Page last updated at 00:36 GMT, Thursday, 25 March 2010

Hugs help heal wounds in divided Sri Lanka

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Colombo

Students at the Sri Lanka Unites conference
The conference created an overwhelming sense of unity among mixed-race participants

Four hundred Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and mixed-race students are milling around. On a cue, each person is urged to go onto the stage and hug someone from a different ethnicity.

They leap at the chance to go onto the stage.

"If my people did anything wrong, I am sorry, I am your brother for the rest of my life," is one of the whispers heard as the young people embrace.

It sounds unlikely but this was what happened at the culmination of a five-day conference on hope and reconciliation held in central Sri Lanka a few months ago.

Images of destruction

A film on the five-day event has just been launched in Colombo, but the conference was not a one-off: its organisers, a newly established group called Sri Lanka Unites (SLU), intend to build on its legacy every week of the year in every corner of Sri Lanka.

SLU President Prashan De Visser
People try and frame you into a box and say, 'reconciliation people are that kind of people'
SLU President Prashan De Visser

Those at the heart of the initiative spoke of what inspired them.

"I was born into a country of war," said one young woman of mixed Sinhalese-Tamil parentage in the film. "That's all we have known."

A country that promised so much was divided and destroyed by decades of war, said another speaker over images of destruction.

People also said they grew up with stereotypes.

Kanishka Herat, aged 18, a Sinhalese, remembers that when the Tamil Tigers were strong, there were numerous suicide bombings in Colombo and elsewhere.

As a result, he told the BBC, "there was a wrong impression given about the Tamil community and other communities".

"There were misunderstandings among people, also there was hatred among people, people looking with a sense of suspicion to the other person even if it's their own race, ethnicity."

Kirubakaran Christin Rajah, SLU's assistant vice-president and a Tamil, grew up in a family repeatedly displaced by the fighting in the north.

He lost out on the joys of childhood, had "many painful experiences", and simply felt that Tamils as a people were the unlucky ones.

'Really hardcore'

Even where there was not hatred there was ignorance, in part because of the linguistic divide.

Jayasingham Adhuran (left) and Kanishka Herat
The conference brought people together from across the ethnic divide

SLU President Prashan De Visser grew up in the capital attending a multi-ethnic school but the pupils were streamed by language.

"We had literally no conversations with each other. So we knew even though so close we were still so far," says Prashan, who is of Sinhalese-Burgher descent. "There was always mutual curiosity but too few chances to interact."

For the conference, held last September, the 400 students were divided into teams, each containing people from the north, south, east and west of the island and thus a microcosm of it.

"It was really hardcore," says Kanishka. "Like it or not, they had to bond with each other."

Preparations were not easy. Just days before it started, things were "haywire", said one organiser.

There was a huge language barrier and the participants were extremely nervous when they arrived. When told they would be sharing rooms with strangers, "their faces dropped all the way to the ground".

But music, drama and sport - and a state-of-the-art translation system - helped bond people. Sporting teams were all mixed, so a girl from Matara in the deep south would be cheering on one from Jaffna in the far north.

Attitudes changed

The big hug at the end was unpredictable. In the end it worked - it was, in Kirubakaran Christin Rajah's words, "a very important time for my life" and boding a good future.

Kirubakaran Christin Rajah
The conference ended with barriers broken down

That was based on an idea of collective responsibility which some may dispute. Prashan De Visser explains it by saying that whatever injustices took place during the conflict, people should have made a stand against them. The message now is that such things should never again be allowed to happen.

Sri Lanka Unites is now spreading its roots. It has started a network of clubs in schools across the country and aims to have 90 by October. It has a special team to visit schools, too.

Its members are also extending immediate aid for the tens of thousands of internally displaced people in the north and east, collecting relief items for those still in camps and those who have been resettled.

But is the atmosphere in Sri Lanka conducive to initiatives like this?

Prashan De Visser says it is not perfect. It is sometimes assumed that they have a specific political agenda. "People try and frame you into a box and say, 'reconciliation people are that kind of people'," he says.

That means continual work to explain their mission. They have a board of trustees headed by distinguished Sri Lankan diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala, the former UN under-secretary-general for disarmament affairs.

The students who took part are in no doubt about the venture.

Jayasingham Adhuran, a 17-year-old Tamil from Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka, says it has changed his attitudes.

"There are ways that we can stop the war," he says. "We forgive the mistakes of others and we collaborate with them and work.

"Then we find a very good solution and we overcome all these problems and have a very good nation."

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