Summer camp in post-war Kilinochchi | Daily News

Summer camp in post-war Kilinochchi

On the playground of Tharmapuram Tamil Vidyalayam, a government school some 20 kilometres from Kilinochchi town, 12-year-old Sankavi was avoiding her grandmother. The grandmother, Prasanna, sat off to the side, silently watching Sankavi and the other students playing. Prasanna contrasted sharply with her granddaughter: Sankavi was dressed in a tidy skirt and blouse and Prasanna wore a tattered nightgown. Sankavi was reticent, while Prasanna, with her easy, near-toothless smile, eagerly spoke to the Daily News about the family’s troubles. “I have no strength,” she said, “no strength to even walk or talk because I am so hurt.”

“I am worried,” said Prasanna, “I can’t sleep because of my worries.” Recently, the family’s roof collapsed, adding to the stresses that kept her up at night. Prasanna’s son-in-law (Sankavi’s father) left them soon after the war ended. Since then, said Prasanna, “Sankavi’s mother supports the family, working as a labourer in Jaffna.”

Prasanna often stops at this school to bring Sankavi food, on her walk to the post office, where she collects a Rs. 250 government pension. But that Monday, there was no need for Prasanna to be there, as Sankavi was given a free lunch. Sankavi was keeping her distance from her grandmother and the old woman’s worries, wanting, instead, to participate in something completely removed from the devastation of almost 30 years of armed conflict: the district’s first-ever summer camp.

Twelve-year-olds like Sankavi make up the first generation of children in Kilinochchi without first-hand memories of the war, and yet they remain tied to the conflict by the struggles of their families.

At two government schools that were damaged extensively during the war, and have been rebuilt since then, an international NGO has launched an annual summer camp. The Chinmaya Organisation for Rural Development (CORD), which was founded in India in 1953, facilitates the camp at the Kallaru Maha Vidyalayam and Tharmapuram Tamil Vidyalayam.

CORD’s summer camp is their latest innovation for making education and games accessible to children like Sankavi. At the summer camp, children play games with proper sports equipment, attend English lessons, watch videos on large projectors in their classrooms, and eat free meals every day of the programme. At the end, each child receives a gift package of coloured pencils and notebooks. Opportunities like this one allow children to aspire beyond what their parents or grandparents may have thought possible.

The days of Kilinochchi’s summer camp were marked by joyous laughter, screaming, dancing, and games. The children played volleyball, cricket and football outside, despite the oppressive dry heat. The organisers brought power tools and helped the children make a pillory, a wooden framework with holes for the head and hands. Students took turns locking themselves into the pillory, while the other children threw wet sponges at them. There was something remarkable about this, because historically, pillories were used to imprison criminals and subject them to public abuse. In a more contentious atmosphere, the device would have looked malicious and threatening at the school. But at the summer camp, it was one of the children’s favourite activities.

Kilinochchi after the war

When CORD’s Executive Director in Sri Lanka, Amirtha Gowrie Mahenthiran, first visited Kilinochchi after the war, in 2010, “It was like a haunted city. It was frightening. It was completely shattered,” she said. Kilinochchi’s buildings, houses, and roads had been destroyed in the fighting that reclaimed the district. “It was full of debris and the walls were bullet-ridden, and there were no roofs on the houses. People looked really sad. They looked very miserable,” said Mahenthiran. “They were lost, because they didn’t know where to start life.”

Mahenthiran describes how, after the war, women became the primary breadwinners of their families, and even if men were present, many of the men became alcoholics. Women had to earn to support their families, and in some cases, their alcoholic husbands. “That was a very sad story,” said Mahenthiran. “Some women couldn’t handle it, and they committed suicide. About five of the women from CORD groups committed suicide.”

Mahenthiran says that it is too late to give some women the help that they need because women don’t want to admit that they have issues. “They feel counselling is a stigma,” she says. “So we have to address it in an indirect way.” That is done through female empowerment.

A number of sources in Kilinochchi were under the impression that psychological counselling for women affected by the war had been banned for a period of time. However, Chairperson for the National Committee on Women in the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs, Swarna Sumanasekara said that counselling has never been banned in the Northern Province. “The Women’s Bureau has their own counselling officers who provide counselling and they have Tamil language counsellors,” she said.

For the seven years that the LTTE held Kilinochchi as their administrative capital, they embedded themselves deeply within its civilian population. There, the LTTE offered employment, ran their own court system, had their own police force, banks, and political administration. They also provided civilians with vital infrastructure such as housing and water.

Losing the city was one of the heaviest blows suffered by the militant group in three decades of armed conflict. The Sri Lankan Army captured the city on January 2, 2009, sealing the LTTE’s fate in May.

People like Sankavi’s grandmother have lived through varied iterations of Kilinochchi, a territory that shifted hands between the Sri Lanka Army and the LTTE numerous times during the war. Prasanna says, “We were displaced between ten and fifteen times,” but she doesn’t know for sure, she lost count.

Sankavi, on the other hand, has memories of living in one home all her life, though apparently as a toddler, she spent time in an IDP camp. She is on the edge of a generation whose knowledge of the war is second-hand. Sankavi’s proximity to conflict is rooted in her family’s memory, as well as in their present circumstance.

Over the nine years since the war ended, Sankavi’s family has gradually built a home made of corrugated metal sheets. Recently, the government’s rehabilitation projects made it possible for them to lay the concrete foundation of a house, and they are slowly saving their money to build further.

Sankavi is not only connected to the war, at home. Her school, Tharmapuram Tamil Vidyalayam, also serves as a daily reminder of Kilinochchi’s post-war context. The school was built with funding from the Indian government and the World Bank after the war, but has neither working water nor washrooms for its 57 children and five teachers. For the first time this year, the school got electricity, after saving several years of government aid.

Sasikda Visagalingam, a teacher at the Tharmapuram school, says that when the Army was there, they provided water for the school with their own water tanks, but in 2013, when the Army left, the water stopped. “There is no water in the well,” she said, “no water in the tanks. All of us bring water from home.”

Sankavi recently passed through the Tharmapuram Primary School, where the students are almost exclusively the children of labourers. Sankavi is one of CORD’s sponsored students, meaning that the cost of her tuition as well as her school supplies is covered by the NGO. In addition, Sankavi’s entire family receives dry food rations to supplement their meals, and a yearly medical examination is arranged for Sankavi to make sure that her BMI stays within a healthy range.

The opportunities and special status given to Sankavi by CORD empowered her in ways that her mother and grandmother had never been. When we met her, Sankavi said that someday, she wants to be a doctor. While her grandmother suffers from insomnia, and her mother comes home once a month from Jaffna, Sankavi has a luxury that neither of them had: the possibility of a normal life.


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