Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Triumph of Friendships Over Ethnic Divisions

Hasith Sanjaya from Kegalle
He is Tamil and comes from Jaffna in North; and he is a Kegalle lad from the town nestled between the central highlands and western southern plains and Sinhalese to the core. His uncle was allegedly shot by the Sinhalese Army; and his father has been part of the naval force that fought the LTTE. They could not have been any farther apart from each other. Yet theirs is a friendship that could make for an interesting movie and is the harbinger of the sustainable peace in the island country of Sri Lanka after three decades of bloody war.

It was in 2010 that they first meet each other there was a huge barrier of hate between them perpetuated by decades of violence where communities knew no other emotions towards each other. Also the language barrier was not of much help. For Sanjay from Kegalle it was for the first time to meet a Tamil in person and shake hands with him. For Thilak as well this was the first opportunity to meet a Sinhalese person of his age. Before this, Thilak’s heart was filled only with negative emotions conditioned by the years of conflict.

“In my village every home has lost at least a member as LTTE had made it compulsory to join the organization. My mother had lost her brother so she was angry,” said Thilak, he is from Kondavil. “My father was in Navy and one of his arms were damaged during the final war against LTTE. But still he always made a point to tell me that not all Tamils are bad,” said Sanjay in Sinhalese with an innocence peculiar to his age. 

Thilak Lakshaya from Jaffna

So the chance meeting during the second edition of the Future Leaders’ Conference (FLC) did not make them fast friends immediately. Rather when Sanjay went home after the conference and started talking on phone, which considering the language barrier was a herculean task. Later Sanjay visited Thilak family in Jaffna and his mom went to the extent of writing a letter in Tamil. “Sanjay’s mother did not know Tamil, but still she wrote a letter to me in Tamil and calls me on my Birthday,” Thilak said underlining how easy it is to be friend with someone. “My father never believed in reconciliation but once he visited Sanjay’s home their opinions have also changed,” added Thilak. Sanjay chipped in, “My family has visited them in Jaffna and now we are family friends. Our siblings also get along like house on fire.” It is the first time for Sanjay’s family in Jaffna – that has been one of the main theaters during the war. “Till I was five years old I lived in Trincomalee and only saw the sufferings of my own people, but it was during the FLC that I came across the stories about the loss suffered by people pitted against us,” added Sanjay. 

Now both of them are ready to strengthen their friendship more by working on their language skills. “I can understand and speak a bit of English. So we do not express freely because of the language barrier and we are only managing. But now I intend to brush up my English,” Sanjay said, as Thilak smiled back.  

With an air of finality, Sanjay added, “You do not have to look at ethnicity or religion to become good friends.” Coming from the mouth of the 20 year olds, the emotions augur well for Sri Lanka’s future.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Five Years of Building Hope and Reconciliation

“Those who have lost their near and dear ones during the three decades of the long war please step forward to the line.” As the question was asked, everyone present in the hall took a step forward and stood facing each other. They belonged to all the communities of the rainbow country that Sri Lanka is with all its diversity.

The final question was part of the Freedom Writers’ game enacted during the Teachers’ Training Programme by Sri Lanka Unites during the ongoing 5-day Future Leaders’ Conference. The realization that the protracted violence had inflicted all the communities has to begin with the teachers, who can then mentor their students. Violent social conflict often results in all side having the victim‘s mentality and restricts the ability to be considerate towards the sufferings of the other community. Conflict parties often ignore that Social conflict is often struggle over values and claims to scarce status, power and resources, in which the aim is to neutralize, injure or eliminate each other.

 The final question was enough to drive home the point that it was Sri Lanka as a country that was adversely affected and not just one community. The game will soon be replicated for the 450 students from 20 districts across the island nation as part of the Sri Lanka Unites reconciliation movement. So far over 2000 students have participated in the Freedom Writers’ Game and several times like during the FLC-04 in Jaffna the game ended on high emotional notes with students from different communities stood in two rows facing each other. It is in each other’s eyes, that they find the shadows of pain created by the violence.

On the day of arrival, one could see the students huddled within their school groups and hesitant to mingle with the students from other schools. But within two days with their new found friends and they have gelled with each other pretty well and are learning to play as a team despite differences, pick each other up when in need and pat each other’s back when someone do well. They have learned the value of team work and communication through untangling human knot, established trust among themselves by meandering through the maze blind folded as one of their own guide them through and appreciated how everyone in the society was linked through Web.

Human knot is an amazing game which not only act as an ice-breaker but the team mates also get the message that even though they did not create the problem in the first place, they need to work collectively to overcome complex problems. Blind maze underlines the importance of two-way communication as a team member steers his/her blindfolded team members to overcome the obstacles without touching them.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Call for sustainable peace is loud from every part of Sri Lanka

He hails from Beliatta village down south of Sri Lanka and one that has seen at least one funeral during the time of the war that reached its end in 2009. He himself has lost two of his cousins to the bloody war that raged for nearly three decades. It was in this backdrop that Akila Mayuranga Hettiarachchi, got in touch with Sri Lanka Unites (SLU), seeking to piece together the fragmented Sri Lankan society to steer it towards sustainable peace

It was barely a year after the war ended and his impression about Future Leaders’ Conference (FLC) was that it was a conference to groom future leaders. Even when he attended the mentoring before FLC-2, he thought that reconciliation was a far-fetched idea. After all, he came from a village which mostly comprised of Sinhalese Buddhists and has never seen a person of different community leaving there.

 His main motivation to attend FLC-3 was to get new friends. He did not have hatred towards the Tamil, but he did not want to be part of Teams named after regions like Jaffna Giants or Kegalle Kohawks. He had, in fact, come with nine other friends of his, who had to be part of these teams. “I managed to get into Galle Gladiators and my friends went to the teams named after Tamil inhabited regions. Initial two days everybody was sticking to their community groups. But by the last day my school friends virtually forgot me as they became good friends with students from other region,” said Akila.

Since then he has been associated with SLU and has even contributed to the Champions of Change project and has collaborated with local schools to undertake small community development projects. “Since that time I have come in touch with 600-700 students and have been able to convince them about the need of reconciliation in the society to bring communal harmony,” Akila added with a shy smile. He aspires to go to Japan and study motor engineering or become a pilot. “I want to become financially independent so that I can get into politics and work towards united Sri Lanka,” he elaborated.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Conflict Diaries from Colombo

Conflict has been often seen from the perspective of the parties involved. But sometimes even those not in conflict zone bear the brunt of it.

When the Pearl Island has been seething from the nearly three decades long war, the national capital Colombo was also not left unscathed. The Central Bank Bombing in 1996, followed by the Bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1997 in Colombo has been etched in the memories of the population, especially the generation that grew under the shadows of the conflict. Hasara Lieyanage, in his teens during the time of war, can recall the incidents vividly.

Talking about the Central Bank Bombing, he says, “It was insane. After the initial explosion another truck carrying several hundred kilograms of explosives rammed into the building. The glass building shattered and while many were killed several others were rendered sightless.” The blast had left 91 people dead and 1400 others injured. Over a 100 people went blind due to the glass shreds.

He himself has had close shave on three occasions and in one incident it was a fortuitous crossing of road that saved his life. Recalling the days he said: “That was ominous times. I know many of my friends parents had precautionary decisions not to travel together in the same vehicle, so in case of an incident at least one of them survives.” It was these experiences that drove Hasara to move outside his comfort zone and do his bit in the re-building of post conflict society in Sri Lanka.

He was introduced to Sri Lanka Unites by a friend and then he went on to attend the Future Leaders’ Conference-4 afterwards there was no turning back. “I had friends earlier from all ethnicities, but I had never met somebody who has been directly affected in the war zone. At FLC-4, my team had this Tamil student who had lost his/her family member in the war and had seen a lot of victims,” said Hasara, adding, “That boy was scared of Sinhalese people and in fact, we were the first Sinhalese people with whom he had actually interacted.” “This just highlighted that how we really needed to work on building the social fabric of the country to achieve harmony,” he reflected.

He continues to be associated with Sri Lanka Unites and wants to take the message of giving peace a chance to as many people as possible.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

From sameness to an appreciation for diversity

Nimna Wickramasinghe has been satisfied in her life in Colombo, till the time she did not meet fellow Sri Lankan citizens from the other part of the Pearl Island. A fortuitous joining of Future Leaders’ Conference presented her with an array of new beginnings.

“I did not know what was going to happen there,” Nimna said recalling her first day at FLC. She has participated in the 5th edition of the FLC organized at Galle. But all of her apprehensions were allayed as the Conference progressed. “I made lot of friends just because of the FLC. Today I have friends in all parts of the country. Earlier my friend circle was restricted to only my class and school, but now I have friends from all walks of life,” said Nimna. Now whenever she travels to other places in Sri Lanka, she just puts up with her friends. 

The experience speaks volume about the hope that the present generation of the Island nation has, as due to the war that raged on for quarter of a century, there has been a generation that never had any contact with people beyond their own community. This isolation meant that the prejudices and hatred bred unabated. But no more, the present generation dreams of “One Smile, One People and One Sri Lanka”.

Her experience at FLC has been once in lifetime for her. “At the end of the 5-day conference, I had an emotional moment, when my team volunteer from Kalmune walked up to me said that he found a younger sister in her.”Nimna was the member of Batticoloa Bandits in FLC-5. It took her some time to break ice with other very young Tamil boy in the team.  “There was 9 year old Tamil boy in our team. He barely spoke but, over a period of time you saw the team changing and on the day of departures everybody was teary-eyed,” added Nimna.

Her biggest take away from the conference was the appreciation of differences and she understood that children from conflict zones had lot of pent of emotions and a lot needed to be done to bring them into the mainstream. “My mother, now when she cooks food for me for school, makes sure that the food is halal and it does not have pork, so that all my friends can enjoy the food together.”

Nimna’s dream run with the new found friends continued even after the FLC. She started a school project in Mullaitivu region of the country that once has been the hotspot for the war. She understood that to communicate one does not need the knowledge of the language, but the willingness to communicate. And she only has fond memories about it, “For the school project we partnered with schools in Mullaitivu. Even though I did not know the language but we could communicate. The people in the region were really hospitable to us.”

The conference was also a learning lesson in taking pride in being a Sri Lankan. “Before FLC, when I thought about my country I used to wonder why I am here as it was a messed up place. Now I do not doubt my country any more. I want to help rebuild this country. I had got rid of my racist idea as after knowing people I am not afraid of them any longer,” said Nimna.   
Her last message was – “We should give peace a chance." 

Friday, August 22, 2014

‘Today I am a dreamer, I have big dreams’

“Today I am dreamer, I am no longer afraid to have dreams. I have big dreams”. He is all of 22 years of age. But the confidence glinting in his eyes and his big dreams are way beyond his age. 

For the better part of his life, Benislos Thushan, hailing from Jaffna, has known conflict as the normal way of life, where bomb explosions and weapon firing was a routine during the peak times of the war. “I had got displaced even when I was in my mother’s womb as the war was going on. We got displaced again when I was eight year old and spent some months in IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camps,” he said, adding, “War was not a big thing because violence has been infused in my life so much."

The matter of fact tone in which he described the place of ‘normalcy’ that once war had in the lives of Sri Lankan is in contradiction to the hopes he exudes now. His journey towards hope began in 2010 when he participated in the second edition of the Future Leaders Conference (FLC) organized by Sri Lanka Unites (SLU).

“It (The Future Leaders Conference Season 02) was the beginning of the journey. Till then I only associated Sinhalese with hatred. But once I was there, for the first time Yohan, a Sinhalese came and hugged me,” said Thushan reminiscing about his experience at FLC. FLC gave wings to his dreams and he decided to come out of his cocoon. Today he has metamorphosed into a motivated youth aspiring to be an effective agent of change and become a multi-faceted young person. He speaks impeccable English, understands Sinhalese effortlessly and is aspiring to study medicine. “When I came to FLC, I did not know English. But then if I wanted to sustain my new friendships, I was under obligation to understand the language. And I started reading a lot in English.” Thushan’s perseverance paid off as he landed with a job at a leading Sri Lankan newspaper and started writing on socio-economic and political issues. He intends to study medicine and use it as a tool for post-conflict transformation in the society.

His passion was also sustained over a period of time by the doors of opportunity opened at SLU.  “I had small dreams. It was my dream to go out of Jaffna and then I got to visit 22 Sri Lankan districts and interact with more and more people.  Today I want to be a bridging factor between different communities and regions,” said Thushan speaking about his dreams. “Before FLC, I was only interested in academics. I had dreams which were self-centred, but nothing about society. But now I am a dreamer, big time. During the conference, I was able to see that absence of violence can lead to a prosper life.”  “When you hold grudge against somebody you are not going to make any progress. And during the conference I decided that I should not be doing that,” added Thushan talking about his transformation into a progressive and constructive youth.

Today he does not seek to counter people’s hatred with mere words but with loud actions. “One of my friends used to hate people from other community. I did not argue with him. But brought him to SLU and today he is a firm believer in the cause and sees social harmony as an achievable goal,” said Thushan with a blithesome smile.