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Lives Interrupted:
Sri Lankans Who Missed School Thanks To War, Lament Lost Opportunities

Sri Lanka’s civil war stole some of their best years: Education was interrupted and futures lost. Now northern 20-and-30-somethings are asking: Where is their compensation?

07.07.2016  |  
The civil war interrupted many young lives in northern Sri Lanka, leaving locals with few employment options.

The lagoon near the fishing village of Navanthurai, in the Jaffna area, is full of boats. The jetty is crowded with children with kites and the shade under the coconut trees is occupied by tired fishermen, engaged in endless conversation. Somehow the scene is one of seaside satisfaction. Sometimes it feels like Nimala Vijitha, 26, is the only one looking for some better prospects here.

“In 2009 I was only short a few points in the exams to enter university,” Vijitha tells The Catamarans. “The war was intense and learning was impossible. Thanks to that period, I am unemployed. But now I am studying again, for the same exams.”

Vijitha’s outlook may be a little different from the other villagers in her hometown because she has seen something of the world, having gone to Colombo. She can also speak a little bit of English and a little bit of Sinhala.

Vijitha is married to a fisherman, Benedict Nirmala, and the couple has a four-year-old son. Despite the fact that the small family are surviving financially, Vijitha wants more. It’s impossible to save money on a fisherman’s meagre earnings. “The land and the house don’t belong to us,” she explains in halting Sinhalese. “They belong to the government. And we would love to buy our own land. That’s why I am studying, so I can get a job.”

The only option? Fishing boats in Navanthurai.
The only option? Fishing boats in Navanthurai.

There is a lot of unemployment in this area. Although Vijitha has her dreams of prosperity and further education, most of the other villagers The Catamarans met didn’t think like this. Fishing is the traditional occupation here and many aspired only to this, or to some kind of state-sponsored job. Starting their own business or getting a position in some other kind of industry was not something many had thought of. And despite local unemployment, not many of them considered moving to somewhere else in Sri Lanka either, where the labour market might be in better shape.

It was a similar story in another nearby village, Vallai in the Palali area. One 30-year-old woman there, A. Sudajini, notes that the young people here are not thinking of any alternative types of employment. She herself is employed in a local  factory and earns around LKR165 (around €1) a day and she says most jobs around here pay the same – hence the lack of enthusiasm.

“My husband goes fishing but I am unemployed,” another local woman, K. Pushparany, says; she’s also 30. “I attended about six different schools and I didn’t study enough to be able to get any kind of job. I’m here because of that past.”

Of course, unemployment is an issue in many countries and certainly in Sri Lanka too. But representatives of civil society organizations in Sri Lanka believe that the issue needs to be handled differently in this island nation, still scarred by civil war. The damage to youthful lives done by the civil war needs to be taken into consideration, says A .Kunabalasingham, head of the North Resettlement and  Rehabilitation Committee.

He has a number of suggestions – these include providing locals with land and creating programs that encourage self-starters and self-employment. There are some initiatives that might be able to help in Sri Lanka’s north and these include projects around palm trees, shrimp farming and the plastics industry. However projects that actually target younger Sri Lankans, to help with the years of education they lost, are few and far between. Civil society activists say that seven years have passed since the civil war here finished – yet the younger people who lost significant parts of their lives in camps and during war, have not seen any sort of justice.

“For three years I lived with some relations in Colombo,” Vijitha, the optimistic resident of Navanthurai, concludes. “I returned here to get married and I really want to study. Otherwise, my child will also have to go to the sea to make his living.” Her wistful sentiments are lost in the surrounding palm trees. If there are any answers for her, they will need to come from far away.