Geneva, 19 March, 2003 - Like many Sri Lankans, the leader of the Muslim refugee community in Trincomalee, in eastern part of Sri Lanka, Mr. Rahamathulla Shahib, is waiting patiently to see the outcome of the peace process that is currently taking place in his country.
"It is really a test to see if the current peace process holds for all ethnic groups and not just the Tamil and Sinhalese communities," he says, adding that "we (Muslims) were also greatly affected by the civil war and now we feel we are being left out of the peace talks."
Seven peace accords have been signed since fighting broke out between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - also known as the Tamil Tigers - and the government of Sri Lanka in 1980. Until the most recent one, they never lasted. The current peace process, brokered by the Norwegian government in February 2002, has now lasted for a whole year and is seen by many as a positive move.
Although the Muslims are Tamil-speaking, they have experienced pressure from both the government and the LTTE. In 1990, over 16,000 Muslim families were evicted from their ancestral homes by the Tamil Tigers in the Jaffna Peninsula. They were accused by the LTTE as collaborating with the Sinhalese government. Thousands of them are currently settled as refugees in the harbor city of Trincomalee.
"We have been living in these two old warehouses for the past 12 years," said Shahib, a father and grandfather of 10 children and 36 grandchildren. "We were forcibly removed from our land. Our houses were burnt to ashes," recalled Shahib.
Currently, 38 Muslim families live in the two warehouses called the 'Love Lane' refugee camp, which is sometimes flooded during the rainy seasons and gets very damp inside. The zinc materials they use as walls have turned very rusty and pose a health hazard, especially for the children.
The conflict has exacted a price from everyone in this country. The population in the eastern province of Sri Lanka is made up of Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese, who live in separate communities with the Tamils being the largest group. Besides the Muslim refugees, there are also Tamil and Sinhalese refugee camps.
"The eastern province poses a great challenge to the peace process because of the existence of the three ethnic groups," said Rev. Terrence of the Methodist Church in Trincomalee. "How do you reconcile communities that have lived separately in an area and fought each other for the past 22 years?" asked Rev. Terrence.
In response to the refugee crisis in the eastern part of the country, the National Council of Churches in Sri Lanka (NCCSL) - a member of the global alliance, Action by Churches Together, (ACT) International- and its local partner, the Methodist Church in Trincomalee, are helping the refugees in the city by providing them with basic food necessities and helping them resettle by providing roofing sheets for their houses, constructing water wells and providing tractors to clear their land in the settlement areas.
Although the government provided the land for resettlement to all the three communities, the problem is they do not assist them with building materials explained Rev. Terrence, who acts as negotiator everyday between the government, LTTE and Muslim communities. "It is important to build bridges between the three groups if you want to operate in the east," he said.
In addressing the question of reconciliation in Trincomalee, the Methodist Church has introduced a "peace nursery school" as a pilot project that brings together children between the ages of 3 and 6 from the three ethnic groups - Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese.
"We see the nurseries as a bridge between the three ethnic groups in the area," said Rev. Terrence, explaining that it provides an opportunity for parents from the different communities to speak to each other when they bring the kids to school and during major activities like parents day.
The peace nursery is seen as a first step to reconciliation and promoting a culture of peace to children at an early stage. "Teaching children to live together at an early age is important in this divided community," said Rev. Terrance, adding that the children learn about the different ethnic groups, by talking of the different things they do at home and also their different religions. Besides education, the children are also provided with nutritional food items such as milk, rice and proteins, since a number of the children suffer from malnutrition.
Should the pilot project prove a success, a number of peace nursery schools will be introduced in other areas through the NCCSL, said Rev. Terrance.
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