Divisional Reconciliation Committee Meetings conducted by Secretaries in Vavuniya and Mullaitivu

Four meetings of Reconciliation Committees at Divisional Secretariat level were held last week in Vavuniya and Mullaitivu under the Chairmanship of the respective Assistant Government Agents / Divisional Secretaries, with the attendance of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, Presidential Adviser on Reconciliation. In addition to Grama Niladharis and officials of Rural Development Societies, those attending included school principals, doctors and police personnel.

Meeting taking place in the presence of Prof Wijesinha and other government & none government officials

A number of small but significant problems were raised in the two Western Divisions of Mullaitivu District. The odd shape of the District, and the need for travel for many purposes to Mullaitivu town, which is at the very Eastern corner of the District, was brought up. Though some adjustments have been made, it was noted that converting the offices in Tunukai and Manthai East to those of Divisional Secretaries rather than Assistant Government Agents would reduce inconvenience by allowing authority for essential functions. It would also be useful if another Court could be established nearer the Centre of the District, since much time now is wasted in travel across country.
Transport in the two Divisions needs improvement, since it was reported that government buses do not run at all. Officials arrive at work late because private transport services are not dependable. It was suggested that the military could provide a couple of buses each day at working hours but this would need to be done through local requests since private bus operators should not feel there was unfair competition, even though clearly they were not providing the required services.

School Girls waiting for the bus

Another point raised at Tunukai was the fact that the only vocational training on offer was for computing. There, as well as in Manthai East and Maritimepattu, it was noted that training for current requirements should be introduced, and in particular skills development for the construction industry. Apart from masonry and carpentry, there was a crying need for plumbing, wiring, and engine repair. Unfortunately these areas are still comparatively neglected, which would mean that, in particular when the Indian Housing Project got off the ground, there would be need of importing labour from outside the District.

It was also suggested that much more training needs to be provided in processing and marketing, as well as in facilities to enable the area to reap the advantages of current developments in agriculture. A milk processing centre was seen as an urgent need, while it was also noted that some officials were slow in purchasing paddy, leading to suspicions of dishonesty. In this regard the initiative of Vavuniya District, to promote paddy purchasing through the Multi-Purpose Cooperative Societies, might be a model to follow, given the rent-seeking that a centralized system with inadequate accountability to smaller units can produce.
As in all previous meetings, shortages of teachers in essential subjects was mentioned. The failure of authorities to implement the President’s proposal of school based recruitment was noted, given the high incidence of transfers sought out of the District by those appointed from other Districts. In addition to requesting school based appointments, it was noted that the development of teacher training in English and Maths and Science for students from the District could help with ensuring a supply of teachers for the District.
The need to address these shortcomings was apparent, since otherwise the steady progress in infrastructural development, which was appreciated in general, will not be accompanied by the anticipated benefits for the people of these Northern areas that have historically been neglected.

Children restored to a fuller life

The music is loud, the colours are vibrant, and the girls who have just stepped off the stage are in a fit of giggles outside the main hall. Inside, a ceremony is taking place, and the announcer is informing the audience of the next event on the agenda: a fashion show. Watching the chattering girls outside, one can guess at what they may be laughing over: who forgot their dance moves on stage, who accidentally bumped into whom, and who was afraid their hair style may come undone. Look around a little, and you would notice a slight twist to the picture. Standing around and chatting with the girls are female military officers, their camouflage uniforms in stark contrast to the frilly pink dresses, the shiny sarees and gold bangles.
Three years ago, they were all living different lives. It is highly unlikely that anyone would have envisioned them the way they are today, shy glances and nervous laughter, yet seemingly happy. Had things turned out differently, there would have been no pink dresses, no shiny sarees and no gold bangles. Chances are, the girls too would have been in uniform – albeit a different one – and both groups of women would have only known each other as The Enemy.
Last Thursday evening, March 29, three hundred and eighty four former LTTE combatants were reintegrated into society, following a year long rehabilitation programme.
Among them, were sixty seven women, who had received vocational training in a variety of fields, including cookery, aesthetics, dress making, bridal dressing and beauty culture. As a result, the reintegration ceremony of these ex-combatants showcased some of their talents in the form of dance performances and fashion shows. Also on the agenda were musical performances by Friends of Peace, the band of musicians formed by some of the rehabilitation beneficiaries.
These were the very people the media has been in frenzy about, ever since the war ended. These are the people whose stories have been flaunted by different parties to make different points. But that day, they were not interested in any of that. They were individuals, with different stories. Their own stories, which I wanted to hear.
Some of them were willing to speak, others were more hesitant. Some approached me with a curious smile and with questions of their own; others preferred to watch from a distance.
The young women I first approached told me stories that were similar in nature: that they had been ‘taken away’ by the LTTE and later, after the war ended, were sent into rehabilitation (somehow, what happened in between, the most sensitive topic, was carefully skirted around).
Kamala* said she had been made to join the LTTE when she was eighteen. Now twenty-three, she wants to retake her A/Levels this year and continue with her studies. Nandini* spent one year with the LTTE. “They took me in 2007, and gave me training and sent me to the lines. I was with them for one year, and then I ran away, and stayed among the displaced. Then I was sent to Boosa, and after that the Courts ordered that I go into rehabilitation, at Poonthottam,” she said. “I did not want to join the fighting. I just like to live with my mother and father,” she added with a smile.It took some time for an absolute stranger like me, with a limited knowledge of Tamil, to find out more about their past, present and plans for the future. The past, naturally, was the hardest to talk about. Kumar* said he joined the LTTE in 1997. “They wanted one person from every house, and I also wanted to join,” he said. His account, particularly about the training he received, and what he did, was hazy and delivered reluctantly at first. He told me he was a driver, and that he had been with the LTTE for only one and a half years. He said he had left after he was injured in a claymore blast. He had watched others die, too. “My cousin, he was also a driver. I saw him get blown up by a landmine in Kilinochchi, in February 1998.”
After being taken into military custody in 2009, Kumar was sent to a camp in Omanthai for rehabilitation. “In 2010, they came and took me to Boosa. I think somebody must have given them some information about me, because they wanted me for questioning,” he said. He had spent eight months at the camp in Boosa, which has been surrounded by its fair share of controversy. Kumar, however, denied that he had been harassed or abused while held in detention.
Jegan* was one of the people who approached me voluntarily, wanting to know what I was doing. I told him I wanted his story, and he seemed a little more willing than others to speak about it, although he too gave me what was obviously an edited account. “I joined when I was fourteen years old. I did not tell my parents when I joined. They [the LTTE] gave us training for six months, and we were given different jobs. Later, because I disobeyed them, they sent me to the lines as a punishment,” he said. The punishment was because he had left to visit his parents without informing anyone. When asked if any of his friends had undergone rehabilitation, he said, “My friends are all dead. One of them, my best friend, died on my lap.” How did he feel, then, working with people here, whom they had once viewed as the enemy, the same people who could be responsible for his friend’s death? “We do not know who would have shot at us. It was coming from both sides, and we were caught in the middle,” he said.
Selvam* was one of the singers in the band, Friends of Peace. He, too, had been taken into custody and detained at Boosa before being sent into rehabilitation last year. He broke off in the middle of a sentence to introduce me to Lieutenant Sisira Perera, who he explained had trained Friends of Peace. “Sir can also sing very well. He even knows quite a few Tamil songs,” said Selvam, speaking in Sinhalese, and laughing at his young son who ran up to the army officer and began playing with his watch. Lt. Perera, in turn, had words of praise for the performers. “I think they did very well today. Not everyone can take up music easily,” he said.
The day ended with Friends of Peace singing the national anthem on stage. A glance outside the hall showed military officials and former LTTE cadres standing at attention, side by side, along the previously chaotic corridor.
What I got that day were half-told stories. I know that one or two hours of quickly snatched conversation is not enough to come to any conclusion about what really happened, what is really happening, and how people really feel.
More than what was said, it was what was observed that made a greater impact. On one hand, there were the nervous glances, the quiet, hard looks. On the other hand, there was also the laughter, the jokes and the friendly gestures, the broken Tamil and faulty Sinhalese – results of attempts to speak in each other’s language.
Maybe some other time, months or maybe years from now, someone among these people would trust me with their past, with their whole story. But for now, it was all about the present. This was their day. This was the day they returned to eagerly waiting families, this was the day they looked forward to the future.
* Names have been change to protect identities.

Rotary Peace Ambassadors Vocational centre in North

Pushpi & her fellow Rotarians PP Rtn Ashrof, Rtn Nirosha & Rtn Kasun with some of the donations she received for the vocational centre in North

Having coordinated the Rotary National Youth Exchange program last year and by continuing to keep in close touch with the beneficiary youths from North & East, our Rotary Peace ’07 & Ambassadorial ’09 scholar Rtn Pushpi Weerakoon realized the need to provided a permanent center in the conflict affected area to provide educational & vocational training for their positive growth. Responding to her appeals to help set up the centre Rotarians, US Diaspora, friends & family donated stationary and sports goods. Rotary club of Colombo West took up the responsibility of fully equipping the computer lab within the centre. Aid Et Action an INGO reputed to conduct vocational training courses free of charge while also managing the day to day conduct of the centre have offered their services to sustain the project initiated. Sinwa Holdings offered free paint to refurbish the building given free by the government to Pushpi. In keeping with the Youth Empowerment theme she has also enlisted support from several Rotaract and Interact clubs to volunteer labour and resources to help materialize the dreams of our North & East youths.
By Rtn Nirosha Kodituwakku – Rotary Club of Colombo Mid Town