Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Barely two days after alighting on Sri Lankan soil for the first time, I attended a camp for young people promoting religious and ethnic reconciliation after the war. “You’re going right in the deep end,” I was told with a laugh. The camp involved a group of about fifty young people ages eighteen to twenty-eight, who had come from all over the tear-drop shaped island, including metropolitan areas like Kandy and Colombo, to Jaffna and Batticaloa, home to farmers and fishermen. It was structured around various seminars relating to how to react in the aftermath of the war — the importance of perspective, the root of fighting, how to build trust.

Questions were asked such as “What is a fight?” “What is a disagreement?” “What are the reasons behind bloodshed?” These discussions were lead in part by victims of the war, from both the Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhalese sides. You cannot move on and forget the past; the wounds that have developed within people don’t just vanish, especially if they are not addressed or legitimized, they insisted. The only way to move on is for people to obtain justice. Fighting can be a way for society to move forward. It is a person’s human right to speak out against whatever oppresses them, to react. But the way in which this reaction manifests itself is of the utmost importance. An older Tamil woman in a striped shirt and skirt stood up and told the audience that these young people were the future — this was the generation that would help restore Sri Lanka.

What struck me most after hearing that, is how much affirmation I have taken for granted. I have heard the phrase “Youth are the Future” declared with brazen self-assurance countless times, in auditoriums, classrooms and playing fields since I was a child. But I have never heard it while sitting among young people who have had the burden of witnessing their families and their country ravaged by war and racial violence. The Sri Lankan civil war lasted nearly thirty years. To many, the years up until thirty are considered the prime of one’s youth. Thirty is the age my mother was when she gave birth to me. She had lived an entire life before then, and she would recount the stories of her past with gratitude and tenderness. Many Sri Lankans, however, particularly in the rural areas in the North and East, experienced their childhood, their youth, their old age, alongside the jarring sound of detonating bombs and gunfire.

The speaker who most captivated me was a man who had joined the LTTE as a youth, the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam, a militant organization based in the North and the East that fought for Tamil rights. After the war severed him from his family, he was completely bereft of any comfort or love in a country tearing itself to pieces. His story was not what struck me, but the fact that he was unable to finish it, breaking down in tears and retreating back into the group. He bent over the chair with his face in the palm of one of his hands, the other hand clutching a paper airplane. His, expertly folded, had flown the farthest out of the entire group.

The discussions to follow throughout the next couple days involved spreading the messages of Truth, Reconciliation, Mercy, Peace and Justice. Some examples brought forward, involving the detrimental nature of violence on the part of the LTTE, made him visibly uncomfortable, almost defensive. He still harbored a strong sense of filial piety for the organization, that resonated with some sense of belonging. The motivation for such camps, such exercises, is partly a reaction to that phenomenon. What makes a man, abandoned as a child, decide he wants to join a guerrilla group that repays blood with blood? And even more remarkably, what makes that man later turn to religious freedom reconciliation efforts?

Some would say that there is a yearning in all of us for the divine, a hole, a sort of pocket tailored into us by our Omnipotent God that can only be filled with worship. In countries like Sri Lanka and India, rife with scenes of devotion — temple offerings, masses, the call to namaz — this is easy to believe. The Romanian sociologist Mircea Eliade and his contemporaries believed that once a man discovered religion, once he became a Homo Religiosus, he was forever changed — he could never go back to a life separate from the metaphysical. There seems to be great evidence for this In Sri Lanka, a country where there is still great reverence for the sacred despite the opposing efforts of modernity.

At lunch one day, the question was brought up of whether violence against another is every truly justified, in response to the former LTTE member’s decision to join their forces years ago. We decided that that was not the most pressing question, rather, to what extent is a person, having suffered to such a degree, deserving of compassion?

As I observed the young people, I saw that they were genuinely invested in peacebuilding. The second day, a puppeteer came to lend a visual perspective to the issue of religious freedom. He split up the campers into groups of four, instructing us to put on a play relating to violence in Sri Lanka. I watched as twenty-eight year old men and women painstakingly glued yarn onto wooden ladles, and cut dresses out of cardboard as if clothing their children. Their performances were thought-provoking, often a combination of Tamil, Sinhala and occasionally, English. They touched upon the difficulty of harboring so many different creeds underneath one flag, political violence and corruption. One particularly memorable play discussed Buddhists who were disturbed by music from the mosque, and Muslims who were disturbed by music from the Buddhist temple —  sounds of the sacred clashing.

As a lover of words, someone who experiences life largely through conversation, it was difficult to relinquish control and attempt, with clumsy hand-motions, to begin a friendship without them. I found however, that this was not so bad, as sometimes, when there is no common language, you relinquish your pretensions. It is a sacrifice for both parties, a challenge. You communicate instead in smiles and nods —  the face is the canvas, the channel of expression. Human emotion and the way it is manifested through gestures is a universal language in itself.

To establish a real, authentic human connection with someone whom you disagree with or cannot comprehend is no trivial thing. Such things require time, emotional investment. “People want to mind their own business while others are fighting,” said one of the speakers. Biology can identify organs, psychology can diagnose trauma, Medicine can cure illness — this has been established. But unless there is a sense of communion unhindered by prejudice, no true healing can occur.  “Results are the fruit that tumbles on the ground,” was one of the most significant messages of the camp. The analogy suggests that things that have fallen for a while have the capacity to rise up again; the fruit sprouts and grows, just as the future redeems the past.