Colombo, End of war special edition, Human Rights, Human Security, Identity, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation

A Tribute to our Unsung Heroes

The teenage girls singing a Tamil song “Tomorrow is Ours” is interrupted by my wife Samantha and I walking in to the classroom.  They giggled coyly as we looked around at them.   They were being trained to be Girl Guides and did not seem any different to any of the many young people I have encountered over the years.

One of the leaders, Deepa (fictitious name) walked up to us in curiosity and introduced by the Girl Guide trainer.  She had a presence but seemed restless.

Deepa was abducted by the LTTE at age 16 from her Aunt’s home in the Wanni and was trained as a soldier.   She had not seen combat as she was found by the Army in a Wanni camp only three months after.    She has not heard about her parents since then and thinks they are in London.  The other thirty odd girls had suffered similar fates.  Another, Ramani (fictitious name) told us through the interpreter, the LTTE had come to her home and she was picked out of the three sisters as she looked the strongest.   She said, “They took children over thirteen and only one from a family”.   She had been trained for 25 days and had seen combat.  When asked about the training and her time in the LTTE, she said, “I do not want this to ever happen again” and evaded the question.   This was the sentiment of the others too.

The Girl Guide trainers volunteering their time, one Sinhala and the other Tamil former teachers were volunteering their services for this camp administered by the Army.  They were preparing for the Girl Guide and Scout Investiture ceremony planned for the next day.   In addition to the girls there are about 40 boys in this camp.

The Guide trainers told us tales of how these children were distraught and disoriented when they were brought here seven months ago.  Most would not smile or speak much as they were scared.   Obviously there has been a tremendous transformation through this programme as to us they seemed normal as normal can be.  Later when I was looking for a toilet, the Guide trainer asked one of the boys to show me.  I suggested, I use theirs’ which was closer, but he very politely took me to the guest toilet on the other side of the compound.   He looked so innocent that I could not imagine him as a terrorist.

The Guide trainers were full of praise for the Army officer in charge and his staff who administers the camp for the way it is run.  They said that uniforms were not worn by officers when they visit the camp and that these young people were treated with dignity and respect.  Both the boys and girls had made great friends with their warders too, the Police constables who guard the premises.  I saw a few boys bantering and laughing with them as they drank tea together.

Deepa graciously invited Samantha and I to join them for tea.   She continued to engage Samantha in a conversation in a combination of Tamil, Sinhala and English asking about her personal life, who I was to her and then when she found out we had children of our own she backed off, as if she was hoping we would take her home with us.  Later we found out, of all the girls, she was the only one without a family or extended family to go home to.

Another girl came to Samantha and spoke in Sinhala and told her in a matter of a few minutes that her father is Sinhala and mother Tamil and they had lived in the Wanni.   As she was relating her story, the girls were called to regroup to practice.

Watching these girls act and interact, I just could not fathom the fact that they were trained killers and I would have had no chance if I encountered them out there just over a year ago.

Later, we met the Army officer and his staff and I could see why all the children called him Appah.   He was indeed a father figure, a tall handsome man, gracious and well spoken.    He was there to go through a rehearsal  for the investiture and getting impatient as the children were trickling in when they should have been in their seats in the make shift campfire circle. He turned to me in exasperation, “They are behaving like civilians” and with a chuckle went on “I suppose that is a good thing”.

Indeed, undoing the combat discipline and violence out of these children would have been a tremendous challenge and what amazes me most is that it was spearheaded by the very army which was their enemy.

The Young Diaspora
In a conversation with the Army officer, I highlighted the irony of so many of the young Tamil Diaspora of a similar age group growing up in another world,  many who had never been to Sri Lanka, yet espouse hate, at times militantly, towards Sri Lanka and Sinhala people.  He said, “We cannot blame them as that was their reality when they ran away from Sri Lanka at the time and sadly they have passed it onto their children too”.

Such are the contradictions of this complex situation, where a nation has shared its soil between these two communities for two thousand years, distinct in many ways, yet similar in so many and every so often like siblings drawing battle lines, fighting it out.  This last battle of thirty years seemingly the most brutal, full of hatred for each other, spreading like wildfire, thanks to the information age and in this camp bringing them back to a life of dignity they deserve with love, compassion and a determination – this seeming side story has tremendous significance as we work towards peace one year after the war ended.

“After all these very girls are going to become Mothers some day and bring up children, so this is the least we could do to help them back to normal life” said the Guide trainer.   No doubt the scars will remain, but the nation has to come together, to heal the wounds, as we share a common karma.

The True Unsung Heroes

The Girl Guide and Scout trainers volunteering their time tirelessly for the love of humanity, the Army personnel, the Police guards and the other volunteers, they are the true unsung heroes as the nation heals the wounds of war.

These are the stories that keep my spirit alive and that there is hope for humanity to someday overcome our selfish and fearful behaviors to understand that suffering is the default human condition, but we overcome by being centered, balanced and a middle path of compassion for self and others through our common humanity.   This is the message of the camp.

All these unsung heroes are the proof of this human spirit as they work selflessly to ensure that these children do not become a burden to society, but useful contributors to humanity.

The other heroes are certainly these youth who lost their childhood to a force beyond their control as they commit to become useful citizens again.  Hopefully they will be champions of peace themselves as they grow and they rightfully said, “We do not ever want to face that again”.   This is our collective responsibility to prevent a war from ever happening in this beautiful land again as war brings out the worst in all of us.

If you say, “war is a necessary evil for human existence”, then I ask “have we not evolved?”
If you say, “guns are necessary to protect us”, then I ask “protect from whom?”
If you say, “fear, hate and conflict is being human”, then I ask “where is the love?”
If war is ugly then peace is beauty is then human!

End of War Special Edition