KOCHI: For a few days, Vasantha Raman (name changed) sat silently and listened to the stories told by her neighbours at a community hall in Kilinochchi (northern Sri Lanka). Then the thirty-five-year stood on the stage and said, “For fifteen years, every day I would stand at the gate of my house and wait for my husband,” she says. “But he never came. So I would spend the day mowing the garden.”
Vasantha has no children and lived with her parents. “Now I know that he will not return,” she said. “I have wasted my life waiting for him.”
This anecdote was recounted by Ravindra Ranasinha, a Sri Lankan drama therapist, who had come to Kochi to give a talk, titled, ‘Post-conflict reconciliation action as a social worker’ at St. Albert’s College.
“Most of the Tamils are in a daze,” says Ravindra. “They cannot understand the trauma they had undergone during the civil war [between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, from 1983-2009]. They are the innocent farmers, fishermen and villagers who were caught in the crossfire. All the affluent and educated people escaped to Colombo.” So, they sit silently and stare at the walls of their house. “The husband, wife and children do not talk,” says Ravindra. “Some children don’t even go to school. Suddenly, there is violence between husband and wife because of the unbearable pain that they are carrying. Since they are unable to communicate verbally, they resort to physical violence, in frustration.”
These are the symptoms of severe trauma. “They cannot lead a normal life,” says Ravindra. “So, even if you provide instruments for a livelihood, like buckets or spades, or a place to stay, it will be of no help. What they need is psychological assistance to enable them to come out of the trauma.”
That was when Ravindra started drama therapy. “I encouraged the people to tell their stories and enact them,” says Ravindra. This proved to be beneficial. As they heard numerous stories of their fellow villagers and told their own, many became reconciled with their suffering.
Sadly, all this is coming a bit late in the day. During the rule of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-15), there were obstructions to do this sort of counselling. “The regime did not want people to get healed,” says Ravindra. “They were scared that once they returned to normal, the people might tell the world about their experiences. But, now, thankfully, some sort of healing has begun.” The civil war, which ended eight years ago, claimed more than one lakh lives, both among the Tamils and the Sinhalas. Asked the mind-set of the Sinhalas today, Ravindra, a Sinhala himself, says, “The Sinhala people feel calm, because the conflict is over, and they are in the majority. However, there are extremists trying to create dissension between the communities. But the government [headed by President Maithripala Sirisena] is not supporting them, therefore, the possibility of another war is limited.”
Meanwhile, the Tamils, still frantic and fearful, are yearning for justice. “They have lost so many of their dear ones – husbands, wives, children, parents, siblings, relatives, apart from property. They want the perpetrators to be caught, so that justice can be meted out.” But, so far, the government has proved to be a disappointment. “There are several mechanisms in place, but it is a very slow process,” says Ravindra. “It is imperative to build trust between the communities. It would be nice if Sri Lanka has something like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Then a true healing will take place in society.”