Sri Lankan Muslims displaced during the country’s decades-long civil war are slowly returning home, but the challenge of reconciling with their Tamil neighbours, and their past, remains.
About 75,000 Muslims were evicted in October 1990 from the northern districts of Jaffna, Mannar, Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu and some parts of Vavuniya by the now-defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who were fighting for an independent Tamil homeland.
Since the end of the war in May last year, the question of their return or resettlement has gathered momentum.
“Issues that need to be addressed include the kinds of infrastructure and services, such as schools and health services, that need to be in place,” said Farzana Haniffa, a University of Colombo anthropologist and member of the Citizen’s Commission, which includes civil society and Muslim organizations, and is leading efforts to help the displaced Muslims.
The Muslims had fled to government-controlled areas in the country’s north and centre, with the majority ending up in Puttalam district.
“The fact that Muslims have built up communities in Puttalam and elsewhere needs to be taken into account. Certain pockets of the displaced population might not want to return,” Haniffa told IRIN.
Families trickling back
The pace of returns varies according to conditions in the northern, war-torn areas.
Jaffna District, which is the Tamil heartland, was once home to some 5,500 Muslim families before the expulsion, according to the commission.
According to its data, more than 100 families, most of whom fled to Puttalam, have returned to Jaffna since the mid-1990s.
In Mannar District, where the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says the largest numbers of displaced originated, returns started in August 2009.
|Once a popular Muslim street in Jaffna, Moor Street sits in disrepair today|
Since then, about 1,500 families or 6,000 people have returned, although the number is likely higher, since most people return spontaneously without being registered by the government, says UNHCR.
Other challenges to reconciliation include more competition for resources and livelihoods as those returning look for jobs, and property ownership disputes, because the Muslims were forced to abandon their homes.
And since the expulsion took place nearly 20 years ago, a generation of Muslims and Tamils has grown up without experiencing the event, potentially testing communal relations.
“Given the passage of time, the local Tamil population in these areas don't know the Muslims that are returning, they don't have the memory of interaction that an earlier generation had. So any potential for fresh conflict needs to be mitigated,” Haniffa warned.
The LTTE’s expulsion operation was quick and efficient, with the local Tiger leadership giving Muslims only hours to leave.
"At five o'clock the LTTE announced for us to come immediately to the Jinnah grounds. The LTTE leader told us that within two hours, all the Muslims must leave the [Jaffna] peninsula,” said Mohammed Yassin, a 55-year-old father of three, who returned to Jaffna in 1996 from Puttalam.
Stunned, Mohammed returned home to break the news to his wife. "She didn't believe me at first. She thought I was joking, so I told her to check with the neighbours. She came back crying."
Her disbelief was understandable: Muslims had lived peacefully with their Tamil neighbours.
Reflecting on the tragedy, Mohammed does not blame the Tamils of Jaffna. "They couldn't help us. If they tried, they would also have been punished by the LTTE."
Will to reconcile
So far, there appears to be harmony among returning Muslims and Tamils in Jaffna, according to the Citizen’s Commission.
Pathmarajah, a retired Tamil teacher who witnessed the expulsion, welcomes the return of Muslims to Jaffna.
"The people never wanted the Muslims to go. They may be different religions, but we speak the same language. There is no barrier between us,” he said.
Pathmarajah believes there is a collective guilt about what happened.
"There is a feeling of guilt that we have been silent witnesses to the very unjust eviction of the Muslims. I certainly have it. How do I face my Muslim friends?"