Sri Lanka: Impressions - war and peace in Mutur

South Asia Citizen's Wire
This is a short impressionistic imprint by the Coalition of Tamils and Muslims for Peace and Coexistence (CTMPC) of a village in Mutur district today, a village unable to recover, unable to recuperate in the continuing condition of war and instability.
What have war, ethnic cleansing, inter-ethnic hostilities done to us? The town of Mutur and surrounding areas in Mutur district were the site of intense violence, of acts of ethnic cleansing carried out by the LTTE and forces of the State, including bombing, wanton killings and forced mass displacements and a general air of indifference by politicians just a month ago.
Today, attention has shifted elsewhere, to Muhamalai, to Habaranna, to Galle and the continuing tragedy of the armed forces and the LTTE clashing and killing each other, in which more people are going to be displaced. We still do not know about the actual numbers of people displaced this year. This is a short impressionistic imprint of a village in Mutur district today, a village unable to recover, unable to recuperate in the continuing condition of war and instability.

In this predominantly Muslim village, whose people want to remain unidentified, many of the people have come back, most of them reluctantly, to their houses, broken apart by bombing and shelling. And they have taken up residence there, not knowing where else to go. But they live in fear and loss. They feel totally helpless.

"War is not outside us, the war and the violence is inside us. It's in our children's drawings. Our children draw the story of displacement in their sketches of that August month, and subsequent days of bombing and shelling, finding our friends gone; each one of them is a record of our history; each carries pictures of the hill of Kiranthimunai where young Muslim men were separated from the women by the LTTE so that they could be massacred. You know all about that. They draw multi barreled gun, some of them have not even seen it. They draw pictures of fleeing people."

What we present about Mutur is not confined to it only. After the devastating war in the Trincomalee District in the past few months, the areas in and around Mutur, including Sampur, have become a land pock marked with the war that has swept through it like the ferocious tsunami that hit the shores of Sri Lanka. But the war has not just created destruction, it has ripped into the very fabric of society, normalcy, community bonding, trust in one another and in one's neighbours. The situation in this town is representative of other Tamil and Sinhala villages overturned by this cruel war, very much like what happened in April in the towns and villages of Trincomalee, where one was attacked from all sides. Yet some aspects are specific to it too, in this war of very specific targets, mistrusts, fears. We of course continue to hope, against all hope. Please do listen to us.

"We live amidst the constant battery of the Multi (mulit barreled cannon). Just mere artillery shelling is nothing to us. It's like child's play now. When the multi pounds from our side, it uproots the buildings, the buildings take off into the air, as though they have left our bodies. It feels like that."

"We are ready to run, take off, any moment. We feel that as there are no people in Sampur, LTTE will use our villages to attack the forces from. The LTTE is in neighbouring Alinagar and other places. We will be mere cannon fodder. The Muslims are ranged around the camps of the forces. If the LTTE attacks the camps, then that's it. We will be just crushed like ants. We cannot go through Kiranthimunai, and the terrible fleeing."

"We cannot forget Kiranthimunai which is now part of our local history. What happened at Kiranthimunai is forever in our minds. We walked all the way to Thoppur. There was no water anywhere. We dipped the ends of our sarees in puddles on the way and squeezed the water out. The cloth was a filter for the mud. This is the tale we will tell our children."She does not cry or speak much, this woman who lost her child in her tummy when she ran miles, falling, falling on the way.

"Allah gave me this gift of child. But I did not take care of it properly. People say now, you could have left the place early, gone to Trinco. It's through my carelessness that I lost this child"

" So many pregnant women lost their babies. We are afraid now to have babies. If we are to run again?"

A six month pregnant woman cannot feel life in her tummy. Her husband had disappeared, given up for dead at the hands of the LTTE. But he appears one day, with injuries that he does not want to talk about. In her sorrow of her missing husband, she had not thought of looking to her own welfare. In any case there is no gynaecologist , nor any facilities in her area. How can she go to Trinco given the way things are in the area?

"We are numb with no feelings left. We are left speechless. A Tamil man who fed the fleeing Muslims,on the way, in a neighbouring village and who transported some of them in his van was shot dead by the LTTE for helping the "Sonis" "So, you are giving soda to the Sonis?" He was asked. His family seems to have vanished from the place. We cannot look to any assistance from Tamils, how can we?"

The people are in shock, feeling depressed with their state of total helplessness. The tragedy of Mutur is a very specific tragedy. At the same time, it is part of the tragedy of war and peace in Sri Lanka. It's the same story in Sampur when Tamil women walked hundreds of miles to get to safe places, with a large number fleeing to Batticaloa. Trincomalee has become an epicenter of insecurity and violence. The majority of refugees fleeing to India are mainly from Trincomalee, who first cross overland to Mannar and then crossed illegally to India. Following the Marvil Aru sluice dispute, Sinhala villagers from the area fled the place in sheer terror. The phantom of Kebethigollewa and Welikanda, where Sinhala border villagers were massacred by the LTTE, driving them from their homes and villages.

Tamils in the district like the other communities are caught between the terror of the LTTE and that of the state. A woman from a camp for displaced people in a government controlled area, who had remonstrated with the LTTE for taking away her 14 year old child for training way back in March, was told by them, "you can wear these very same clothes that you are wearing and go and live among the Sinhalese as a Sinhalathi (Sinhala woman). How can I do that, what are my means for doing that?" Everybody knows she would not be able to find a safe home in the 'Sinhala' areas. The violence has had a direct impact on relations between communities with an increased level of suspicion, tension and even communal violence as was seen in the riots against Tamils in Trincomalee Town during the Tamil and Sinhala New Year. The riots were ironically and cruelly set off by a bomb in the market place that claimed victims of all the communities.

The tragedy of Mutur is not purely a tragedy of one town or district. Mutur a predominantly Muslim town has Tamils too. 17 aid workers (mostly Tamil, with one Muslim) were allegedly massacred by members of the armed personnel in Mutur town at the height of the war. With LTTE's acts of ethnic cleansing toward the Muslims, Tamils in Mutur feel beleagured and lost. There is a shortage of Tamil speaking doctors in the area, but Tamil doctors are scared to go to Mutur district, fearing danger from the armed forces and perhaps reprisals from Muslims in the area, though this is not so strongly articulated.

While the destruction of lives is one of the tragedies of the war, the greater tragedy is that of how communities, who have not merely co-existed, but had communed together and been interdependent, both in times of well-being and adversity, have been cleft apart. The other tragic irony is that the conditions of war have actually not left any of the communities in the east untouched, and all three communities have been affected by both the LTTE and the armed forces. This very vicious war that has and continues to divide people according to ethnic lines, has deliberately tried to pit people against each other. At the same time, the conditions of war and the modus operandi of the LTTE and the state, bind the people in one common thread of suffering that all marginalized feel.. A Tamil woman from Mutur district said, the army would stay here for 10 or 15 days. After that? Is it war again? This could have been a Muslim woman, a Sinhala woman. When a Sinhala woman in Kantale displaced from the Marvil aru area says, I will go back if the artillery battery stops, it could have been stated by a Tamil woman too. Even in the face of increasing communal suspicions against the other community, there is a realization that one's own security is tied to that of the other. For a number of Mutur Muslims, until their Tamil neighbours return, there can be no return of 'normalcy.'

The impact of violence on the people is at multiple levels. But media and political focus is on statistics- how many killed, how many displaced or on particular incidents which captures the attention of the media and the general public. There is something beyond the direct victims of the violence - an affect population. Nobody asks how many cannot sleep at night in their own homes (where the house is still standing?) and how many have to find refuge in numbers in one house or in a public building in their own community; how many cannot farm, fish or trade out of fear or security restrictions; how many are in debt as a direct result of the violence, destruction and displacement or simply because they cannot withdraw money from banks as the banks do not have money (in Jaffna and Killinochchi); how many patients who cannot get their regular doses of medication for diabetes, cancer or any such disease; how many are traumatized?

In this continuing state of instability and uncertainty, one cannot move on. This is perhaps the most debilitating state of existence for the majority of people here: They, we, cannot move on beyond the state of war. For they are surrounded by war; it can resume any time. People who speak for peace or war for peace cannot remain silent in the face of this. Both the LTTE and the Government have by their actions further ethnicized this conflict, forcing the civilians to become part of the war efforts. In this war of ethnicity, the people have been given short shrift, their needs, fears and aspirations unheeded to. Their voices unheard.

Coalition of Tamils and Muslims for Peace and Coexistence (CTMPC)
October 23, 2006