The Volunteer leading the group arranged half the students in a line parallel to the other half. In a humorous tone he began with a few silly questions - ‘if you like curry, step forward’. All the students stepped forward without hesitation and slight smiles across their face.
As the game progressed, so did the intensity. The volunteer called out, as the girls and boys stood in their lines staring back; “In your home or social circle have you heard of anyone say negative things about a Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim?”
No one stepped forward. A silence swept over the students. The question wasn't expected, I guess. But then one girl stepped forward. Her head literally hung in shame. The students watched her. Even letting her stand there for a few moments utterly alone. Yet, this one's girls courage soon inspired others. Soon another stepped forward, then two. And like that they all eventually stepped forward. So there they stood facing one another, closer than before. I watched. A shiver ran through my body. It took awhile, but they eventually all admitted the prejudices that reside in their homes.
At that moment, all the hours of standing under the blazing sun was worth it. As they stepped forward, I saw the shame that crossed over their faces. And, they did it while Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala youth stood in common. They admitted it while the “other” stood watching.
I moved on to another group. There the groups of students, led by their Volunteer, were in the midst of another exercise. ‘Time Line’ was what the SLU team here called it. The students with white sheets and pens in hand wrote down significant situation that had occurred over the course of the war.
When I joined them, a young boy had stepped forward. He placed his white paper on the timeline. And, for a few moments he shared his story.
In 2008, the boy’s town’s local gas station had been threatened to be bombed. Watthala was where he was from. He shared, that it was the first time he had really understood the fear those in Mathara, Mullitivu and Jaffna must have experienced throughout the course of the war.
Another young girl shared how in 2009 while her family resided in Killinochi grenades had fallen. From whom she could not tell, whether it was the LTTE or Sri Lankan Government she'd never clarified. But, what she did share with certainty was how Sinhala Soldiers had come to their home to help them escape. She shared that it was one of those moments she realized the unjust discriminations that communities hold about “the other”.
In some groups, the whole exercise consisted of students stepping up one after the other to name a year and someone they’d lost to the war. I was surprised. The openness and ease these students exuded in sharing the suffering that encompassed the conflict, almost revealed how normalized violence and death had become on the Island.
After observing these exercises, I was thoroughly impressed with the volunteers that went that extra step to really embrace the depth of those shared moments. One volunteer, on her own volition, led the students to conduct a moment of silence. After what I’d just experienced and heard, it was exactly what I needed. So, I joined them. Head bowed and eyes closed, I let the stories settle. I let the silence settle.
A lot is in the hands of the volunteer. They have the most intimate interactions with the students. They hear the stories and they can either rest in contemplation or move on like it doesn’t make a difference.
And, I was so grateful that there are a few that held that moment. Reflected that moment. And in their silence hoped that such moments never touch this Island again.
I’d like to think that it’s why we’re all here standing in the blazing sun, in the historic fields of Jaffna College, dedicating five days to Sri Lanka Unites Future Leaders Conference. I hope we do it for these few precious moments – where we remember, where we forgive but we do not forget.