Much has been written about the Muslims who were evicted from Jaffna by the LTTE in 1990. It’s been exactly 25 years since the ethnic cleansing in October 1990, which drove out 72,000 Muslims from the Northern Province.
Since then, little has been done for these families. Discussions in the media in recent days have included articles by prominent activists such as Ahilan Kadirgamar and academic Dr. Jehan Perera. These articles recall the mass eviction: how they were forced to leave within just 24 hours with nothing but a few rupees in hand.
While the articles are about the history, and what must be done for the Muslims who were evicted, Humans of Northern Sri Lanka interviewed a woman whose family was expelled from Jaffna while she was working in Saudi Arabia. Her account is a moving story about the difficulties she faced and how she overcame the hardships to support her family.
“I began working as a maid in Saudi Arabia in 1985 because my husband fell ill and was no longer able to support us. Thus I personally did not get caught up in the eviction of Muslims from the Northern Province in 1990.
I didn’t hear of it until 2 years later in 1992 actually. I had worked for two other employers who had treated me fairly well but in 1989, I moved into the employment of a family who kept me working day and night without paying me anything. I clung on in the hope they would eventually pay my dues.
I was cleaning the mistress’s room one day when I came across a series of letters addressed to me, which she had never bothered to hand over to me.
I learnt of my community’s eviction in 1990, of my husband’s passing away soon afterwards, and the anguish of my children left wondering why their mother was not responding at all to their letters or not sending any money, leaving them penniless orphans – all in one day.
I went on a hunger fast for 13 days and refused to do any more work before my employers relented and gave me my passport back along with an airline ticket to Sri Lanka. They still didn’t give me my three years’ worth of salary but at that point, I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was get back at any cost.
When I arrived, I found the community living in camps in Puttalam. Once, the disparity between the rich and poor of our neighbourhood had been sharp. Now, everyone was terribly poor.
Even so, cultural conditioning kept the women still confined within and not working. I was the first woman in the camp to go out and get work – planting onions on a farm. Thereafter many other women eventually followed my example even though I was mocked initially. I was paid Rs.55 per day.”
Was that an adequate amount?
“Well, this was back in 1992. Yes, it served for my family’s daily needs. I was able to look after my three children with it.”
Were there any disparity between your wages and the men’s wages?
“Our pay depended on our efficiency at work – how many onions we could plant in a day. My pay was initially less than the others because I was not used to the work. The employing farmer family was very conscious of the fact I was the only female at work and so were quite solicitous of my welfare.
At the end of each day, when they counted out my earnings, they would be concerned I was not earning enough and give encouraging counsel. ‘Don’t worry umma, this is because you are new to this, you will soon pick up and be able to earn better.’ As time went on and I did become more efficient, they did pay me better.”
Shared with approval from Thulasi Muttulingam, founder and admin of Humans of Northern Sri Lanka.
We can all take a leaf out of this unnamed heroine’s book. Life can throw you a few screwballs, and at times consecutively even when you still haven’t recovered from the last few. But if we stay strong and face them, we will be able to able to see those tough times end and even inspire others to help themselves.