Dotted with tall palm trees, white sandy beaches and a turquoise blue lagoon, Haa Alifu Hathifushi is the epitome of a beautiful Maldivian island.
At 833 meters in length and 823 meters in width, it’s also very small: “Hathifushi was the smallest inhabited island in the Maldives”, according to the island’s chief, Ibrahim Ali.
Getting to the island is a precarious activity these days – the jetty is in the process of crumbling.
Fallen leaves carpet the floor of the main road, while half-open doors reveal houses falling to ruin, overtaken by creeping vines.
Trees laden with unpicked fruits, bananas, stone apples and coconuts betray the lack of human activity, while clothes still strung on wash lines, books strewn about living rooms, photos hanging on walls show the haste with which the islanders departed.
Mohamed Rasheed, 46 (pictured top right) is one of only three people left on the island.
“It’s not difficult staying here, after all its my birth island,” says Rasheed, who works as the island’s caretaker.
With only three days to move, 127 Hathifushi islanders bundled their most precious possessions into speedboats on 5 July 2007 and made the 45 minute journey to nearby Hanimadhoo.
“The islanders have wanted to move for 56 years,” says Ali, who now resides in Hanimadhoo but remains chief of the Hathifushi islanders.
Over the years a lot of the islanders migrated to other islands or the capital in search of better education and facilities. For those that remained a way forward seemed to become narrower and narrower.
The islanders asked successive governments to relocate them, but somehow the opportunity never materialised.
Abdul Rahman, 81, one of the oldest Hathifushi islanders, talks of missed chances.
“The first president Mohamed Amin came, next Ibrahim Nasir also came, both talked of relocation to Nolhivaranfaru and said ‘better services would be provided if you move.’”
He adds Amin’s subsequent death a couple of months later, and Nasir’s resignation before he got round to doing it, put an end to that.
Requests were sent to Gayoom’s government.
“In the 90s Atolls Minister Ilyas Ibrahim visited, followed by his successor Abdulla Hameed.”
Choice of Maafilafushi, Hanimadhoo or Kelaa was offered, but the move didn’t materialise as Ilyas fell out with Gayoom and was sentenced to banishment in absentia, while Hameed was promoted to presidential advisor.
From the way he talks, it’s almost as if Rahman believes the relocation was jinxed.
“The last atoll minister in Gayoom’s government, Waheeddeen, got everyone to agree to move to Thulusdhoo,” he says.
Then the tsunami struck, and the islanders were informed that Thulusdhoo had taken in displaced islanders and no longer had space for them.
Although spared from the tsunami, Hathifushi experienced tidal swelling waves three days later.
“The island was flooded except just a tiny part in the middle,” says Ali.
Urgent requests were made, and a visit from the atoll chief, who upon seeing the flooding placed a call to the then president Gayoom, sped up the process.
“Hanimadhoo was ready to welcome us,” says Rahman, talking about how excited the islanders were to finally move. Islanders were advised to rent houses in Hanimadhoo with the money paid to them by the government, a monthly stipend of Rf500 (US$40) per person.
Mohamed Ali, 59, who resides with his family in nearby Hoarafushi, says islanders were told they could chose to move to another island and government would continue to provide them assistance until housing could be built for them.
The housing dream
Two years and six months later, the islanders still live in rented houses in Hanimadhoo. A frustrated Mohamed Ali says despite informing all the ministries he had moved to Hoarafushi “didn’t receive one cent of assistance, unlike those living in Hanimadhoo.”
The houses that were promised to them still remain a dream.
“President Gayoom promised to build houses within 18 months; his government lost power before he could do that,” says a housewife who lives with her three children on rent.
Numerous islanders say a contract was signed by the previous government to build houses for them.
Ali claims “the previous government very kindly told us that the year we moved they didn’t have money to build houses in that year’s budget and that following year it would be included.”
He adds that more than Rf600,000 (US$46,000) was spent by the previous government in paying off Hanimadhoo islanders who had palm trees and such on a land that the government had designated as the area for building houses.
Riddle of the contract
The contract was jointly awarded to Yuman Constructions and Sri Lankan company Isuru Engineering Pvt Ltd. A spokesman for Yuman Construction confirmed the company signed the contract in October 2008.
“We did a survey of the land in Hanimadhoo in October,” he says.
With the change of government in the following month, they were informed that the project could not be continued as “houses cannot be built with non-existent money.”
In March this year the company received the termination letter for the contract.
“No payments had been made by then, as conditions had been attached for payment in the [original] contract,” the spokesman said.
State Minister for the Upper North Province Mohamed Hunaif says the government had no choice.
“The contract had to be terminated; no money was allocated for it by the previous government nor was it mentioned how the money would be found, Hunaif says.
Waiting for homes
Islanders say that when new president Mohamed Nasheed made a trip to Hanimadhoo last year, he promised them housing by the end of 2009.
“I live in that hope, even though the end of the year is here,” says Ali.
Hunaif says the project is in the pipeline: “We will build houses as soon as we can.”
Asked if it was included in next year’s budget he says “funding is being sourced from outside for it.”
Hunaif claims he had actively pushed for the money and cabinet had decided the houses will be built “as soon as possible. The recession and a lack of funding stopped us from doing it this year.”
He says he can see how difficult it is for the islanders; nevertheless he can’t give a date for when the project will start: “We are waiting for the funding to come through.”
Most islanders are happy about the relocation but say life is difficult without a place of their own. Rahman says they are not informed of what is happening.
He lives with his 60 year-old daughter renting a room in a house – he sleeps in the sitting room.
“If I get a house, at least I can stay there peacefully until my death,” he says.