The Sunday TimesPlus

18th August 1996




Destination nowhere

by Arshad M. Hadrijin

The notice board at the refugee centre, 10.3kAziz Mohammed Amir, 22, who has known the life of a refugee from the time he was only 16, has only one thing in mind - money, nothing but money. He knows that first he should establish himself, to make up in some small measure for all what he lost in Jaffna. And being at the Peterson Lane, Wellawatte relief camp enabled him to earn some income, as did all the other able bodied men who lived in the camp for almost six years.

The 32 families or 136 persons (42 men, 32 women and the rest children) were near-aliens back in 1990, as they hardly spoke any Sinhalese nor had the stamina to bounce back whenever they were cheated. Today they know they can survive in Colombo.

Now fear has set into them. Will their dreams ever come true?

"We refugees are now slaves." This was the sad cry of a group of 136 displaced persons, who having fled Jaffna and been given refuge at a Wellawatte Community Centre nearly six years ago, were again facing an unsettled future. Last month the Colombo Municipality had issued them an ultimatum-that they vacate their temporary "home" within a month. That deadline was set for last Thursday.

"Is it ethical of the white collars at the Municipality to put us back on the roads?" asked one of the aggrieved persons, who had already packed his belongings making sure that nothing was left behind for a journey to an unknown destination. "We started with virtually nothing, after we were forced to evacuate within a matter of two hours, from our homeland in Jaffna. But again we are under a similar compulsion, and this time it is official."

This group is only a segment of the nearly 80,000 Muslims and Sinhalese, who were made to flee the Jaffna district on 31.10.1990, by the LTTE. "Now it looks as if we might have to head for Puttalam," said one.

Colombo Mayor K. Ganeshalingam, who was stern in affirming that the refugees be cleared out of the Community Centre, however, once again relented on seeing their plight. It was decided late on Wednesday afternoon that the refugees be given a small reprieve - now they have been given another four months time to leave the Community Centre.

This is some consolation for the refugees, who had repeatedly called on the rehabilitation authorities to give them more time to make arrangements for another move - primarily to minimise the disruption to around 40 children among them who are now attending Colombo schools.

Mr. Ganeshalingam said that the Community Centre was needed for many other requirements including a library. "We are now trying to settle the people in Puttalam or some other area where they could stay permanently and earn their living" he said.

According to the refugees none of the rehabilitation authorities had come forward to help resolve their crisis, up to last Wednesday, even as the original deadline drew frighteningly close. "We hadn't cooked for the last four days, as we were greatly worried not knowing where we would have to go."

Luckily they were not made to leave and it has somewhat relaxed the month-long trauma they underwent from the day they saw the board put up by the Municipal authorities outside the Community Centre asking them to vacate the premises. But now, they have already started worrying about the departure in December. "Will Puttalam have all the resources that are found in Colombo, to start life again, namely casual work, which is easily found in Colombo?" they ask.

The Community Centre is a two storey building, where after 9 PM., families are segregated, the men and women spending the night separately. They each receive 12 kgs of rice, 750 grams of Dhal, 300 grams of sugar, and a bottle of coconut oil from the government monthly.

With all this there have been six weddings, and many births in this community in the six years that they have been in Colombo. "We are now part and parcel of Colombo and we wouldn't like to be pushed away from here" said the father of a young child.

Though none of the residents of the Wellawatte Community Centre wish to live in confinement, they can see no other alternative at present.

"We are not prepared to go to Jaffna, nor are we prepared to leave Colombo," they say. Yet they are not alone in their plight. The government is already struggling to cope with the increasing flood of refugees from the North. There are more refugees housed at Maligawatte, Kuppiawatte and Mattakuliya who too have been given four months notice by the CMC to vacate. Whether the authorities have looked into the human aspect of the problem a

Media's role in ethnic crisis


by Vinoth Ramachchandra

Why do most of our newspapers continue to refer to the tragic events of July '83 as "riots"? I raise this question because I believe in the power of words to shape our attitudes, values and social practices.

What we normally call "riots" are spontaneous eruptions of mob violence. However, much of the violence witnessed in the last week of July '83 was not spontaneous, nor was it "inter-ethnic" in the sense of Tamils and Sinhalese fighting each other. It was nothing less than an organized, systematic campaign of murder and arson directed at the Tamils living in the south of the island. Mobs there were, but they were often led by well-dressed men carrying electoral lists as they went from house to house inquiring after Tamil residents.

Many brave Sinhalese risked their lives to save Tamil men, women and children. But, in the early stages of the violence (before it provoked international outrage), several police and army personnel stood idly by as mobs torched houses and slaughtered innocent Sri Lankan citizens.

The correct word for what happened in July '83 is a "pogrom". This brings out the elements of planning and persecution that are lacking in a word such as "riot". This pogrom had all the hallmarks of a project orchestrated by some senior members of the government at the time. It alienated the government completely from the Tamils, swelled overnight the ranks of the LTTE (who hitherto had little support even among the people of Jaffna), emptied our treasury and tourist hotels, led to a mass exodus of professionals and made the country an object of pity and revulsion to millions of people abroad. What probably began as just another exercise in local political thuggery escalated so fast that it backfired on the government. The people of Sri Lanka were the losers. We still live with the aftermath of that pogrom.

Why do I rehearse these facts? Because a whole generation of school-children are growing up who are prevented from facing the grim realities of our recent history. Newspapers and TV do a public disservice by using words like "riots", "disturbances", "troubles" etc. to describe the conflagration in the country during that infamous week. Just as Tamil children in the north need to be reminded of the terrible atrocities committed by the LTTE against their own people as well as against innocent Sinhalese, so children in the south need to be made aware of the government sponsored racism and violence that led to the strengthening of the LTTE in the 1980s. As long as children are exposed to only one side of the story, they will perpetuate the prejudices, ignorance and hatreds that previous generations have sown.

The media are largely responsible for this situation, as are the writers of our school history textbooks. Is it too late to suggest that newspapers editors and journalists begin to make amends for their moral cowardice in the past? I feel it is only this that will give moral and intellectual substance to the campaign for a "free media". Freedom can only flourish among people concerned, above all, for truth.

My concern is the same as that shown after the Second World War that subsequent generations of Germans never forget the Nazi terror lest they repeat it; or Steven Spielberg's making of Schindler's List to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust as a testimony to human evil; or the protests by Koreans and others at new Japanese history textbooks which glided over the atrocities committed by Japanese troops in the far east....

No UNP politician, to the best of my knowledge, has ever publicly apologised to the Tamil community for the events of July '83 . Those who believe that time alone will heal the wounds inflicted on individuals and communities have little understanding of history. Nothing ever gets swept under the carpet. Every trouble spot in today's world (from Bosnia to Ulster) is reaping the whirlwind of centuries- old injustices. As with personal relationships, so with communities: only public contrition, confession and restitution can heal the bitterness and restore what is lost.

But far from showing any indication of contrition, the present Leader of the Opposition (who was in the Cabinet of the '83 government) continues to play the power-games he has presumably learned from his now-diseased seniors. No opportunity is lost to exploit every tragedy in the country in order to embarrass the present government. After waiting for many months to gauge which way the winds of political fortune were blowing, the UNP has finally come out openly against the devolution package. So, for all the much- publicized "new look" to the UNP, what actually has changed?

Politics is in bad shape in Sri Lanka, and has been for several decades. It seems that we have blindly worshipped politics and politicians as the answer to all our problems, and so (not surprisingly) we end up getting the leaders we deserve. But if we are forced to choose between living with the incompetencies of the present government and a return to the terror of the past, we don't need to think twice before we choose.

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