Feature | Lankan Muslims trapped in a deepening conflict | india | Hindustan Times
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Feature | Lankan Muslims trapped in a deepening conflict

'We are the football kicked by both sides', says Rasool Haniffa, who was given two hours to leave his home in northern Lanka by LTTE.

india Updated: Jan 08, 2007 13:27 IST

Like thousands of other Muslims, shopkeeper Rasool Haniffa was given just two hours to pack up and leave his home in northern Sri Lanka by the Tamil Tiger rebels.

They said he could only take 150 rupees ($1.40) and a set of clothes, and that he would be allowed to return once the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), fighting for a separate homeland for minority Tamils in the north and east of the island, had won the conflict with the government.

Seventeen years later, Haniffa and his family of eight remain in a dirt camp of thatched huts in an obscure corner of western Sri Lanka, forgotten and barely a footnote in the deepening ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese, who mostly follow Buddhism, and the mainly Hindu Tamils.

"We are the football kicked by both sides," said Haniffa, 42, sitting in a straw hut where he sells cold drinks to the 1,200 refugees that live in the camp in Alankuda, 140 kms of a mostly dirt road drive from Colombo.

"The LTTE won't have us back and the government is too busy settling scores with them to give us a permanent shelter," Haniffa said, with just a trace of bitterness.

The camp, which the displaced people built themselves on a useless piece of government land miles away from the nearest village, doesn't even have a name so as not to give it permanence.

The government which gives the refugees dry rations each month says they have to go back once it clears the northern and eastern areas of the Tiger rebels, but there is no knowing when that will happen, or even if it's possible.

Sri Lanka's Muslims who make up about 8 per cent of the population are the often ignored element of the 24-year conflict that is tearing apart the palm-fringed island of nearly 20 million people.

As thousands more are displaced in fresh fighting between the Tamil Tigers and the military especially in the east, the nation's third largest ethnic group is finally speaking up.

Muslims barely have had a voice, are trusted by neither side and remain shut out of the peace process.

Yet any solution would be almost impossible without them, at least in the east where they are a third of the population.

"The government is fighting for the Sinhalese, the LTTE are fighting for the Tamils, and there is nobody standing up for the Muslims," said MDM Rizvi, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, an umbrella group of Muslim organisations.

An estimated 85,000 Muslims - who speak Tamil - were expelled from the northern areas by the LTTE in October 1990 and the group has never apologised or compensated the community for what it calls ethnic cleansing.

Rashiyabehan, who was seven when she left her home in the Mullaittivu area in the north, said her family had tried to go back to escape the grim atmosphere of the camp, but there wasn't anyone guaranteeing security.

"We don't like staying here in a camp when we have a house there, but we don't know if our children are going to be safe," the heavily pregnant woman said, referring to child abductions that the guerrillas and a breakaway faction are accused of committing.

The LTTE and the breakaway Karuna faction which is accused of links with the Sri military have both been known to have child soldiers, many forcibly taken from their families.

"We want peace, and if they can't give us peace, then they should make this a permanent settlement," she said.

The refugees have demonstrated in the district headquarters of Puttalam and in Colombo several times to press their case for a permanent settlement but there hasn't been any response.

"There is anger and frustration, and the youth are getting militarized at least in thought," said Rizvi. "They are asking why can't we look after ourselves if nobody else will."

Some youth like a group of strapping men in the dusty Alankuda camp said they had joined non-government groups to aid other displaced Muslims.

Siraj was just back from helping Muslims in the east where he said the community was suffering because neither the LTTE nor the government trusted them.

The Tigers accused the Muslims of helping the government and the government considered them a possible security risk, he said.

The government had given new assault rifles to vigilante defence committees guarding Sinhalese villages while the Muslim villages only had "18th century shotguns" to defend themselves.

"They fear giving weapons to a Muslim can turn out to be dangerous," Siraj said. "But people are getting angry; soon they will get arms on their own."