response: July/August 2019 Issue

Building Hope in the Wake of War

Sri Lanka’s war widows

Building Hope in the Wake of War
Murukaiya Theivanai, seated, is a war widow in Mullaitivu, Sri Lanka. She poses with her daughter Archana, 19.

When an artillery shell fell on her home in northern Sri Lanka in 2009, Sathiyaruban Tharskika’s world changed. Her husband was killed in the explosion. She and her two children were injured. A decade later, she still walks with a limp on a badly scarred leg. Pieces of ordnance remain embedded in her skull; doctors say it’s too dangerous to try to remove them.

As the sole breadwinner for herself and her two children, Tharskika found a job at a cooperative restaurant, but what she earns isn’t enough to pay the school fees for both her children. So she sent her daughter off to a boarding school run by a Sri Lankan charity; education there is free for war orphans. Her son remains with her.

“We’re not living well, but we’re surviving,” she said. It’s a common refrain from war widows in Sri Lanka’s conflict-torn north. “If I had more income I could ensure that my kids get a good education and then a good job. That’s all I care about.”

Imperial legacy: Lasting division

Sri Lanka gained its independence from Great Britain in 1948, but the empire’s divide-and-conquer strategy left behind deep rifts between the largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority, which assumed power with independence, and the Tamil minority in the country’s north and east. Government aggression against Tamils and Tamil nationalist uprising has meant war for the country, even as recent as 2008, when the Sri Lankan government launched a brutal final offensive against Tamil fighters and civilians.

The war ended in May 2009, but at a terrible price. Between 40,000 and 70,000 civilians were killed during the final months of fighting, according to United Nations estimates. The government denied any wrongdoing, but persistent demands for justice from the international community—and from Tamils themselves, particularly conflict-affected women—finally forced the government to agree in 2015 to a series of measures, including a truth and reconciliation commission, and a concerted effort to clarify what happened to thousands of men who remained missing. Yet the Sri Lankan government has failed to implement most of these promises, stoking further anger among Tamils and encouraging the resurgence of less accommodating and more conservative forms of Tamil nationalism.

Krishnan Theivanai is a 64-year-old Methodist woman whose husband and oldest son were killed in the war’s final moments.

“Every year the government sends people around asking questions about widows,” she said. “And they make big claims about how they support us. But I never get anything from the government. And how can I forgive them? If my husband and son were alive today I would be a normal person, just living my life. But they aren’t alive. So why should I forgive them?”

A passion for listening

On the other side of the country’s ethnic divide, the Rev. Sumithra Fernando is a Methodist pastor who was just entering seminary when her cousin, a Sinhalese army officer, was killed in a Tamil attack. She admits her cousin’s death left her bitter.

“I really hated Tamils,” she said.

Yet the experience of living together in the seminary with those who she perceived as the enemy began to wear down her enmity. After graduation, she started doing humanitarian work in Tamil areas, helping victims of the conflict, especially women and children. She says she became convinced, even as the war continued, that peacebuilding was possible if she could get ordinary people on each side of the conflict to start talking.

“I really felt for the widows. The military and government people got compensation, but the civilians got nothing. Or some got a small piece of land and five bags of cement. But day-to-day survival remained difficult,” she said.

The Sri Lankan government prohibited many humanitarian groups from helping the Tamils, but Fernando and the Methodist Church convinced officials that she was interested in bringing people together, not fostering further division.

With financial assistance from United Methodist Women, Fernando began bringing Sinhalese women with her, including women who had lost family members in the civil war. Bridging gaps of caste and language and tradition wasn’t easy, but it paid off.

“When people are separate from others, they think they are the only ones suffering on the planet. But when they come together with others, others who have also lost loved ones to violence, they learn they aren’t the only ones. That makes it easier to examine the conflict and identify the roots of the violence.”             

Fernando believes traditional approaches to peacebuilding that start at the top are often doomed to fail, because those who sponsored the violence in the first place are unlikely to see their way to resolving conflict. Better, she believes, to start at the bottom.

“From the perspective of the widows it’s easy to see that it was never a people’s war. It was a war made by men. It had political roots, which civilians often didn’t understand but for which they suffered. Conflict generated by politicians was inflicted upon the people. And it was the women and children who suffered the most,” she said.

Thevarasa Am Jemina Quance is a Tamil widow who participated in the workshops. “There was a lot of pain released in those gatherings. When I came home afterward my children said I was a much happier person,” she said.

Once again with help from United Methodist Women, Fernando also worked to help the conflict-affected Tamil women establish some economic security. She sponsored sewing classes and dug wells.

When she first started journeying from her home in the capital city of Colombo to the Tamil heartland in the northeast of Sri Lanka, Fernando says she was shocked by the despair she encountered.

“Many of the women I met were so traumatized that they had no hope. Some of them wanted to die, but they stayed alive only because of their children,” she said.

“Then we started our psychosocial work with them, and in the safety of our gatherings they asked powerful questions. Who is God? If there is a God, how can that God let us suffer like this? And their questions led us step by step deeper into their hearts. As we wrestled with their questions, we all came to see the world differently. We came to understand why the fighting started, why they had to hide in the jungle and why the wounds were so slow to heal after the fighting stopped. We came to understand some of the next steps, where women who once were victims become community leaders, moving from their pain to a new sense of leadership and commitment to their families and communities. If real peace is going to come to Sri Lanka, they’re the ones who are going to build it.”

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He lives in Oregon.

*Read the full story in the July/August issue of response.

Posted or updated: 7/8/2019 12:00:00 AM