Featured image courtesy Amalini de Sayrah
Text by Raisa Wickrematunge
As a 16 year old, Nushelle de Silva was entirely unprepared for the experience of seeing Jaffna in its ‘raw state’ during the ceasefire in 2004.
Traveling there on a field trip with her Ladies’ College classmates, Nushelle felt deeply guilty when they visited the Jaffna library, then undergoing renovation, and saw the empty bookshelves.
Yet it was the visit to a graveyard for LTTE cadres that stuck with Nushelle the most. “You don’t realize just how many people have died until you see the immaculate rows of gravestones, and the endless space left behind for those to come. It was eerie and macabre,” Nushelle said.
Jaffna town in 2004 was bustling and had a sense of normalcy during the ceasefire, but travel a little further afield and you would still spot the tell-tale yellow and black tape warning of landmines.
“In [Jaffna] there was this separation that was very unsettling. You could see people living their lives in an everyday fashion. You could only look at that, if that’s what you wanted. Yet close to the edges, all the loss of the war could be visualised,” Nushelle said.
It was partly this experience that saw Nushelle join volunteer group Citizens Initiative in 2010. At the time, Citizens Initiative was working with the community in Chiraddikulam in Mullaitivu, many of whom were forcibly recruited by the LTTE, and with Kakkaiyankulam in Vavuniya, a border village with a majority Muslim community that was devastated by the conflict.
Featured image courtesy Amalini de Sayrah
In 2012, Nushelle managed to receive funding to set up her own initiative, leading to the creation of Building Bridges. She began by holding a series of workshops for the children in the communities she had worked with before.
Rather than focusing on teaching subjects like English or Mathematics though, Nushelle wanted her workshop to focus on the arts. “I wanted to acclimatise the children to a particular way of thinking,” she explained. She used simple exercises like charades to get the children used to exploring emotions. From this, she moved to more abstract exercises, like the ‘mirror game’ where the children tried to read each other’s body language and move in sync with each other.
The children loved teamwork exercises, where they had to work together to make shapes – a house, for instance, or a bicycle. Each week, Nushelle tried to give the children a more complex ‘problem’ to solve, largely using theatre.
It took some time for Nushelle to break through to the children at first. The children from Mullaitivu in particular were shy and reserved. Yet there were unexpected breakthroughs, particularly when Nushelle began hiring a vehicle to take the children on small field trips. She would try to practice her Tamil with them, much to their amusement. “Each child was a little different after those trips. When they heard me speaking in Tamil they seemed to gain pleasure from saying, ‘I know something you don’t, and I can teach you.’”
The real successes could be counted as the moments between the scheduled exercises, when the children bonded. “As early as the third workshop, it was interesting and surprising to see these small moments, and the ease of friendship. They would disappear suddenly and give each other mangoes. Their sense of reserve and personal space broke down a lot faster than expected,” Nushelle said.
Conscious of her own status as an outsider, Nushelle was often surprised by the children she worked with. She would ask the children to act out skits themed on ‘A difficult day.’ “I would have expected more directly war-related experiences. I’ve never been displaced, but I would have expected it to loom large [in the children’s minds. Instead, they would do skits on their mother hitting them for misbehaving, or them not completing their homework. It was as if they had relegated those experiences to the past,” she said.
Building Bridges has evolved since these early days. Currently, while Nushelle is studying for her PhD in History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture and Art, she’s (temporarily) handed over the reins to Irfadha Muzammil and Amalini de Sayrah, who work with artists like Firi Rahman to conduct workshops for communities in Mattakkuliya on a voluntary basis. The workshops themselves have evolved to focus less on reconciliation, and rather on how to help the children productively express themselves, and develop life skills.
Building Bridges has also worked in Mannar in collaboration with OpEnE Hub. The one common thread running through the programmes developed for each location is the use of the arts, particularly theatre, as a mode of expression.
For Nushelle, this was a natural fit, as it was how she overcame her own personal challenges. “Born in Australia, I had a difficult time in school. I was bullied. [When I came back to Sri Lanka, my brother was diagnosed with leukaemia. I was a loner until I started doing theatre at Ladies College,” Nushelle shared. “Theatre made me think about how to embody a character, and really made me more empathetic. It can be an incredibly powerful tool.”
It is a tool Nushelle and her team plan to continue using for the foreseeable future – with surprising and often touching results.
All photos courtesy Search for Common Ground
Marisa Fernando started her training in rural development work in the South. “The war was going on, but I didn’t really engage at first,” Marisa shares. “However, most of the men from our area joined the Army. They would pass me and say goodbye, and the next moment, I would be attending their funerals.”
During the ceasefire, some women from the North travelled to Marisa’s area, as part of a programme. “The women said, ‘If they come here, we’ll throw stones at them.’” Marisa however was determined to speak to the women. “Not one woman came with me. They all stood back,” she said.
However at some point during the exchange, the women realised that they had shared struggles. “These were all women who had struggled to raise their children, who had lost their children in the war.” One of the women had picked up a coir product and asked how much it cost, exclaiming at how cheap it was. “The women also realised that the conflict had prevented this exchange of products. After the meeting was over, it was with the greatest difficulty that I stopped the other women from getting on the bus – they all wanted to go to Jaffna!”
This experience led Marisa to become more interested in reconciliation. She is now Head of Programmes at Search for Common Ground (SFCG), an organisation with a focus on peacebuilding. “Every programme we have aims to bring together people from different areas – not always across ethnic divides, but sometimes along urban-rural divides, and divisions based on caste as well,” Marisa said.
For instance, SFCG worked to bring together women from Monaragala and Kilinochchi for a training programme held in different parts of the country. “The women selected had not participated in programmes like this before. They were housewives, seamstresses and shopkeepers – ordinary women, many of whom had never interacted with people from the North, and vice versa. Despite the language barrier, the women managed to communicate with each other and form groups.
“It was interesting to see how the younger ones naturally banded together. The single mothers too formed a bond, whether it was because their husbands had passed away or had abandoned them, there was a strong awareness that they all knew the struggle of raising children on their own,” Marisa said. Similarly, the women working in small enterprises found much in common as well. “Many of the women came to realize that the perceptions they had held about the other community were quite wrong,” Marisa said.
More recently, SFCG has attempted to change entrenched perceptions using a TV series. ‘Sikka team’ is a 13 part teledrama that aired on Rupavahini from November 21 to February 20. The teledrama followed a group of security guards, who decided to enter a cricket tournament. It follows the team members as they grapple with issues of identity and numerous other obstacles.
“Sikka team was effective because it wasn’t about someone lecturing people about the conflict. The story itself triggers moments for reflection,” Marisa said.
Sikka team reached 1 million viewers on Rupavahini.
According to a viewership report conducted by Centre for Policy Alternatives - Social Indicator (which is yet to be published) 64.4% of respondents stated that they had discussed Sikka Team with people - be they friends, family or colleagues.
SFCG also took an abridged version of the film to 5 districts, and separately held 3 day workshops with youth and women, where they discussed the themes outlined in the film and how it related to their communities. “In certain areas such as in Mannar and Matara these workshops were dominated by one community, but following the workshops we asked participants to create their own peace-building initiatives, which included people from different communities.”
These included around 20 young schoolchildren coming together to paint a giant mural, street drama, and tree planting. In Kamburupitiya, an open mike event was held, featuring songs from different communities.
“The war might be over but the battle is not. Attitudes and perceptions are so deeply ingrained, there is a lot that still needs to be done to develop healthy relationships and understanding,” Marisa said. “Healing is needed, and redress for immediate issues, but these are just steps of a longer journey. This is why we feel working on non-recurrence and peacebuilding is important.”
Building Bridges and Search for Common Ground are just two organisations working on reconciliation-themed activities. There are many others, such as Sri Lanka Unites, the Music Project, Unity Mission Trust and Write to Reconcile, all of which were featured in Groundviews’ piece for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last year.
Amalini de Sayrah is a member of the core group of Building Bridges.