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Bringing former enemies together in Sri Lanka

COLOMBO (UCAN): In a move to encourage reconciliation in post war Sri Lanka, Caritas has set up 40 Caritas Village Peace Committees in 13 dioceses that span Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim communities.

Yasmin Kanista, a Sinhalese, joined her local committee in Mullaitivu on the northeastern coast and began assisting people in getting death certificates, which the government has been reluctant to issue, partly to limit compensation claims and partly to keep the official numbers of those killed during the civil war down.

She has also been involved in claiming compensation for families that have someone who went missing during the country’s civil war which ended in 2009.

The committee also facilitates insular Sinhalese and Tamil group meetings.

“We don’t get a chance to meet Sinhalese people other than the army and tourists. Many of them come here to see how they defeated Tamil forces and celebrate their victory. None of them want to hear about the suffering and pain that we underwent,” Kanista said.

Sri Lanka has faced criticism for failing to properly investigate rights abuses amounting to war crimes during the final phase of the war.

“Yes, there is no war, but still many wives do not know what happened to their husbands and mothers are still waiting to see their children again,” Kanista explained. “How can we say we are living in peace when our minds are not peaceful?”

She added, “Going to Sinhala areas and attending Caritas reconciliation programmes is a good experience for us.”

L.M. Heenmanike, a committee member in Trincomalee district, said her Sinhalese village saw heavy fighting. “During the war, our area was frequently attacked by terrorist groups so we lived in fear. Now we do not have that fear and we move here and there freely,” Heenmanike said.

Heenmanike is also happy to meet with Tamil people and her local committee organises visits to the villages of their former enemies. “When we are together we understand each other,” she said.

W.A. Sriyakantha is a Sinhalese woman from Thalwilla Village in Chilaw. She did not have any Tamil friends before she joined the Caritas Village Peace Committees.

Her committee organised an exposure visit to a Tamil village and she had the chance of staying with a Tamil family. It was not easy for her to communicate with them, as she doesn’t speak their language.

But even so, Sriyakantha felt the love and compassion of her host family, even though they could not verbally communicate. 

After the exposure programme she shared her experience with her home community, but unfortunately many did not listen and still despise the Tamils.

Sriyakantha is undeterred. She wants peace committees to be more creative and put together programmes that will help people understand each other.

Priyantha Anton Fernando, a project officer with Caritas Sri Lanka, is happy with their attempts at bringing different communities together.

“Many Sinhalese people believe that after the war ended, peace was restored, but this is a myth. The purpose of the committees is to create a space for all communities to come together,” Fernando said.

“Our biggest challenge now is to convince government officers of the need and win their support, because they are of the view that peace was automatically restored after the war ended,” Fernando explained.

But it is still looking good for the future of the peace groups.

“Over the two years we have been running the programme, we can see the results, as people begin to show empathy towards each other,” Fernando concluded.

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