Jaffna, September 2002: On a hot tropical evening at a mosque in Jaffna's old Muslim quarter, the worshipers offered me a cup of warm Fanta and begged my forgiveness. It would not do, they muttered to one another, to serve foreign visitors soft drinks without ice. "We will buy an ice machine," one suggested. The notion caused a ripple of excitement until the mosque president, A.C. Mubeen, pointed out that they would need electricity first. Mubeen, once the city's richest Muslim, took me aside and apologized: "As you can see, we do not have very much and everyone is just a little embarrassed."
A little nervous, too. After a dozen years at a refugee camp in Sri Lanka's northwestern district of Puttalam, the 100 Muslim men gathered in the country's northern provincial capital had been back home for just three weeks. They had returned to find their mosque badly damaged, their libraries and schools flattened by bombs, and the nearby streets patrolled by the same machine-gun toting cadres from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who had driven them out in the first place.
For many in Sri Lanka, the future has never seemed so full of promise. After 19 years of blood-soaked civil war, there is a growing optimism that borders on jubilation. In February last year, the separatist Tamil Tigers, who are Tamil Hindus, agreed to a cease-fire with the Buddhist Sinhalese-dominated government, and the truce has so far held. For the first time in nearly two decades, convoys of Sinhalese now drive north from Colombo on Route A9the infamous Highway of Deathto visit friends and relatives in Jaffna. Tiger rebels, once famed for their prowess as suicide bombers, grant interviews these days in which they speak of their love lives instead of politics and death.
But as the fighting draws to an end, a segment of Sri Lanka's approximately 1.5 million Muslims seem in danger of losing the peace. During the war the Muslims in the country's north and east were caught in the middle of the bloodshed, often subjected to the LTTE's worst atrocities because they were assumed to be government supporters. Soon the government and the Tigers will have to decide on the boundaries for the promised Tamil state and on the degree of autonomy it will receive. The Muslim fishermen and farmers of the Eastern province don't want to be ruled by the Tiger leadership and are agitating for their own state. In Sri Lanka's current pluralistic mood, they just might get it. But the Muslims in the north are a small minority. The truce allowed the LTTE to return to Jaffna, and if peace talks succeed, the LTTE will undoubtedly be the city's next governors. The Tigers have promised that the Muslims can return and live peacefully. So far, only a fewMubeen and his friends among themhave done so. And they remain wary, afraid that their hosts will turn against them once more. Mubeen confides, "We decided that if we arrive in Jaffna and the Tigers kill us, then at least we die in our homeland."
When I met them, all they had were the ragged clothes on their backs and some plastic bags filled with a few meager possessions. But they drew strength from one another, from their shared faith and experience. As I sipped my warm Fanta, they spoke of rebuilding the mosque, then a school, a library and, lastly, their homes. Only the muezzin's call interrupted their visions of a resurrected community. When the wail began, they bade me good night and filed into the torched ruins of their mosque to pray.