“As long as we share our stories, as long as our stories reveal our strengths and vulnerabilities to each other, we reinvigorate our understanding and tolerance for the little quirks of personality that in other circumstances would drive us apart. When we live in a family, a community, a country where we know each other’s true stories, we remember our capacity to lean in and love each other into wholeness.” - Christina Baldwin in Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story
This quote, for me, reflects the atmosphere at the private meeting on Youth and Reconciliation organised at the World Conference on Youth a week ago, bringing together a handful of international social media fellows and delegates on one hand, and Sri Lankan survivors of the civil war from the Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim communities, on the other. The war began in July 1983 and led to 25 years of fighting between the Sri Lankan military and the independent militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
It was obvious from the beginning that the meeting would be a solemn one, despite the continuous reminders that we were there to hear stories of peace, reconciliation and rehabilitation. However, it is also a glaring truth that one does not easily forget and discard the past for the comforts of the present and hopes for the future. In reaching out for peace and reconciliation, memories of the past are evoked and in this case, they were neither beautiful nor happy.
With little knowledge on the Sri Lankan civil war, I sat quietly as our friends shared their stories, ready to learn as much as I could from these people who lived through the daily realities of the conflict. I was particularly marked by the narrations from the women in my group, who shared their memories through translators, punctuated by shy smiles and cast-away looks.
Women in conflict
War and conflict are generally portrayed in masculine terms- a place where men oppose each other in a show of power and domination. When women are included in the story, they are more often portrayed as victims and indirect/secondary participants. The reality was different for these women in the room, who sat next to men they had fought with and against in the battlefield. For some, it was a choice. For others, fighting in the war was a moral obligation.
Seated right opposite me, in a beautiful red sari, was a young lady- perhaps my age or younger. Next to her, was her husband. They had recently tied the knot after leaving their respective rehabilitation centers set up by the Sri Lankan government to facilitate their transition back into civil life. A happy ending for this young couple, whose love story grew from the results of conflict.
Our young bride, a Tamil, was forced to join the LTTE in 2009 as a moral duty to her community. She revealed that one member from each family had to join the LTTE at the time. As all her siblings were married and raising their own families, the onus was on her to represent them, in respect of the rule. Consequently, she spent all her time living in bunkers with other recruits, awaiting their turn to go to the battlefield. The opportunity to fight never came; she was arrested after the war and kept under government custody, where she underwent the rehabilitation process for a year.
Vinothanayagi Kulanthaivelu, 39, is still under rehabilitation. She joined the LTTE in 1995 together with other girls and went through light training for about 3 months. She would later become responsible for data entry, keeping track of all information from Tamil areas. This kept her away from the battlefield, up until the final moments of the war, when the LTTE needed more fighters. Everyone had to get on board and Vinothanayagi found herself fighting for about 6 months.
She, however, revealed that women had been in the battlefield since the beginning of the war, fighting side by side with their male counterparts. Where women are generally subject to inequalities based on gender in our different societies, the situation was different in the battlefield. Men and women were treated as equal and the latter “were acting like men and had the power to fight” and there was no male domination.
The women fighters executed their duties without the worry of domestic responsibilities, made possible by the LTTE’s rule that prevented married women from getting recruited. This rule would eventually be ignored when the need for more fighters arose and married women were forced to join the group. Vinothanayagi could not tell us what happened to their children- if they had any- but remembered that no one below the age of seventeen (17) was allowed to join the LTTE.
Asked about the safety of women and girls in the camps, especially on the subject of sexual violence, Vinothanayagi dismissed the stories as rumours. In all 14 years of her time with the LTTE, she had never experienced or come across a case of sexual violence against women. In fact, there were few women during her stay there, as the society was not yet ready to accept them. She added that LTTE soldiers who wanted to get married left the camps and spread false stories, leading people to believe that women were being harassed.
When the war finally ended in May 2009, focus was shifted on reconciliation and the rehabilitation of soldiers and survivors. There was a general consensus in the room, hinting at great satisfaction with the rehabilitation program and the government’s provisions for housing and employment opportunities after release.
Our young bride told us that living in the rehabilitation centers was “better than living at home“, as she was able to go to school, take up vocational training and eventually started teaching. Similar sentiments were echoed from the group. The rehabilitation programs include training in Information Technology, agriculture, masonry and tailoring, as well as counselling and spiritual assistance.
Vinothanayagi still lives in the center and expects to leave in June. She has undergone training in English, Sinhala, Computer skills and tailoring. With no clear indications of getting a job after her release, she plans to set up a home business, using her tailoring skills to make a living and help support her siblings. Eventually, she will decide if she wants to get married or continue living single.
Some of the rehabilitated persons receive loans to start their own businesses, while students are encouraged to go back to school, moving up to University level. Others have gone on to join national sports teams.
…rehabilitation does not seem to be the healing balm to the emotional wounds for these soldiers. Vinothanayagi shared the grievances of her friends, who have been cut off from their families, especially those living abroad. This is further fueled by rumours that the LTTE will strike again, reviving the war in Sri Lanka. Family members become scared to talk to the ex-soldiers, thinking they are still monitored by the government. She expressed her concerns on the effects of breaking family ties due to the fear that still reigns in the hearts and minds of the people.
For Vinothanayagi, the chances of another war breaking out are very slim. She hopes this will never happen because it will mean losing everything they have managed to build in the past few years, through the rehabilitation program. She lost her father during the battle and could not see his remains. This is a situation she does not want to relive with the rest of her family. The general feeling among her colleagues is “to move on“.
Letting go of the past
From our experiences as humans, we draw lessons or live with regrets. For some, it is easier and more convenient to forget the past and focus on the present. For others, the stories and memories from past experiences, no matter how gory, stay relevant and are constant reminders of where we have been and the journeys we have made.
I was interested to know the current perceptions of the Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslim present at this meeting. What lessons did they take away from their experiences as soldiers in the civil war? Reconciliation and rehabilitation are important, but do the scars of war ever go away?
It was evident that they all wanted the same thing: to move on with their lives and forget the past. Remembering, though important, has become too painful for them. They believe they were all dragged into an unwanted war and now that it is over, all they want is peace. To them, Sri Lanka is one country and they should all work together to make sure history is not repeated. They have moved on to live with each other in rehabilitation centers and hope to promote this spirit of peaceful coexistence, devoid of misunderstandings and hatred.
The gathering remained solemn, with eyes saying more than words could. Theirs, reliving the moments of the war as they tried to bring us into their world. Ours, filled with questions and wild imagination, turning to pity and empathy as the narrations went on. Together, hope for a better and peaceful future.
Away from the general buzz of the Conference, these are the stories that touched my soul. These are the stories I brought home with me.