“When our children ask us why such a war occurred, we should be able to tell them that it was because there were tensions between the different ethnic groups and because we failed to understand each other. Then they will understand that they should not form tensions like that.” – A young participant at a workshop conducted by the CEJ
By Amaya Fernando
Today, Sri Lanka has an entire generation of youth who have not experienced the horrors of Sri Lanka’s violent past: The search for a family member who has been missing for years, the trauma of losing your home, your community, and the fight for justice that will never be served. Our youth will be building the future of this country, with only textbook knowledge of the sufferings of previous generations. Herein lies the importance of the intergenerational aspect of memory and reconciliation. How will our youth prevent something they have never experienced?
The Centre for Equality and Justice works with women and youth on memory and reconciliation, to address these inter-generational gaps. In the workshops which were conducted, women were able to share their experiences of the civil war and JVP insurrections with the youth, and work together to develop ideas on how to make future generations aware of the need for reconciliation.
The workshops enabled the youth to express their feelings regarding the traumas their communities have experienced in the past and inspire them to work for a better future. The existence of a divide between the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities, was also identified by the participants and they recognised the impact of facing intergenerational trauma as a result of these negative past experiences.
The workshops used creative methods to connect with the women and youth participants. Discussions, games and artistic projects were some of the activities they were involved in, through which many new ideas on how to close the generational gap and bridge the different communities together, emerged. The idea of collectively planting trees in memory of lost loved ones, was a unique idea which can be effectively executed. The importance of involving people of different ages and ethnicities was specifically identified by both groups of participants.
Working together with women and youth also provides the opportunity to instil understanding and emotion in the minds of the younger generation regarding the violence of the past. They expressed feelings of disappointment, frustration, anger, sadness but also faith, pride and courage regarding the obstacles that have been overcome by the generations before them. Making the youth feel connected to the past in this manner, enhances their compassion and understanding, which is vital for a sustainable peace in this country.
A very important inter-generational aspect regarding memory and reconciliation, is the part played by parents, especially mothers. The women acknowledged their duty in society - to bring up their children in an inclusive manner – so that they grow up to build a country that is not divided. The youth also recognised the important part they will play in the future as communicators of the past to their children. They realised that it is very important for them to listen and understand the experiences of the previous generation of all ethnicities, so that they may promote memory and reconciliation even through their own children, by giving them proper information regarding the past.
In relation to the civil war, a young participant stated, “We should be mindful about how we address the next generation. If we tell our children that the Tamil Tigers were the sole reason this conflict arose, they are going to misunderstand the conflict.” This signifies that the war should be viewed as something that affected everyone, and not just a single community. The importance of promoting memory and reconciliation in a way that does not ignite feelings of hatred and anger were identified by the women and youth participants.
They were unanimous that the information passed down to future generations should not induce violence or fear, harm or affect people’s privacy or dignity, and should be verified as accurate information. Such ideas highlight the sense of responsibility felt by these women and youth in working together for memory and reconciliation.
The existence of a divide between the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities is another factor when it comes to the intergenerational aspect of memory and reconciliation. When questioned, both women and youth were of the opinion that bridging the divide between communities should be initiated with the future generation. Ethnically mixed schools or Sunday schools, open and inclusive religious festivals and teaching both Tamil and Sinhala languages in school were some suggestions made by the participants. Such mechanisms would create a society which is more inclusive and understanding of each other.
The youth also recognised the possibility of the Sinhala-Muslim aggressions intensifying and the relevance of memorialisation in helping the youth understand the difficulties of a war, so that they would not contribute to such aggressions leading to ethnic conflicts. If we take World War II as an example, the mass efforts taken to memorialise the horrors of that war played a critical role in preventing the outbreak of another world war. Sri Lanka was not affected as such by World War II. However, through global memorialisation efforts, generation after generation of Sri Lankans have been made aware of the atrocities and destruction of that war.
These workshops clearly showed how women who were affected by violence and war, fought their way through to better times, and demonstrated their abilities to enlighten the youth on how to prevent such atrocities from ever recurring. Therefore, focusing on the intergenerational aspect of memory and reconciliation, even just by focusing on the current generation of youth, would cause a ripple effect that will be recognised a century from now. The quest for peace, harmony and unity in this country is an ongoing one. We must equip our future generations with the relevant knowledge so they can drive this effort.
(The writer is an Intern at the Centre for Equality and Justice.)