Day 3 Thursday 26 April
I caught up with my Aunty Pooranam (not my real aunt) in Kaduwela and had a slanging match to see who could outdo each other in the insult-hurling stakes. For an older person she is young at heart and fun to be around. Our outward contestation belies the strength of our affection for one another. To prevent her fussing over food and her attempts to drown me in in vats of delectable curries, I arranged a lunch meeting with Prashan and Christy from Sri Lanka Unites (SLU).
I always look forward to my meetings with the Sri Lanka Unites crew as they are a tremendously positive bunch. These guys and gals are the real thing. They combine brawn, brains and benevolence in a unique and heart-connecting way, with amazing success. I have met Prashan de Visser on several occasions now and we are close to commencing a collaborative venture or two in Mannar. I had remembered to bring his jacket which he had left in the back of my car in Melbourne during our last meeting. Prashan told me about one of their up and coming stars, Elijah Hoole, from Mannar. He at the ripe old age of 19 years will be joining our team of youngsters to explore ways to respond to the deteriorating relationship between Muslims and Tamils in Mannar. Just to give a sense of the calibre of these guys and their reconciliation initiatives, Elijah (a prophet in his own right) and his local SLU supporters helped a group of ex-LTTE cadres over several months to prepare and successfully sit for their A Level exams. How inspiring and practical was that! These guys have hundreds of such stories.
Prashan’s goal is for Sri Lanka to be recognised as the best model of a youth-led movement for post-conflict reconciliation anywhere in the world – and they are well on track to achieving it. To cement their reconciliation gains, they plan to set up Reconciliation Centres in all districts of Sri Lanka. Out of a refurbished ‘freight container’ they hope to run IT and English training programs, business development and counselling services. The growing SLU network around the world would fund the costs of these centres.
We were soon joined by Christy Rajah, the other half of the founding team. While Prashan is of Burgher and Sinhala heritage, Christy is a Tamil from Mannar. The pair met in 1998 at school. Christy’s father packed his son off to school in Colombo because he was concerned that this angry boy would join the LTTE. At first Christy and Prashan rubbed each other up the wrong way. The war had ensured that there was minimal interaction between Tamils in the North and Sinhalese in the South. And so when Christy referred to the LTTE as freedom fighters and Prashan labelled them as terrorists, it was on for young and old!
In 1983, Christy and his family were displaced to India until 1989 and then from 1990 to 1994. Christy saw and learnt many things in the IDP camps. From 8 to 18 years of age the war affected him badly as he witnessed psychologically affected children, witnessed the demise of his education and experienced violence, hatred and extremist attitudes. I asked Christy whether he could put into words the process he had been through, from LTTE supporter to a champion of reconciliation and he easily identified three phases – the development of a friendship with the ‘enemy’, understanding the nature of conflict and getting involved in practical activities.
He soon began to reminisce about the budding friendship with Prashan and the growing trust between the two. That close and special relationship became the grounds on which difficult and conflicted views were aired. Their friendship had become most precious to both of them and there was no way they wanted to sacrifice this for the sake of point scoring or maintaining stubborn positions. Both began to realise the power of the friendship to transcend conflicted worldviews and they gradually saw the positive impact when they worked together. “I was invited to Prashan’s family’s place and my family invited Prashan. We saw the kindness of each of our families and this started to heal us.” What helped was that both families were involved in charitable works, with Christy’s father undertaking it through the Tamil organisation, PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam) and Prashan’s father, a minister of religion, doing it through the church. As friends, together they were involved in youth programs and this gave Christy an opportunity for a greater understanding of Sinhalese people.
“My friendship with Prashan changed me. Before Prashan I saw all Sinhalese people as bad but though our friendship I began to realise that Sinhalese were also human and not bad, and wanted to help Tamil people.”
The second stage in Christy’s ‘about turn’ came with a greater understanding of the nature of conflict. He attended workshops on conflict management and peace development conducted by Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) and Sarvodaya.
“The war affected me. During the time when I saw Sinhalese as the enemy I used to write poems about them. Then five years later I re-read those poems and saw that what I had written were lies.”
The third stage was a realisation that Christy’s negative experiences were being transformed positively through practical actions. In 2002 Christy made a difficult decision to leave Colombo and his new found friends to go to the North to help his people. In Vavuniya he was plunged into activity. He helped out in children’s orphanages and elders’ homes and through offering counselling started to comprehend and re-connect with the suffering of his people. In September 2007 while working for Sarvodaya he once more experienced at close quarters the sick and injured who were being displaced from Arrippu and Silathurai to Mannar. Christy provided food for the IDPs and various items for the children. He helped bury bodies.
In 2008 the Northern war started in Manthai West. Motivated by love for these people, Christy and 200 volunteers started to clear the jungles and build make-shift shelters. At Menik Farm his day commenced at 5:00am and ended at 11:00pm.
“I worked closely with the Sri Lankan Army. The Sri Lankan Army were really committed and helped the people greatly. The diaspora don’t understand that. They were very disciplined. Brigadier Vikum Liyanage adopted a village. They hated Velupillai Prabhakaran but loved the people and would share army food and facilities with us. Our relationship with the army helped us to help the people.”
“For 18 years I lived a bad life. I was often angry and violent. After meeting Prashan I then went through a change where my wounds started to heal. I decided I didn’t want to live in the past anymore. I wanted to serve people, become a good person and a model for others. People started to say, ‘This is a new Christy!’ I taught myself to see the positive in bad situations.”
I asked Christy about the Muslim/Tamil situation and what he felt could be done about it. He responded,
“Starting with young people is better. While I worked with Sarvodaya, we were involved in a four year project running three to four workshops every week focused on Muslim/Tamil peace dialogues. In the end we saw no real change.”
Christy concluded by saying that the Catholic Church wanted to retain and usurp its power as a counterbalance to the growing influence of the Muslims. He also felt that if people were connected to politicians then it was difficult to bring change. He reiterated that young people were the way forward and advised us to consider a joint Hindu, Muslim and Christian school project.
The last meeting of the day was with Shamini Fonseka, a Rotarian, who was a contact of Diarne Kreltszheim, a tireless worker for Diaspora Lanka in Melbourne and a delightfully mad individual. It was night time and the usual hyperactive Galle Road traffic was lulled to a murmur. Rocky the monster Alsatian bounded up to me once Shamini opened the front door. Far from tearing me apart limb from limb, he responded sheepishly to my stroking and no longer posed a mortal danger.
Rarely do I freely speak about Diaspora Lanka and its work because a listener’s level of initial interest is usually limited. However in this instance Shamini appeared genuinely enthralled. It felt good to share more expansively about our work to such a receptive host. The original reason for my visit had been to see if a Rotary Club in Colombo through their contacts could obtain a letter from a custom’s official who would confirm in writing the waiving of customs fees for a shipment of 80 second hand computers for war affected young people in Mannar District and 12 hospital beds bound for other needy locations in Sri Lanka. This was always going to be a tricky and difficult ask and Shamini undertook to explore the possibility further. It so happened that Shamini also worked in IT business, a potentially perfect fit as a mentor for one of our projects, IT Platform, in its transition from a training program of 25 young people into a profit-making youth enterprise which would ‘computerize Mannar’. To my great delight Shamini showed real interest in coming to Mannar and contributing her skills and experiences wherever needed.
A chance encounter was turning into solid gold! Back in my room at sweet Mrs Nimal Gunasekere’s cosy abode, and as the fan whirred overhead on a sultry Colombo night, I felt privileged to be a part of this unfolding adventure in the country of my birth.