Amjad Mohamed Saleem
Ten years is a significant milestone: a decade; a generation. A lot can happen in ten years and a lot has. Ten years ago, the smartphone was still a concept that was being tried and tested; MSN Messenger was the way people communicated with each other.
Ten years is also a long time to carry a personal burden, a memory that has been buried deep within yourself, of a trauma that you are unfamiliar with. So I write this firstly as a cathartic process because it was my first time on the field to be on the front line facing conflict and its aftermath. I had the previous year moved from my engineering job into working with (and eventually running the country office of) an NGO looking at post tsunami reconstruction but by April 2006, found myself looking very much at the prospect of dealing with a resurgence of the conflict. This was something I was not prepared for, nor was I prepared for what was on the ground.
This story of the Muttur siege also deserves to be told and kept alive as part of the narrative of the Sri Lankan conflict. It is often forgotten in the midst of other issues but the mere displacement of 20,000 people is not an insignificant occurrence.
Sri Lanka sadly is not short of milestones of sad significance when it comes to its narrative of the conflict. Every day, month, year, place has a sad reminder of the bloodshed and suffering the people of this country faced particularly between 1983 and 2009 but if you want to go back, from the armed insurrections of 1971 as well.
Yet the story of Muttur in all of this narrative of the conflict and accountability has remained far from the memory of people except for the Action Contre le Faim (ACF, Action against Hunger) murders. This is the only time when there is a reference to this, which is unfortunate given what happened around that time and its implications for the rest of the conflict.
Muttur has always been on the front line of the conflict, given its location in the Trincomalee district. With its strategic location, it remains a vantage point for entry into the Trincomalee harbour. Muttur’s 57,000 population, however, is predominantly Muslim and since 1984, the town has come under repeated threat or attack from the LTTE, its physical isolation exacerbated by a pervasive sense of insecurity.
The story of the Muttur siege though starts in April 2006 when leaflets were sent purportedly by the LTTE asking Muslims to leave Muttur (reminiscent of what happened to the Muslim community in Jaffna and the northern province in 1990, which saw the expulsion of close to 75,000 people). In the preceding weeks the ceasefire between the LTTE and the government would end and the LTTE would seize control of the water supply to the Mavil Aru Anicut, a densely-populated watershed to the south of Muttur. This was followed by a virtual blockade of the town with outer villages suffering from lack of food and no access to livelihood.
By the end of July the government had withdrawn its forces from many parts surrounding Muttur to recapture the Mavil Aru Anicut. Many in Muttur believe that the LTTE occupied the anicut to divert Sri Lankan government forces from Muttur and to relieve pressure on LTTE guerrillas in the area in order to mount an attack on Trincomalee.
In the early hours of 2 August 2006, roughly 150 LTTE cadres occupied the centre of Muttur. After an initial attempt to reoccupy Muttur was rebuffed, the Sri Lankan military began to shell the town early on 3 August, forcing residents to flee their homes. Significantly, it was among faith institutions that people sought sanctuary. By mid-day, almost five thousand people had converged on the Nathwathul Ulama Islamic College and thousands more in two other Islamic schools in the town, Al Hilal and Ashraff High School and in the town’s three mosques. The Tamil community, Hindu and Christian, took refugee in the town’s Catholic and Methodist Churches while most Sinhalese residents evacuated to a prominent Buddhist temple in the nearby town of Seruwila.
During the afternoon of 3 August, however, two shells hit the Islamic College, killing 33 people (UTHR 2006), and in an atmosphere of desperation, religious leaders sought external help to organise an evacuation of Muttur. Despite this both the Government Agent and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) local office at that time seemed ambivalent to the fact that this could happen. Having spoken to representatives from both agencies personally, I know there was absolutely no expectation (or interest) and plan in the fact that people might evacuate Muttur.
The evacuation of Muttur began after morning prayers on Friday, 4 August, hours before the LTTE guerrillas began to abandon the town to government special forces, with residents walking to Kiliveddi where they were picked up by vehicles mobilised by local civil society including the Jamiat-e-Ulama (council of Imams). By nightfall, nearly 10,000 Muslims had arrived in the nearby town of Kantale while hundreds of Tamils headed to Trimcomalee via Kantale or south towards Batticaloa district. By Monday, 7 August, more than 20,000 evacuees had arrived in Kantale, and the full horror of the Muttur crisis had become apparent.
However this is far from the end of the story. Arriving people talked about how thousands of terrified evacuees were intercepted by LTTE guerrillas on 4 August and diverted into the jungle at Krandi Rock where at least 5 people died at the hands of the LTTE or as a result of government shelling (UTHR 2008). In a separate incident, terrified Tamils were stopped near Kiliveddi by government troops who detained 24 men, and then were taken to a police station for processing as potential LTTE members.
In total, nearly 60 people died during the Muttur crisis, including elderly residents who remained in their homes and who died of hunger and thirst.T he Muttur crisis is known for the single worst atrocity ever perpetrated against an international NGO to that date, with the murder of 17 staff of ACF, at their Muttur office. All had been lined up against a wall and shot. To date there has been no word of who perpetrated the acts although there is suspicion about the government security forces or vigilantes acting on behalf of the government. Speaking to people displaced from Muttur at that time about this incident, I was struck by the lack of sympathy from many who questioned why when other agencies had withdrawn their staff due to security reasons or had staff join the evacuation from Muttur, there had been a decision to stay. This suspicion still lingers with some members from Muttur today.
For the next two months, the Muttur displaced would remain in Kanthale, a town of some 50,000 people, with a mixed population; 60% Sinhalese, 35% Muslim, and 5% Tamil. Conscious that the inflow of 20,000 people could threaten to overwhelm the local community and exacerbate inter-communal tensions, the government was keen to resettle the evacuees and in October 2006, the evacuees were sent back. There is of course a lot of debate as to how people were sent back and whether the timing was right, however this is perhaps not the place to write about it.
Muttur remains a defining moment in my life. For the first time, I was witness to the terrible communal divide in this country. I remember sitting down to a meeting with the Government Agent (the senior most local government official in the area) to talk about the slow support from the government only to be told “Don’t worry, your (Muslim) ministers and representatives are sorting this out”. I remember telling him that I didn’t want an MP or a governor who happens to be Muslim to sort this out because many of the evacuees were Muslim, but I wanted the government and its representatives tasked with dealing with such situations to take responsibility because their citizens had been affected. Yet I was struck by a certain disregard, amounting almost to arrogance at his statement.
I saw the potential for partnership between faiths. The Muttur crisis was also the start of a novel partnership between two significant humanitarian organisations with a faith-based ethos; UK-based Muslim Aid and the US-based United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). Having been part of that initial partnership, I remain convinced about the possibilities and challenges of partnership among Faith Based Organisations (FBOs) and between FBOs and their secular peers. This experience drives me even today to make a case for the important role that faith, faith institutions and faith-based humanitarian agencies have in responding to natural disasters and conflicts, largely because of the trust vested by local communities in local religious institutions and leaders. It demonstrates that cooperation among FBOs across cultural and religious boundaries can undermine cross-community tensions that stimulate conflict.
I also saw the potential for locals and local civil society to bounce back if given the space. My favourite story from the Muttur crisis is that of the Arafa Nagar bridge. ArafaNagar (A Muslim Village) is a little peninsula within the Muttur town area separated by a small river. The village of Amman Nagar (a Tamil village) is its neighbor. In the late eighties, people of ArafaNagar and Amman nagar were displaced by the conflict to Muttur. After the situation cleared in 2006, people were looking to resettle. Both Amman Nagar and ArafaNagar were looking to return but there was a lack of proper access to the area. People had to take the boat or swim across. There needed to be clearing of shrubbery and damaged buildings and cleaning of wells for water supply. Based on the community’s request, a bridge was built across the river to aid resettlement. In addition, support was offered in terms of gifts in kind for returnees to restart their livelihood. Encouraged by the prospect of a permanent bridge and the support for livelihood, the people of Arafa Nagar got together to build a temporary bridge. People started to return and clear up the land. They put up temporary shelters and started to farm, helped by return kits . Gradually life started to return back to this once forsaken land and communities started to resettle. People of Amma Nagar also returned and there was a chance for communities to reconcile their differences. The bridge was finished and declared open on the 26th of February 2009 in front of the community. It was later handed over to both communities. Visiting that area just after the opening of the bridge in 2009, I saw Tamil and Muslim communities having afternoon tea together with their children playing in the fields and for me in that brief moment in 2009, I felt that there was a potential for communities to come together given space. Even today there is some collaboration and understanding between the religious leaders in this.
Muttur remains an important milestone in Sri Lanka’s narrative of the conflict. There is understandably a lot of scrutiny about the end of the war in 2009 but regrettably people seem to forget that the whole period of the conflict has been a time of great trauma and intense suffering. We focus on the end of the conflict because that is where the world’s attention was pushed especially by lobby groups, yet we have forgotten that the experiments for this started in 2006 from both sides on the conflict with Muttur and continued throughout the final phase of the conflict in 2009. A lot of what happened at the end of 2009 can be traced back to 2006 but equally a lot of what happened post October 2006 gives some pause for reflection as to what might be if the right conditions are there.
In our quest for Sri Lanka moving forward post conflict, it is important we get a sense of the totality of the narrative and a better understanding from all sides of the conflict. This will then allow us to holistically frame the reconciliation, justice and accountability perspective. After all we owe it to everyone who has suffered from this conflict through out its 28 year old history.