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Dealing with the past in Batticaloa in Sri Lanka

 

In The Broken Rifle March 2004, No. 60 which focused on dealing with the past.

Roberta Bacic

WRI had already visited Sri Lanka and had been in Batticaloa in March 2003. As a follow up of this we decided to accompany the process of dealing with the past with war affected women. Rajan Iruthayanathan organised the workshop with local organisers and activists who know well the people, history and politics of the area. The women came from two villages, where almost each family has lost somebody during the war.

We wrote in our proposal:

‘They will have produced a set of photographs. Through this process they will have a clear sense of those things which provide a strong connection to their dead relatives, will value their own story as part of their life but not as their only life experience. This self-knowledge will lead to greater confidence and purpose'.

In practical terms after the initial sharing of experiences and story telling, the participants were provided with disposal cameras and invited to take their own photos. Before coming to the workshop the coordinators had asked the women to bring objects and/or photos associated with their lost ones. These photos were developed so they were ready for the second day and the participants had the chance to comment on their own photos, their peers and also on the experience reflected in the choice of subject.

They valued the possibility of having the photos before leaving because they could share with their families what they had done during the two days, something absolutely unusual in their lives.

Before concluding the workshop, each woman was given a second camera to take home to take photos of their home, community and what they found relevant of their past and present life.

The workshop went beyond the planned outcome as the women identified four needs:

 

  1. to meet once a month in their own villages
  2. to follow up on the initiated healing process. There was a consensus that it had been specially meaningful to have been able to go from crying, to laughter and also to silence
  3. they needed some training in skills regarding the way they could improve their capacity to be economically self sufficient (e.g. poultry rearing and growing vegetables, etc)
  4. they would welcome for themselves and other groups the chance to meet at least once a year away from home so as to be able to have a short break and the capacity to discuss amongst peers their own daily life and life experiences, as well as mechanisms of coping.

The following steps were agreed:

 

  • Plan a possible photo exhibition in the community of the shots taken during this workshop
  • Try to organize a follow up for the first week in June so as to collect the photos taken with the last camera, have them processed and share the process since the meeting in January
  • Plan an exhibition in London at Saint Ethelburga's Peace and Reconciliation Centre of some of the photos. We would aim through this to share this sample of meaningful work with the wider society and also commit members of the Sri Lankan community living in the UK to this work. If possible we would also animate groups and individuals to support this group. We would welcome the chance of being able to invite to London at least one organizer and one participant of each village.

Initial reflections on this preliminary sharing experience included:

 

  1. Even if the photos are a concrete outcome of the experience and this is in itself most valuable, it is not an end in itself.
  2. The taking of the photos allows the participants to express themselves around the feelings and experiences in a very concrete and creative way, without feeling pushed to speak it all out.
  3. In some specific programs and/or projects, the use of this means would allow complex topics to be approached in a way that is difficult to achieve by simple conversations

The participants made many positive comments, and a few recommendations for future planning:

 

  • relief and a bit of rest
  • evidence that in ‘old age' new things can happen, that I can learn well and then share that too
  • to have lived together these two days as a family was a real support and leaves us with a feeling of contentment
  • share with others and open in front of other people and women whom I did not know was very important and liberating
  • the photos allow me and us to take back memories and also share them with the family and community if possible will be very important
  • I feel very satisfied and happy. I was very worried before coming as had never been away for so long, but now I am relaxed and will have much to share and bring some happiness back
  • I am looking forward to the follow up
  • I value that we were not questioned, but invited to open and share what we wanted and felt like sharing
  • I came with a great burden, it was difficult to start but feel that I have been able to break the circle of question and answer and feel in peace. Would really like to continue.
  • I feel I have gained courage and can face new moments, I am less afraid of crying and sharing
  • Loved eating together and not having had to cook myself. I also loved sharing with a woman stories before going to bed
  • I had not laughed so much for a long time, but I also was able to cry what I rarely do and never in public
  • I am thankful for this chance of hope and nice shared moments, we need a bit of joy, we have suffered so much