It is seven years since the end of the brutal civil war in Sri Lanka and yet reconciliation seems to be a far-fetched thought as those affected continue to suffer endlessly due to economic and security reasons.
‘Write To Reconcile’ is a project inaugurated by the internationally renowned writer Shyam Selvadurai where emerging writers from all ethnic groups and social classes gather to compile an anthology portraying issues of conflict, peace, reconciliation, memory and trauma. This year, as part of the programme for the third anthology, participants were offered the opportunity to interview residents of the Vanni region as well as the ‘border villages’ (term used to describe those villages directly threatened and attacked by the LTTE), where the writers discovered that the post-war situation was not satisfactory.
Those resettled in Model Villages were not satisfied with the new lands given to them -- inadequate when compared with what they used to have. Those resettled in 2012 had to clear the lands themselves, removing hand grenades, shells, bombs and bullets. Certain areas including Kepapilavu are still high security zones. Most are deprived of their livelihood such as farming due to the loss of their lands and resort instead to manual labour. Such displaced people were still under surveillance and are often called by the local police or the CID for questioning.
There is lack of efficient transport and schoolchildren often have to walk very long distances (over 45 minutes in the case of one Vanni villager’s 6-year-old son) to get to school. There is only one bus for five villages around Kebethigollawa. Education is a common concern throughout the Vanni and these Sinhalese border villages. Children are less interested in education and often get married underage as they see this as their only option for the future, but this often results in marital conflict and other issues. Divorce and underage pregnancies are at a high rate.
Those who went missing during the war are another grave post-war predicament. People have not heard from their disappeared relatives or those who had surrendered to the army during the last stages of the war. There have been instances where children were questioned regarding the whereabouts of the disappeared. Hence, families suffer from the trauma of coping with the loss of their loved ones and having to answer distressing queries regarding the cause of disappearance.
“Government is not showing any interest in finding the disappeared”
Catholic Human Rights Activist
The revelation of the truth is essential in establishing justice and bringing reconciliation. Speaking at the event, a Catholic Human Rights Activist (requesting to stay anonymous) said people were displeased with death certificates issued and the compensation received as they wanted to know what really happened to those who disappeared.
“The government is not showing any interest in finding the disappeared. The law articles should be reformed as civil administration cannot take place due to army control. The army has been constructing Buddhist temples in Catholic dominant areas and as a result we see Tamils converting. The army can do anything in these areas as they have taken the law into their hands.” The activist added that in May alone, eight cases of child abuse were reported to the Vavuniya Hospital which manifestly showed that child abuse was on the increase in these areas as perpetrators were not punished.
“Media should be prudent in uncovering events”
Spokesman for North East Interfaith Forum for Reconciliation (NEIFR)
“Once it was publicized through media that Muslims were looting and treasure hunting in the premises of the Senerath Pirivena. There were Muslims farming around this area, so it looked as if they were the perpetrators. But we found during the night that some persons motivated purely by profit (of mixed ethnicities) looted and destroyed the Pirivena. This shows how misunderstanding of events could trigger racism,” said a Spokesman for NEIFR. He added that the media should be prudent in reporting such events as they rekindle racial discrimination.
“Village life and culture seem to be fading while war diction has replaced our original village articulation. The war is over, but the cause has not still been addressed. There is no real winner either. True victory is when we can bring to life those buried beneath us,” he added.
“Government engaged in a covert process to draft legislature”
Ruki Fernando- Human Rights Activist
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Ruki Fernando said: “We must deal with practical day-to-day issues such as families searching for loved ones who disappeared, political prisoners in detention for a very long time without cases being resolved, people unable to return home as their land is occupied by the military since decades, military being involved in civil and economic activities in the North, like pre-schools, farms, restaurants, hotels, shops, airlines and so forth. We must also be able to deal with different rights, such as the right to truth, right to criminal justice, right to reparation, right to the guarantee of non-recurrence and socio-economic-cultural rights such as economic justice, debt, unemployment, caste, gender, sexuality etc. If these concerns are addressed, reconciliation will certainly be feasible.”
Referring to instances where post-war reconciliation has been challenged, he said: “The government promised to establish an Office for Missing Persons more than eight months ago and promised public consultations. But they engaged in a covert process to draft legislature, and now there is a draft law published, even before the Consultation Task Force has commenced face-to-face consultations. Families of the disappeared and missing have been marginalized from the course of action, and questions have been raised as to whether the tracing of missing persons could be done in a way that would not compromise the rights of the families to pursue criminal justice.”
“Another example is the re-emergence of white van abductions. Recently, a man abducted in a white van was found to be in TID. There have been media reports of other similar incidents. As far as I know, the government has not condemned it nor had it taken action against those responsible. Abductions should not be confused with legitimate arrests based on evidence, which is the duty of the government, in situations such as the discovery of explosives,” he added.
He also emphasized the significance of economic development for reconciliation. “Economic development policies must be inclusive and sustainable, focusing on generating employment, enhancing local industries, local resources and prioritizing the poor. Focusing on mega projects for the rich such as Megapolis and Port City will only create environmental damages, and lead to further unrest and dissatisfaction amongst the poorer and marginalized such as fisherfolk, farmers and workers.”
“Army came to the village in the guise of protecting it”
Shreen Abdul Saroor - Founder of Mannar Women’s Development Federation (MWDF) and Mannar Women for Human Rights and Democracy (MWFHRD)
“There are many families with missing family members and those families need justice to move forward in their lives. There are hundreds of women in the country whose children have been forcibly taken as child soldiers, and they are yet unaware if their children are dead or alive. Missing people and missing soldiers are direct results of the war. Another issue faced by our country is the resettlement of villagers. Many villagers who were affected by the war live in makeshift homes and model villages. However, these villagers cannot reclaim their former lands because the army has procured them,” Shreen said.
She cited an example of a Muslim lady who stood up to the Sri Lankan Army regarding land rights. “The army came to the village in the guise of protecting it. However, they began to claim the land of the villagers. A brave Muslim lady went to the lands which the army had procured and began to live there because it was her former home. The army made great efforts to send her away. They even put pigs around her house to affront her. But she did not give up, and her efforts set a precedent for other villagers to stand up for their right to property that belonged to them,” she said.
She further spoke on women who have faced the true atrocities of war and who are still bearing the consequences of it. “There have been many women who have been brutally raped by the Sri Lankan paramilitary. In some cases there have even been hand guns and batons being inserted into the woman’s vagina. Many of these rape cases have still not been brought to justice. However, cases that have been brought to justice are merely victories for Human Right Activists and lawyers, while the victim undergoes psychological trauma, because of the proceedings and the length of the case.”
“War itself brought a rift between races”
Monks of the village of Horowpathana
We spoke to a few monks in the village of Horowpathana regarding war and reconciliation. Ven. Aluwihare Wimalarathana Thera, the principal of the Senerath Pirivena said: “Horowpathana was affected by the war, but to a limited extent. Residents of other villages fled to ours for protection, because our village was between Trincomalee and Anuradhapura. Initially the Sinhalese and Tamil people lived in peace, and there were no boundaries amongst each other. However, it is the war itself that brought a sense of fear and a rift between the two races. In the schools of our village, there are children of all races and the people of the village live peacefully as before.”
Ven. Kadawala Thera said: “Public transport is scarce and it has held back the economic development of the village. We had many post-war awareness programmes with the youth. We knew reconciliation was the key to peace.
We need people to understand that racism is used as a tool for power. Those in command mainly target the youth for their cause. Their main aim is to divide and rule. The youth need to be careful not to fall into the trap of such people, because at the end of the day, the country’s future will be adversely affected for a fruitless and harmful cause.”
“Lack of permanent employment is a grappling issue”
NGO Activist and member of the Local Citizen Committee
“We live in a model village because our native town Kepapilavu is now an army-controlled high-security zone. In Kepapilavu we had acres of land, but here we have only a quarter of an acre, which is clearly insufficient. Because we are settled here, we cannot pursue our livelihoods like fishing and instead our men are paid daily wages for odd jobs. Lack of permanent employment is a grappling issue now. This was not so before. I have been threatened over and over again for my activism. Once I was called to the CID in Colombo where I was accused of being an ally of the LTTE. I demanded proof for their accusation and in return I showed them proof that I had been a teacher. Now I am preparing documents for the disappeared so as to file a case,” said a Human Rights Activist based in the Northern Province.
“Fear of minority overpowering majority is an obstacle”
Dr. Jehan Perera - Executive Director of the National Peace Council
Speaking at the programme, Human Rights Activist Jehan Perera stated that though the Tamils were a minority in the country, from a global perspective they were a majority when one took in the Tamils in South India. As such, the fear of the majority Sinhalese that the Tamil minority would overpower them was still an obstacle to reconciliation.
“I will rejoin LTTE if government does not return my land”
“I was in a respectable position when I was in the LTTE and never worried about the well-being of my family. Medical issues made me leave and I struggled afterwards. I have resettled on a land that is not my own and is much smaller than what we had before. As the government is not giving back my land, I will join the LTTE even now if possible. But if I get my property back I am prepared to move on and live in harmony with the Sinhalese,” said a former LTTE cadre.
“No government has helped us so far”
Nimesha from the Border Villages
“I lost my brother to the Kebethigollawa attack and my father had died much earlier in the 90s when the army camp he was in was bombed. We left our house a few times due to elephant attacks and when we came back, the elephants had destroyed the whole house and robbers had taken our belongings. My brother was trying to get into the army because we were poor and struggling. No government has helped us so far. Now we are struggling but we manage somehow with what my mother receives from her coolie work,” said Nimesha, a resident of a border village.
“I am desperate to pay for my daughter’s education”
A woman who has lost her land to the army
“I am still waiting for the army to return my 12-acre land. It was rich and fertile with many mango and coconut trees but the land I was resettled on is only 10 perches and it is really hard to grow anything there,” said a villager from Vanni.
“I lost my husband to the war and I am in heavy debt and am desperate to pay for my daughter’s education at the Eastern University. Even if I have to sell a kidney, I will make sure she can get through university,” she added.