Listening to heal
Jayalath Bandara lost a Tamil school friend during the Black July riots. Today, he hopes to make new ones by spreading a message of peace.
Jayalath Bandara was just a boy when he was riding his bicycle and saw houses and shops burning in Anuradhapura town. He noticed the family business that belonged to his friend and classmate, Kennedy, was also engulfed in flames. Then he saw Kennedy running in panic. Instinctively, Jayalath rode toward his friend to help, but Kennedy was too scared to stop running. Jayalath realized that his friend was running away from him.
They had gone to the temples together, celebrated Thaipongal together, and ate kanji (porridge) after breaking the fast. Jayalath is Sinhala and Kenndy was Tamil. It had never made a difference until that day, July 24, 1983, during the Black July riots when everything burned. The anti-Tamil riots that started in Colombo that summer separated friends who once ate and drank together and replaced the camaraderie with hatred.
Public records estimate that more than 23,000 places of business and residences owned by Tamils were burned during the Black July riots. About 150,000 Tamils were displaced. A considerable number of Tamils fled to countries like Canada and Australia as refugees.
Jayalath Bandara hopes that his friend Kennedy is living somewhere abroad.
Four steps toward healing
Today, Bandara is the Chairman of the Jana Pavura Organization and goes from village to village advocating the Ahanna (listen) program, initiated by the Ministry of Finance and Mass Media and the National Reconciliation Bureau last month. The reconciliation model is actively being promoted in various parts of the country.
In the first part of the program, a theatrical piece based on ethnic harmony is performed by members of the local youth services group. The performance is then followed by playing the song Ahanna, with lyrics displayed on large screens. Sudarshana Gunawardana Director General, Government Information Department called the song: “A seven-minute answer to the 30-year-long conflict.”
After the song is played, two members from civil society groups speak about ethnic harmony and reconciliation. And finally, the program holds a public discussion, encouraging people to share their ideas and experiences.
Bayalath claims that his experience with Ahanna is the best program for the reconciliation process. “Reconciliation exists only by winning faith,” he says, “not by enacting laws.”