movement of Tamils and Muslims in eastern Sri Lanka back and forth to suit the political needs and showmanship of a government intent on winning a military war against the LTTE. There have been no lessons learnt.
— Sharika Thiranagama is a postcolonial fellow in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.