Returning Home from War

Jan 23, 2015 | Sri Lanka

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.

Though the war ended four years ago, animosity and mistrust have lingered on. The people in Karagahawewa have been living in isolation, minding their own business. The people who used to live in the adjoining Tamil village of Peniketiyawa have never returned to their homes.

An interfaith group of religious leaders in the district recently came together to find a solution to this problem. During Karuna Center’s previous Sri Lanka program, led in partnership with the Sri Lankan organization Sarvodaya, these religious leaders had formed an interfaith council for reconciliation and conflict prevention. The religious leaders discussed the issues at Karagahawewa at length, and decided to begin the process of social healing by arranging a visit of Tamils and Muslims to the Sinhala village.

On December 7, 2014, a diverse group of 102 visitors came to the village of Karagahawewa. Together, they painted and refurbished a Buddhist temple, and cleaned and weeded the grounds in a show of solidarity. They also distributed 55 backpacks with school materials among the children, and held an impressive and well-received cultural show with performances from Tamil, Sinhala, and Muslim youth.

The group was led by 13 religious leaders from all four faith groups. More than half of the volunteer delegation were Hindu Tamils, joined by 25 Sinhala Buddhists, 20 Muslims, and 5 Christians. The day of community work, or shramadana, on December 7 is one of the follow-up activities that Karuna Center has continued to sponsored following the close of our formal program.

In the photographs from December 7 above, the budding friendships among villagers and visitors are almost palpable. Afterward, one of the program facilitators wrote to us:

“This village had a 100% Buddhist population. It is only after the religious leaders took this initiative of bringing non-Buddhist people to the village that they began to look at others from a different perspective. It helped greatly to shed the mistrust and develop better relationships between the communities. This attempt helped the Sinhala people to augment their wish that the Tamils should return to their village. After this resettlement, they believed that they could live in greater harmony. The activities that were done by the Muslim women also brought about a new attitude among the others, as normally they were considered conservative[reserved].”

At the end of the day, the visitors had refurbished one Buddhist temple—and had begun to rebuild a generation of broken relationships among their communities.

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