Category Archives: Kilinochchi

Unity Camp 6: Killinochchi – The Experience of a Lifetime

Shortly after graduating from college in a great move by the universe I was invited to be a part of Ekamuthu Orray Makkal Unity Mission Trust (for those confused by the first three words; Ekamuthu’ is Sinhalese for ‘Unity’ and ‘Oray Makkal’ is Tamil for ‘One People’)

The Unity Mission Trust has been in existence since May 2009 and is a non-profit Trust that is dedicated to fostering unity, integration, healing and reconciliation between the teenagers and young adults in the Wanni area and their peers from all over Sri Lanka.

 This October from the 17th to the 20th I joined the crew that piled into 3 buses, 2 vans – as head of the Media and Publicity Team. 500 student leaders aged 15-20, and 40 teachers from 70 schools all the way from Jaffna to Matara gathered at Killinochchi Central College (KCC) for Unity Camp 6. The Camp works on the basis of separating the students from their friends and placing them in groups with others, some of whom don’t even speak the same language. Together they compete in drama, dance, music, art, sports, and speech, overcoming whatever racial barriers that might have separated them before. I am not going to launch into the details of the program etc – you can find out everything you need to know about what the kids did here. What I am going to do is try to articulate the feelings that stir the depths of your soul when you realize that 4 days can change lives, bring people together, that there is hope.

Being a part of the team that undertakes projects of such a scale is another experience in itself. Logistics for nearly 600 people to sleep, eat, and carry out the camp itself in Killinochchi took up much of the teams free time for months. This is an entirely volunteer run organization – not one of us who stayed up, sometimes past midnight organizing, packing, planning, doing files, raising funds – are paid. It’s done for a greater reason upon which no value can be placed. Then comes the day when at 5am we pile into buses and drive to Killinochchi with stops along the way to pick up people, stretch our legs and finally you arrive. No resting – 500 students need to be registered and the hall prepared for the opening ceremony, buses and lorries need to be unloaded, and students need to be prevented from switching groups. The opening ceremony runs with a showcase of talents and then comes the tough part – the students are placed in their groups and the organizing committee does some switching around to ensure they are mixed up as throughly as possible. There are tears and resisting, but we are firm. After the rules are reviewed and the students briefed, dinner is served. The committee has no time to rest – after ensuring dinner is handled, the girls round up the female students and chaperone them to Killinochchi Maha Vidayalaya where their sleeping quarters are. In the meantime the boys check to ensure the dorms and sleeping arrangements at KCC are sorted, and once the students are settled the team sits down for a meeting. Those not staying at either of the schools with the students head off to the army camps, which have been generously offered by the Sri Lankan Army to us. This is usually close upon midnight.

The next day begins at 8.30am after breakfast when everyone gathers back at KCC with a Music Session to get everyone in the mood, headed by our Musical Director Rukshan Perera. Over the next few days team members run non-stop working tirelessly to ensure the smooth running of the numerous activities, challenges and mountains of work that comes with such a project. But through it all the most amazing experience is watching the students slowly form bonds with one another. They turn from the nervous, uncomfortable faced girls and boys that sit – near-silent, awkwardly smiling with one another, to hugging and crying on the fourth day when they are leaving. One has to see this with their own eyes to realize that four days can break barriers, that the youth has a lack of inhibition when it comes to embracing new opportunities and really are the hope of our nation.

The talent that comes from them blows you away. They sing, dance, act, create, speak, excel athletically, – all with just a few hours at most to prepare. Trophies are awarded to the most outstanding group leaders, campers, and based on a points system – a winning group emerges. But nothing touches your heart like the very end of camp. Students who speak about their experiences at the open forum begin to cry, overcome by emotion. They hug their new found friends and have to be nearly forced to board the buses. You realize that human connections are beyond language, race, religion, soci-economic backgrounds, gender, and any of these limitations we place upon ourselves.

You watch the candle ceremony and can’t hold back your tears when you see a sea of light shining back. This light is carried by remarkable young men and women who sing our national anthem with pride and then chant in one voice “Sri Lanka” repeatedly.

You realize that the future of our country has hope, the dream of one people is tangibly close to a reality.

You realize that you are a part of a much bigger picture – but what you can do in your small capacity can make real change. Sometimes we need to step out of our little bubbles and start releasing the potential we harbor.

We can do so much more than just talk, and more than can – we need to. The change we leave behind is the real legacy we leave. Not how popular you were, how much money you made, how big your CV and accomplishments were – but by how many lives you touched and transformed.


Piyaseeli’s four decades in Kilinochchi

By Arthur Wamanan
Sunday, 10 June 2012
The Nation
Sunday, 10 June 2012

Piyaseeli’s four decades in Kilinochchi
Piyaseeli’s four decades in Kilinochchi

Her smile broadens as she hears the familiar language – Sinhala. “You know Sinhala?” she asks.
Piyaseeli, a domestic aide, has been living in Tharmapuram, 20 kilometers east of Kilinochchi, a shade over four decades. She has seen, experienced and shared the harrowing experiences of 30 years of war with thousands of people in the area popularly known as the Wanni.

Having lived in a predominantly Tamil area, it was not often that she came across people speaking the language spoken in the rest of the country. Originally from Matara, Piyaseeli moved to Kilinochchi with her husband in 1972 and has been living there since. For Piyaseeli, life brought many uncertainties after moving to the Wanni. Little did she know that the Wanni would soon be a war zone, in years to come. “We came here seeking a quiet peaceful life,” she says.

Life was not easy for her and her husband during the initial stages in Kilinochchi. Having moved from one end of the country to the other, Piyaseeli and her husband’s challenges were not limited to getting accustomed to the new environment and its people. They needed to ensure that the hosts were comfortable with them. She was not accepted by the community. It took two years for the couple to convince the people that they were in Kilinochchi to make a decent living.

“Even though my husband is a Tamil of Indian descent, I am Sinhalese and was not accepted by the people at the time. They were doubtful. They felt really uncomfortable and were suspicious about us,” she said.

Therefore, Piyaseeli and her husband lived an isolated life, until the people were accustomed to their presence. “We were virtually in hiding for some time. But eventually things changed and we were able to move freely,” says Piyaseeli.

However, Piyaseeli’s problems were not to end there. The worst was yet to come and was to remain for decades until May 2009. It was not only the final stages of fighting that affected them. The run up to the climax was also filled with tension, displacement, uncertainties and fear for the people in the former war zone. The fluctuating, volatile security situation in the country was centered around the Wanni.

Kilinochchi gained the attention of many during the war, as it functioned as the de-facto administrative center of the LTTE for decades until it was regained by the security forces in January 2009.

For Piyaseeli, life in Kilinochchi was like living in a totally different country. The Wanni was completely cut off from the South during a major part of the fighting. The people lived in isolation with no way to contact their relatives in other parts of the country. Despite all the obstacles, Piyaseeli and her family continued with their lives, as all others in the region.

“It was difficult. We could not get out. We could not keep in touch with people who were living as close as Jaffna. But, I was not the only one helpless here. There were thousands,” she said.

Forty years later, Piyaseeli looks at all the experiences she gained in a positive light. She was one of the thousands who had to run for their lives during the final stages of fighting. Having lived there 40 years, being a victim of conflict was not new to Piyaseeli. She moved there even before the LTTE came into the scene. She has gone through almost all the phases of the ethnic situation.

However, she says the final stages were the worst that she faced in her entire stay. “Every single person was affected in one way or another. We suffered a lot, not knowing where to run and where to find safety,” she said.

 Her Tamil accent is still different from what is generally spoken in the North. But, Piyaseeli has become just another person in Kilinochchi. Her husband is no more. All her children are married to residents of Kilinochchi. “This has been my home and will continue to be so. I love the place, the people and everything that is here. They have been with me in hard times. I will be with them when they are happy,” she smiles. 

The life of Piyaseeli is just one example. She is just one stone for the bridge that is needed to connect the two communities that were separated for years.