Groundviews

The Lucky Ones

Photo via Open, Equal Free

I wish it were easier not to care. I wish I could grow up to be a corporate lawyer or a banker and just be content with a “normal” life. Have common, cliché` dreams like a beautiful house, a flashy car, a happy marriage and kids, learn to find joy in the little victories in life. But when you belong to a generation of people who were born to and grew up with a war, when you’ve seen certain things, it changes you. It makes you a different person. Your entire idea of happiness, and life gets redefined. You are not “normal” anymore. You can’t be, even if you wanted to. It completely turns your world around, and no matter how much you try to run away from it, you can’t.

Civil wars can go on for decades, but when they do come to an end they are like thieves in the night. They just end, leaving entire generations of people orphaned, confused and traumatized. Everyone talks about the death tolls, and the war crimes, the winners and the losers, the heroes and fallen villains. But nobody talks about that invisible third party; the children. I know this, because I was one of them. And we were lost, abandoned, amidst more “important” things like bombs and bullets, political propaganda and blind nationalism.

They said they were fighting for the nation’s future. Nobody stopped to think if they had gotten it all wrong. Weren’t the children the future of the nation? What good did the war give the children in return for their stolen childhoods, their abandoned education and the things they’ve seen, that will stay with them for a long, long time? Nobody cared. Nobody wants to talk about PTSD because the entire nation suffers from it.  We live in a world that tends to believe that if something hurts everyone it’s not a problem, there’s no significance to it.  There are no two sides. Just victims.  We were and still are all victims in denial. Victims of a system that makes us blind to the fundamental causes of our own errors.

You know how they say Wall Street is too big to fail? That’s kind of how our country views its problems: too big to solve.  From the ethnic conflict to climate change to its education system we refuse to believe that these issues are penetrable if we start from their very fundamental causes.  An island just barely larger than the Maldives, we will most probably be one of the first few to go under water. But hey, to us, there are more important problems, like “are we saying goodbye to being a “unified state” by letting our minorities have a decentralized local government in the Northern Province?” “Are we taxing the rich too much?”   And I won’t lie, sometimes in the utter madness of it all, I do feel that the problems may really be too big to solve. The people are too traumatized to believe again, to have faith in change, or to fight for it.  They’ve fought enough already, for the wrong causes.

Sometimes I wonder if I should stay as far away as I can from home for anything to make sense, to not feel as broken as everyone else, to feel “normal”.   The more I travel, the more I expose myself to “normalcy”, the more I want to make sure that my children will never be exposed to that unspeakable violence that my generation was exposed to. It almost seems a naive dream to have; to look for alternatives to war and violence through education. But I believe it’s worth a try. It may not turn the world around. It may not stop the racist and the religious extremists from taking their inferiority complexes out on the country. It may not heal 30 years of trauma. But it will give my kids and their kids a fighting chance to what my generation never had.

I was one of the lucky ones. Not only did I survive, but I was privileged enough to receive an education. I mastered the evacuation drill (in case of an attack) in my middle school syllabus. Studying at a Roman Catholic convent in Colombo, I learnt to pray to God, Jesus and Mary every morning although I was a Buddhist.  I pretended to be thrilled to do extra-credit projects for history class although I knew our textbooks were published by the government and were mostly just a chapter by chapter explanation of extreme nationalism, justifying the need for war.  And I carried those history books and other belongings in a fully transparent schoolbag designed by the government “for my own security.”   I was asked by a nun to memorize this prayer that we could say whenever we heard an ambulance. Police and ambulance sirens give me chills even to this day, and I hear my eight year old self say that prayer. What I find fascinating about this is that even decades later I still remember that prayer, word to word. It reminds me that, what you’re taught as a child stays with you. And some children in the world are taught the wrong things or nothing at all, and it stay with them. That wrong stays with them. That nothingness stays with them.  It haunts them, their communities, their nations, the industries they step into, the children they raise and the whole world they live in.  So if we want to fix our problems, if we want sustainable solutions, shouldn’t we start by educating our children about the fundamental causes of them?

I don’t want you to misunderstand me. My faith in education did not spring from my lack of one. Even with the little resources that were available, I did learn the fundamentals. I learned to speak and read in three languages. I learned calculus and geometry. I learned to be fascinated by the beauty and vastness of science through biology, chemistry and physics. I learned to read literature and appreciate theatre. Despite all the chaos that surrounded it, my country’s education system taught me the basic skills I needed to communicate, to question, to calculate and to digest it all. It gave me the curiosity to read literature of other cultures, of peaceful societies. I read biographies of Mandela and Gandhi and also those of Hitler and Prabakaran.  I learned to empathize, to see the world through their eyes. As a teenager I read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, the first book I fell in love with. While the ambulance sirens made the rest of Colombo lay sleepless at night I engulfed myself in the story of Santiago and his journey through the Sahara dessert. I was patient as he searched for his treasure for days and weeks. Through him I learnt that resilience pays off. And through Gandhi (as cheesy and overused a quote as it is) I learnt that I should “be the change that  … (I)… want to see in the world.”   And Paulo Coelho assured me that “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

If someone were to ask me what I would be most thankful for in my education, I would tell them that I’m thankful I was taught to read. Because it is through books I learnt to understands and feel what I couldn’t feel or understand; to empathize, and to respect. My entire life was shaped by what I experienced and read as a kid. Most of my college friends in America lived their childhood in a peaceful country and learnt about war and violence through books; for me it was the opposite. And I’m thankful that I had the luxury of reading about peace, that I was able to familiarize myself with it.  Because without the ability to read, I would have been just another child of war. And when the war ended in 2009 I would have been an orphan of war, lonely and craving for its warmth.

 But once again, I was one of the lucky ones.

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Thisuri Wanniarachchi, 21, is the author of novels The Terrorist’s Daughter and Colombo Streets. She is Sri Lanka’s youngest State Literary Award winner and the world’s youngest national nominee to the Iowa International Writers’ Program. She is currently an undergraduate student of Bennington College on full scholarship and studies Political Economy and Education Reform.