Jan 21 (IRIN) COLOMBO- Almost three years after the Sri Lankan government looked into resettling up to 100,000 Muslims displaced from the country’s north during the 1983-2009 civil war, thousands of Muslim families still find themselves in limbo, without the means to return to their former homes.
Despite a time lapse of almost 25 years, Abdul Malik still remembers the announcement Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE - separatist rebels fighting for an independent ethnic Tamil state in the north) made on 29 October 1990: All Muslims in Jaffna Peninsula, which included the capital of the war-hit Northern Province (Jaffna), had 24 hours to leave or face forced expulsion and death.
"It was horrible, there were only three [Muslim] families living in the area where we lived. We just left the place we knew as home overnight," said Malik who is now a religious `Moulavi' leader at a small mosque in the northwestern district of Puttalam, where most Muslim families relocated.
Why were they expelled?
While the country's Muslims from the Tamil-dominated north speak Tamil, they are not generally considered ethnically Tamil by Sri Lankans - of all ethnicities - on account of their religion (most Sri Lankan Tamils are Hindus or Christians). The expulsion of Muslims, who made up 5 percent of Northern Province's population before 1990, followed the emergence of a new national Muslim political party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. LTTE leaders feared the new party undermined LTTE's goal of a mono-ethnic Tamil state. The few Sinhalese who used to live in Jaffna city were forced out years before Muslims.
LTTE, which at the time controlled most of Jaffna Peninsula, made sure fleeing Muslims did not take with them any household items, furniture, or even land deeds in some cases. Each person could not carry more than US$2.25.
The 30 October 1990 mass flight was the largest forced eviction of Muslims during Sri Lanka's civil war. Researchers estimate close to 75,000 Muslims were forced from their homes during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Where are they now?
Most resettled in northwestern Puttalam District, which already had a sizeable Muslim population. Their number has now swelled to 250,000, according to Colombo-based NGO Law and Society Trust, as well as the Citizens Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims from Northern Province by LTTE in October 1990.
Formed in 2008 the Commission is a collective of Muslim civic groups campaigning for the rights of displaced Muslims.
Almost a quarter of a century after their flight and 44 months since the end of the conflict in May 2009, most are still living in what was intended to be temporary relocation sites.
"They really don't want to go back if there is no guarantee of jobs and housing. So far there is no such guarantee," said Abdul Matheen, a community leader working with displaced Muslims in Puttalam.
Researchers and experts told IRIN that resettling people displaced for years was more complicated than resettling those displaced for a short time.
"They tend to take longer to return and will attempt to rebuild their houses and livelihoods before shifting their entire family [back to their original villages]," said Mirak Raheem, a researcher with local NGO Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).
Raheem, who specializes in displacement, told IRIN that most displaced Muslims were wary of leaving their current residence because they lacked the means to resettle. "They have lived for so long in displacement and tried to build a life there, they may opt to settle there. This is especially true for the generation borne and brought up in displacement."