Friday, March 27, 2009

Building Bridges between Communities

Thashreeq Moulawi still remembers his childhood well.  A 4-5 km walk one way to middle school in Muttur was a chore.  Growing up in the village of Arafa Nagar separated from the Mainland by a river, children from the village had to take a long detour round. ‘It used to take a whole hour to get to school’ he reminisces.  ‘There was a lot of discussion on putting a bridge across the river, however it somehow never used to materialize.  There were numerous attempts to put a temporary bridge and then the rains would come and wash the bridge away’.  So crossing the river meant swimming or using boats.  Life in the early seventies seemed much simpler then.  After school it was helping out with the family farm.  Thashreeq Moulawi’s forefathers had first settled in the village in 1914 to cultivate.
In the early eighties, the scenario started to change.  The politics of the land started to catch up with the small community of Arafa Nagar.  A predominately Muslim village surrounded by 5 Tamil villages, Tashreeq remembers the growing mistrust that started to emerge between the two ethnic communities.  ‘As a child, I remember having Tamil friends and playing with them in the fields that divided some of these villages.  As I became a teenager, we stopped playing with each other and our village elders would warn us about associating with the Tamils.  There emerged this mistrust’.
In 1985, following an escalation in the conflict, the outskirts of Muttur was occupied by the LTTE and the muslim village of Arafa Nagar was displaced to the mainland of Muttur.  For twenty plus years or so, from Muttur, they looked across the river at their deprived fertile lands as they noticed it being occupied.  Gradually these lands were also abandoned and became overgrown.  The people of Arafa Nagar had to change their lifestyles as production levels decreased and they were forced to take on other jobs to survive.   As the years passed by, Thashreeq Moulawi began to lose hope in ever returning to the land of his forefathers.
In 2006, following an escalation in the conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army in Muttur which saw about 50,000 people displaced from Mutur to Kanthale a town 60 miles south, Thashreeq Moulawi lost all hope of things going back to normal.  The 2006 conflict also saw the inhabitants of the  Tamil villages of Amman Nagar and others which surrounded Arafa Nagar also being displaced.
One month after the displacement, Thashreeq Moulawi was repatriated in Muttur and along with his friends and family were exploring the extreme possibility of returning back to Arafa Nagar.
‘We were skeptical, but somehow we wanted to believe that we could actually return back to Arafa Nagar’ he reminisces.  Getting together with other village elders most of whom were all childhood friends, a plan and proposal was prepared for resettling back in Arafa Nagar as a duty towards building a better Muttur.  As the friends discussed, they identified that if they were to return back, it would take one thing.  Building a permanent bridge across the river!!
An assessment team by Muslim Aid, in October 2006, looking at ways of rebuilding the shattered town were approached and the proposal was discussed with them.  They added that if given access to these lands once more, they could return to their hometown and restart their lush cultivations once more. The idea was initially met with skepticism by the team.  Thashreeq Moulawi explains ‘we had to convince them that this idea was valid.  It sounded too far fetched.  If returning to an area to restart livelihoods after 20 years  sounded crazy, our assertion that building a bridge across the river would cause this to happen was nonsense.  However we took them to the area and showed them the river and the land’.  After much persuasion, the assessment team agreed to take this proposal into consideration.
It was in April 2007, that Muslim Aid (this time with another organization Americares) came back  to do the initial groundwork and surveys.  The people of Arafa Nagar buoyed by this unexpected development came together to form a community based organization, Rural Development Society (RDS).   They could see a faint light at the end of the tunnel.  The organization resolved to show the two organizations that they were fully behind the building of the bridge and started to organize go and see visits to the area using local boats.  Eventually they organized cleaning up programs and the whole area was cleaned in preparation for the return.
As the construction proceeded, once, they were assured of their safety, the community started the resettling process and together with support from Muslim Aid and other organizations cleaned up their village, roads, and wells etc., before they got down to cultivation. Simultaneously,  other agencies  have intervened and put up temporary shelters for the people, barbed wire to fence off their respective plots and jack, papaya and other useful seedlings to help make the village a hub of production. As a direct result of this, today we see 400-500 acres of land being cultivated on.
  RDS resolved to build a temporary bridge in order to aid returning farmers.  Thashreeq Moulawi was one of the founding members ‘We were so excited about the building of the bridge.  I remember that when it first started, we would be bringing food and drinks for the laborers.  We felt that these people were not doing a job, they were doing a service and for that we wanted to show our gratitude.  We wanted to encourage people to go back so that by the time the bridge was built.  So we built a temporary bridge to facilitate this process’.
The construction of the bridge was not without problems.  Initially beset by design challenges and ignorance of the ground conditions, a change of contractors and laborers was not helped by inclement weather conditions and political interference.  At one stage the army who has a base close to Amman Nagar declared parts of the area a high security zone, which meant that returnees would not be able to access their lands, a problem compounded by the return of the displaced Tamil community back to Amman Nagar.  RDS approached the Tamil community and together made representations to the Army commander who initially allowed people to return during the day to look after their farms.  This has since been overturned and people are now allowed to stay during the nights.
‘The returning Tamil communities from the neighbouring villages was a concern initially for us’ remembers Thashreeq Moulawi. ‘After decades of being apart and having the mistrust, we were initially apprehensive.  However when the army declared it a high security zone, both communities got together on this common issue.  We wanted the right to return and rebuild our own lands.  This was the start of the thawing of relations.  We began to understand that we not really that different.  All our communities wanted to do was to do our livelihoods, out a roof over our heads, food on the table and send our children to school.  This  understanding was vital for us and in fact the building of the bridge in some way was the catalyst for us to start cooperating’
Chitra a resident of Amman Nagar, agrees ‘ previously we would have had to walk around 3½ kms just to access a hospital or school, before. Once we returned after the displacement we were keen on rebuilding and restarting our lives.  This bridge is helping us in terms of economic enhancement whilst also helping our communities to come together’
This past year, the communities have celebrated each other’s religious and cultural festivals whilst also providing support to each other in terms of livelihood. 
AmeriCares and Muslim Aid finally ceremonially opened the bridge nicknamed ‘The Friendship Bridge’ on 26th February 2009. The bridge will play a twin role of linking these two agricultural villages to the mainland, and also, the more significant role of “building bridges” between the two communities. The main objective now for both communities seems to be, to work towards making their villages a joint hub of production, from where they can export their produce to the main market in Dambulla which is about 125km south of Muttur. Their joint cultivation area spans over about 400 acres of land, at present.
What is most significant about the building of this bridge is the bringing together of the two neighbouring villages of the predominantly Tamil village of Amman Nagar and  the predominantly Muslim Arafa Nagar, a village.  Both communities are now living and  Muslims working together side by side, retaining their own identities and also co-existing without misunderstanding.
As Thashreeq Moulawi says ‘Now, because of the bridge, it takes our children only about 5 minutes to do the trip. Having only recently moved back to Arafa Nagar as an Imam in the village mosque, I too have now begun cultivating and returning to my old way of life. Earlier, there was also a lot of mistrust between the Muslim and Tamil communities living here, as Arafa Nagar is surrounded by 5 predominantly Tamil villages. Nearly 500 families cross this bridge on a day to day basis. We hope this new bridge will bring about peace between the two communities’ 
 I reflected on this the day I drove into Arafa Nagar on the day prior to the opening of the bridge, and saw a Tamil family and a Muslim family sipping tea together under the shade of a tree, looking on as their children laughed and played nearby…  the natural sense of synergy had just been achieved.  I knew that one part of our work was done but there still remains much to be achieved on this long walk. 

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