‘For the sake of my children’
The first two Peace Circles in Sri Lanka took place in the Northern Province in the first two weeks of September
2016. What synchronicity that while half of the IfL (IofC for Life) group was meeting with surrendered militants in the Garo Hills of North East India, other IfL members were meeting with some war-affected women in Northern Sri Lanka – both groups recovering from the consequences of violence.
Shashika and Wimarshana returned to their homeland from India in July after having facilitated the North-East Dialogue, and sessions for NIRD and NFDB, Hyderabad, as part of the IfL team,.
Since then, amongst other things, they have prepared the ground for doing Peace Circles – using the module prepared by ‘Creators of Peace’, a women’s initiative of IofC used world-wide already. The initial sessions were for two groups of women from Self Help Groups (SHGs), with similar backgrounds. The hope ultimately is to be able to bring together women of different ethnic and religious communities in Sri Lanka in such Circles of sharing and building friendship.
The first SHG was the Mannar Kitchen, a catering project of ‘Bridging Lanka’, an NGO working in Mannar that IofC has been closely associated with. These women, most of them being war widows, prepare and sell food items. This small income helps them sustain their families.
Manthai West, where the workshop was held is one of the five divisions of Mannar district in the North West of the country, just 30 km across the Indian Ocean from the coastline of India.
Nine women attended this workshop on 9-10 September. It would have been more if domestic compulsions had not preoccupied them. For example, Sabastiamma could not make it because she spent the morning looking for her cow that had strayed away!
The workshop was conducted in Tamil, thanks to the presence of Dr Nyanam of UK and Malaysia and translation by Jessie, the Bridging Lanka coordinator.
Participants shared moving stories of losing sons, homes, and of being displaced several times from conflict zones and living in refugee camps. It is only in the last two years that they have been able to build homes on their restored land where their properties were razed to the ground during the war. The houses have been built with grants of SL Rs 5.5 lakhs each given by the Indian Govt, and additional amounts from loans. We had the opportunity to visit their homes.
Minachiamma, alone now, still lives in her tin shed while her house is being constructed. At our first meeting she had said, “There is no happiness in my life, only pain.” But the big smile with which she welcomed us to her home the day after the workshop, with hugs and tea was evidence of a new story in the making. She said, “I have to leave the past behind and live happily with my children.” Her friend Poornawathy said, “I should not think of worries all the time.“ Vasantha, who lost one of her five children in shelling and who herself suffers from a severe eye disorder after a head injury, said, “Thinking about illness all the time will make me more ill. I have to think for my children now.”
The energetic coordinator of this group Stella, transports the food (made by the Mannar Kitchen ladies) to the canteen on her bike, which she bought from her savings. She lives with her 12-year old daughter. She said, “I need to develop qualities of peace. I never thought of peace in this way. We have to show by example.”
Having heard their personal stories, these statements were for us quite significant. Their resilience and determination to rebuild their lives literally from scratch is a reality we know little about.
The second workshop was in Mullaitivu, on the eastern coast across from Mannar. Here we partnered with PARCIC, a Japanese NGO which has amongst others one project called Sari Connection. Shashika and Wima had met their project coordinator, Fumi Ito, and helped to collect saris from the South of the country and bring them to their women’s SHG. They make pretty clothes, bags, cushion covers etc from these saris and these are sold in Colombo and Jaffna.
12 of them came for the workshop. Shashi and Wima will bring the women they know in the South who gave the saris, to this Northern region to meet these women. The idea was warmly welcomed by the women of Kokkuthoduwai, where the workshop was held. Then the real connection through saris will truly begin. Fumi Ito would next like IofC to do a workshop for their staff in Jaffna…. And so it will continue…