The Sinhala Buddhist village of Karagahawewa is a post-war community in the district of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka—an area that was heavily affected by the 26-year civil war. On three sides of the village there is thick jungle. There are 800 families living there, all Sinhala Buddhists. Although there used to be close connections between the Sinhalese in Karagahawewa and the Tamil people in neighboring communities, this changed completely as the war between Tamil separatist fighters and the Sinhala-led national army escalated. Both Sinhala and Tamil communities were driven from their homes, and the friendly relationships that had existed between them broke down.
Earlier this summer, we described our work with priestesses of the sacred forest in the Casamance region of Senegal. Two hundred priestesses were planning to conduct three days of ceremony and prayer while secluded in their sacred forest—an important step to involve local communities in a peace process for the 32-year civil war. As the priestesses were preparing to enter their sacred grove, the traditional King of Oussouye (a section of the Casamance region) met with them and gave his blessing to their efforts.
As a result, on July 2, approximately 300 traditional priestesses entered the sacred forest, representing 21 villages—many more than we had anticipated. Their purpose was to formally undo the spiritual protections and vows that rebel fighters from their villages had taken on when they joined the fight for Casamancois independence, and to pray for the success of peace negotiations and reconciliation in their communities. The undoing of the vows is a critical step toward peace in the local culture, because it will make it possible for rebels to return to village life.
Video clip: 300 priestesses emerge from the sacred forest on July 4, 2014.
"We preached forgiveness and reconciliation so that those who are in the bush can return to their families. We asked those willing to come and meet with the government to find a solution to the crisis."
After emerging in a long single file line from three days in the forest, the priestesses completed the ceremonies and addressed community members as well as rebel combatants who had come to see them. The priestesses implored them to find forgiveness and reconciliation with one another—despite the pain that war has brought—so that rebels can return to their families once a peace agreement is reached at the national level.
A broad group of rebel combatants were present to hear the priestesses' message—older fighters who had been in the bush since the war's early days, and younger new recruits. Afterward, the rebels returned to their remote encampments with the knowledge that they will be able to come home to their communities.
The next big step will be for the rebel leaders and the national Senegalese government to enter into peace negotiations—and seek out an agreement that responds to the needs of the local population. In the meantime, we are told, people are hopeful.
We are grateful to each of you who donated to this project for making it possible.
Joachim Diene, a Senegalese conflict specialist and Karuna Center Peacebuilding Associate, led our work in Senegal to support the priestesses.
Read our original story: How 200 village priestesses are ending Africa's oldest war
As the movement for autonomy in Senegal’s Casamance region turned to a war of independence over 30 years ago, the rebels sought the spiritual protection of their ancestors and took vows not to return to their villages until independence was won. But now, the same communities who once sent their men to war are littered with landmines, exposed to arms and drug trafficking, and traumatized by violent raids. The population wants peace, and finally last fall, the government and rebels began a negotiation process.
Over the past few months, we have reconvened a civil society network from our earlier work in the Casamance with the skilled facilitation of our Senegalese Peacebuilding Associate, Joachim Diene. In April 2014, Joachim and Karuna Center director Olivia Dreier held community meetings that included a total of 407 people from 46 villages in the region of Oussouye. They also took three excursions to meet with rebel encampments in the surrounding forests. During these meetings, community members in the region made clear recommendations for the peace negotiations, based in the recognition of their economic, political, and cultural rights as well as the need to successfully reintegrate combatants. These community members told us they are willing to do everything in their power to support the peace process, and have decided to call their combatants home. Yet for this to happen, they explained, the rebels will have to first make peace with their ancestors and undo the spiritual protections and vows they took when they went to war. In traditional Casamancais belief systems, ignoring these sacred commitments could bring death or harm upon a combatant or their loved ones.
Two hundred priestesses of the sacred forest in Oussouye have agreed to hold a regional three-day ceremony, before the rainy season begins this summer, to formally undo the combatants’ sacred commitments and allow them safe return to their communities. Karuna Center has taken the lead in raising funds to support the ceremonial expenses and is integrating this event with ongoing peacebuilding efforts to support local communities and reintegrate rebels.
It is said that in the Casamance, “each village is a republic.” Peace will not automatically come with the signing of an agreement; it must be built village by village. The ceremonial removal of wartime protections is a courageous step to pressure both rebels and government officials to reach a peace agreement in good faith.
Learn more about Karuna Center's work in Senegal.
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