Peace means a homecoming for Sri Lanka's Muslims

Image caption,
Yaseen's children were born in southern Sri Lanka "but people call them refugees"

Sri Lanka's war, which ended last year, set the mainly Sinhalese government and military against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE - Tamil Tigers), a militant group drawn from the Tamil minority.

Caught in between were the Muslims, about 9% of the population and regarded as a separate ethnic group, although Tamil is their mother tongue.

Exactly 20 years ago, the Tigers violently expelled almost all of northern Sri Lanka's Muslims. They fled into internal exile in the south. But with the war now over, a few are trying to return home. The BBC's Charles Haviland reports from north-west Sri Lanka.

Nails are being hammered and beams secured in Silavatturai. SJM Shajahan, a good-natured man in his 40s, watches and helps the men at work.

Fishing is big business nearby and Mr Shajahan, a boat mechanic, is having his engine repair shop rebuilt on the very spot where it used to be 20 years ago.

He has returned home after years in exile, and still has traumatic memories of being expelled by the LTTE.

Fleeing in terror

"Two men with guns arrived by motorbike and ordered me and everyone else to leave," he recalls.

"Notices went up ordering us Muslims to get out within 24 hours. They said: If you don't leave, we will shoot all of you tomorrow. We were scared. We all had to flee in boats, through the sea. It was horrible."

Mr Shajahan says the flight of Muslims in 1990 was like the flight from the tsunami in 2004.

It does not take much for him to break down, almost weeping. That happens when I ask him about his life in exile.

There was no work for him in southern Sri Lanka and he was forced to find employment in Saudi Arabia, where he stayed for 20 years.

Now he is back but the site of his old house is completely swallowed up by a Sri Lankan naval base.

He and others say this junction used to be a bustling town. Today, with so many old dwellings gone, that is difficult to believe.

About 100,000 Muslims were ordered out of northern Sri Lanka by the LTTE in 1990. They accused the Muslims as a group of collaborating with the Sri Lankan army.

Rebuilding mosques

The vast majority of the Muslims have remained in internal exile for two decades. Some, yearning for home, have come back to places like Jaffna in the far north and here, to the Mannar district.

A couple of miles from Silavatturai, a mosque has been rebuilt. We are there on a Friday, and men and boys at midday prayers tell us about 20 mosques were destroyed in the area.

Schools, too, were ruined, as were houses - like that of Mahroof Mashfee Shareef.

Mr Shareef was 14 when he fled with his family.

"This was our main hall - that was the office room - and there were two bedrooms," he says as we pick our way among what is now just a pile of rubble in which trees have grown.

He says he cannot explain in words the shock he felt on returning after 20 years and finding it destroyed.

This was the first part of northern Sri Lanka retaken by the government from the LTTE in 2007 after an ill-fated ceasefire, but Mr Shareef's house was clearly destroyed earlier. He does not know how.

He and his brother have rented a small shop to run as a hardware business. Mr Shareef has been leading a comfortable enough life in the south for years but he strongly wants to resettle in the north.

"I think now people are coming and it's going to develop," he says. "I decided that I can do a business here, specially hardware, because there is a lot of construction taking place.

Image caption,
The returnees can only reclaim land on a case-by-case basis

"Even if I don't have any business I would have come here because this is my motherland."

But Mr Shareef has yet to persuade his wife, who teaches in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo and comes from the south, to move here.


For these people, displaced for so long, return is still a voluntary and not really an organised process.

Mirak Raheem of the think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives says they have had to struggle to get government permission to return and to get access to food rations in the north, rations to which displaced people and returnees are entitled.

"It's been a gradual process and so the returnees have faced quite a number of obstacles," he says.

These include the attempt to regain their old livelihoods, something which also involves local government and community leaders and, according to Mr Raheem, continues to be a challenge.

He says returnees can only reclaim their land on a case-by-case basis; some may find it occupied by Tamils who never left the area - others, by the military.

And even though many people are getting government grants to help them build shelters or homes, basic questions of amenities and infrastructure have not yet been addressed.

Return and reconciliation

In Silavatturai we meet an elderly mother, 69-year-old Siththi Fathima, and her son, Yaseen, and his children - a family in limbo.

So far they have only built a temporary shelter which, she says, is inadequate.

"If someone just puts his hand on our house it will fall," she says. "There are scorpions and snakes, elephants all around."

Image caption,
Muslims like Yaseen Fathima are having to rebuild their homes and lives in the north with very little help

But her son could not bear living as a displaced person any longer.

"Our children were born in the south but still people call them refugees," he says. "That really hurts us.

"But we stayed there because we didn't have any other option. Now the problems are over so we've come back to settle in our own land."

The problems are not all over. But in this region there does seem to be hope for inter-ethnic relations.

The Sri Lankan Tamil writer DBS Jeyaraj has remarked on the expelled Muslims' "lack of visible bitterness with Tamils... They do not blame the ordinary Tamil for [their predicament]".

There is no bitterness discernible among the Muslims in Silavatturai.

Conversely, Mr Shajahan says that when he and others returned, their old Tamil friends remaining in the area hugged and embraced them like brothers.

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