By Shaahidah Riza
Exactly 25 years ago, in October 1990, the harrowing tale of the forgotten people of Puttalam unfolded. Ceylon Today took a trip down memory lane in Puttalam to visit the Internally Displaced People (IDPs) who came there as victims of the three decade war. The experience was a nightmare.
Riyas was only 13 when he and his family, along with many Muslims of the northern region, were expelled by the Tamil Tigers from their houses in Mannar. Riyas, now in his late thirties is a practising medical doctor and lives in Ethale, Puttalam among the IDP community. His voice breaks as he relives that traumatic experience. It was a stormy night, perhaps the heavens decided to weep at the plight of these people. The seas were rough, and dangerous.
Journey from Mannar
Riyas recounts his experience, “My dad was abducted by the LTTE whilst we were living in Mannar. We were looking for him for nearly three months in Mannar. Then another bombshell dropped. The LTTE gave us 24-hour notice to vacate our homes. At that point, I was the eldest in the family; my older siblings were not living with us at the time. My mother and I arranged for us to leave along with my brothers, one was a three-year-old toddler, the other was a six-month-old baby. With several other residents of Mannar, we were packed into boats and made to leave our homes with just a few belongings.
It was raining very heavily. The boat we were in was so full that we were worried it might capsize. There was a story which was circulating that a baby had fallen into the water from a similar boat. We had a baby in our midst as well. We were very worried. The sea was rough, the storm and the heavy winds turned the boat around taking us back to where we came from. Our fear and worry of the LTTE aggravated. We didn’t want to be spotted. So we managed to turn the boat around and used buckets as oars to steer the boat towards the pocket of islands in the Kalpitiya area.”
Riyas was originally from Musali south in Mannar, the IDPs who live in Ethale, Puttalam were evicted from that area.
Ceylon Today team journeyed from Ethale to Kalpitiya to relive this harrowing experience through the stories of eye witnesses. The Kalpitiya harbour where the refugees arrived has now been rebuilt. A seaman who has advanced in his age recounted the story of the IDPs.
“They arrived in hundreds. They first went to the islands. Only a few days before the IDPs arrived there, the LTTE hacked all the islanders, and dumped the bodies into the ocean. They tied the arms and the feet of a few others and drowned them in the deep end of the sea. The IDPs who went to the islands, took a great risk.”
Riyas’s tone was bitter when he spoke of the international media reportage.
“The BBC said the expelled Muslims of the North were being evacuated to a safe place. The islands were far from safe. It was raining. We only had polythene sheet to shelter ourselves from the rain.”
Twenty-five years on, heavy rains bring out the grotesque memories of that painful journey. The IDPs’ psychological wounds are far from healed. Those who arrived worked for the natives in Puttalam, assisting in their onion cultivation. For a farming community banished from their paddy lands, this was an arduous task because they lacked the skill to perform.
Riyas’s story was very similar to that of many IDPs in Puttalam. After 25 years these people have not found any relief of any sort. They would love to go back to their ancestral homes. This dream was crudely shattered by their fellow countrymen who brought in an ethnic and racial twist thereby politicizing the problem even more. The returnees’ journey back to their ancestral land was hampered due to a biased media frenzy and politicians and environmentalists who claimed that the lands of these people, which they were expelled from were a part of the Wilpattu forest reserve.
Evidence now shows that the forest clearance in the surrounding Wilpattu area was already demarcated by a government document titled Presidential Task Force 2012, that the surrounding region closer to the Wilpattu sanctuary was already demarcated for a returning war-suffered displaced population.
According to this report, the government has already planned this resettlement project for the IDPs who were displaced for a long period. Some were relocated within the conflict zone, whereas a section of refugees who were originally residents of this area were relocated outside the conflict zone. However, due to the war which spanned for three decades the refugees who arrived from the surrounding area of Puttalam 25 years ago, were referred to as ‘Old IDPs’ and those who were displaced during the latter part of the war, were classed as ‘New IDPs’. The old IDPs return to their land was delayed this the new IDPs were relocated. Thus, taking their distraught condition into account they had doubts about their own relocation. Six years following the end of the war, this doubt has gradually become a sickening reality for some, although three years after the war some of the old IDPs were relocated.
“No one ever came to see us, or inquire of us about our lands. Most believed what the media said, giving a lot of airtime to the racists and the so-called environmentalists who completely ignored the value of human lives. They completely ignored the human aspect, and did not choose to make a balanced argument. The people who have lived here have suffered so much, and they suffer to this day,” a young woman whose land was amidst the controversy said, her voice thick with tears.
These lands in Musali south in the Wilpattu region were captured by the armed Tamil rebels including the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). The PLOTE headed by Uma Maheswaran, set up a training camp and improved the infrastructure facilities in that region. This proved to be a vantage point to perform their anti-government terrorist activities. However, the Sri Lankan military purged the region of these terrorists, unfortunately the original owners of the lands in these regions are still in IDP dwellings.
For Faisa who arrived in Puttalam at the age of 15, going back to her land is a dream which she has despondently given up upon. Now aged 39, Faiza lives in a small shack, a tiny hut made of tin walls. She has chickens running all over her garden, a sad remnant of her livelihood in manner which bespeaks of her ancestral farming roots. The chickens provide her a meager income, which adds to her husband’s paltry wage. Faisa recently lost her father to heart attack, he was 65 years old.
According to Riyas, heart attack, diabetes and many other similar ailments were rampant amongst the IDPs. Owing to their harrowing experiences of the war, these maladies take root, aggravated by their psychological trauma. The IDPs do not have pipe born clean drinking water, they have to travel a long distance to a community tap to fetch water.
Travelling further into the Kalpitiya region, Ceylon Today met with several IDPs who were displaced from Thalaimannar and other northern regions including Jaffna. Aman, 62, speaks fondly of the Wilpattu Road which goes through the jungle. Due to the controversy this road and a parallel road built by the Sri Lankan military has been closed. Following the 2002 ceasefire, some IDPs went back to their lands in the northern region to restart their paddy cultivation and thereby develop their lands. This was an arduous journey as LTTE landmines lined the area. Many IDPs were eager to extend their gratitude to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, for ending the war. For them, it was a life changing situation.
“I remember travelling down the Wilpattu Road when I was just 17. It takes only an hour to get to Mannar down that road. I used to travel in bullock carts, I have even walked down that road for education and trade purposes. Now we have to go through Anuradhapura, which takes more than six hours to reach Mannar,” Aman said.
Jaufer who is an IDP resident of Mihraj Puram, Kalpitiya said most of his relatives fled to India to escape the Tamil Tigers. Some of his relatives who were also expelled by the Tigers were relocated in their original lands in Thalaimannar. However, they lead a life of hardship and suffering, as the infrastructure is far from developed.
So why do these IDPs want to leave Puttalam? Many of them speak fondly of the assistance rendered by the natives of Puttalam region. However, despite living there for 25 years they are discriminated and labelled as ‘displaced people’ and ‘refugees.’ Most IDP residents said their children were called thus, and bullied at school. The Puttalam District is also a land of limited resources, the plight of the natives is also never highlighted. What is more, Puttalam is overcrowded.
For 25 years they shared their homes and lands with the IDPs, asking nothing in return. Whilst the IDPs acclimatized themselves in the Puttalam region, the host community naturally feels threatened. Therefore, they do not allow the IDPs to use the land’s resources for their benefit. An IDP recounted it as follows.
“The natives do not let us do our own fishing unless we work for them. We cannot have our own lands for onion cultivation, unless we work for a native. We are refugees from another land, living off on their resources. The only solution is to go back to our lands.”
For many, even if their meager lands in Puttalam was developed and given to them, they still will not be able to escape the ‘refugee psychology.’ The tears of the IDPs of Puttalam have been flowing for 25 years. The new President and the government whom they pinned their hopes on have not visited them yet. Twenty-five years on the IDPs of Puttalam District remain forgotten, their wounds still bleeds the horrors of that fateful day in October 1990.