From the Northern scars to the Arts
By Shanika Sriyananda
From the Northern scars to the Arts

Lara with her team

It is all about a new life in the Wanni. The sun shone brightly while people were rebuilding their lives. It is above his school that birds fly freely where there are no thundering explosions of deadly bombs or shooting to force them into hiding. Children are back in schools, which were abandoned for many years.This is how 10-year-old Pandiyan of Mallavi Tamil Maha Vidyalaya put his feelings about peace in his drawing displayed at a unique exhibition held in Colombo recently.

“We are happy as there is no fighting anymore. We can play and study unlike those days”, Pandiyan, who said he ran away with his parents a few years back to save their lives said.

He ended up at a welfare centre for displaced people, the little boy had no hopes of ever going back to school.

“During the conflict some of my friends got killed and some were wounded. We always lived in fear and my parents had to hide us as LTTE terrorists were trying to snatch us and use us to fight”, Pandiyan recalled the days between death and life.It is a surprise for the boy to reach Colombo and enjoy life in Colombo for two days.

“I am happy to learn about collage which I didn’t know earlier. “I want to do more paintings and continue learning”, he said. Pandiyan dreams of becoming a doctor, someday. P. Janani, S. Priyatharshani and J. Sanusan are grade seven students of Mallavi Tamil Maha Vidyalaya and over 200 students displayed their artistic talents in art and photography at an exhibition by the Cartwheel Initiative of New York, USA.

The team consists of artists and professionals, much respected in their fields. They conducted easy-to-learn, hands-on photography, visual art and music workshops over a period of 10 days for three schools in the Vavuniya, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts.

Patricia A. Butenis, US Ambassador
“I want to do more paintings and continue learning”, Pandiyan said

Introducing the children to new coping tools, provide each child with a voice to their emotions to help restore their self-confidence, renew their sense of potential for the future, and reinvigorate their joy for living in post-conflict Sri Lanka to support them with ultimately transcending the physical and emotional impact of conflict through understanding, adjusting and healing.

The Cartwheel Trust whose Trustees are Afghar Mohideen and Praveen Dassenaike of United Holidays, Sri Lanka and Ashok Sinha from the USA, has collaborated with Manori Unambuwe who has been promoting psychosocial activities and social integration projects in the North to bring a team of eight artists and educators from the US to conduct easy-to-learn, hands-on photography, visual art, collage making and music workshops.

These workshops took place in three psychosocial centres named ‘Happiness Centres’ established in several schools in Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi Districts in northern Sri Lanka. The chosen schools were Mallavi Central College, Mallavi, Pandiyankulam GTMS in Thunukkai and Poonekary Maha Vidyalam in Pooneryn. These Happiness Centres recognise the importance of the arts as a therapeutic medium for children to readjust and rebuild their lives in a post-conflict environment.The project is being enthusiastically supported by the Zonal Education offices and the Sri Lanka Army who is actively engaged at grassroots level rehabilitation and development activities and recognises the benefits from psychosocial activities as integral to lasting peace.“

My hope was that the children will be able to see their world differently through their art, whether it be the lens of a camera or the strokes of a paint brush. When I conceived this project, I didn’t know what to expect, although, I was confident that we could unleash the hidden potential of these children if they were given a chance.

We don’t expect to change their world over a course of a few days, all we want to do is to show the world that like any other child, these children also have the potential to make great things happen,” Ashok Sinha,Co-founder of Cartwheel Initiative said.

Ashok, who has worked in more than thirty countries on various freelance assignments, said as one child in a workshop at Mallavi aptly put “We want others to know that growing up in the Wanni has its own inherent hardships, especially because of the war, however, we want to learn and we want to succeed, and despite all the hardships we face everyday, we come to school, attend class and want to succeed in life. We want to erase memories of the horrors of war and create new ones… seeing the world through art is different from the world we see every day with our eyes – our hope is that we can look forward to the positive things in life and look forward rather than look back in the past.”

Ashok Sinha Manori

A select group of 60 children and accompanying teachers travelled to Colombo for two-days and took part to exhibit their hidden skills in art and photography were put on display. Lara J. Kisielewska, who has a degree in Graphic Communications Management and Technology at New York University and working toward a masters’ degree in Magazine Publication Management, who taught Collage art said they were not aware of the technique until they take part in the Collage workshop.”Lots of students were interested in painting but didn’t know about this form as they have not done it before. We did lots of painting techniques which they never painted before. We used tooth brushes or charcoal and it’s interesting for them to let think differently. When they finished it, we cut the painting and made into collage. At the beginning they didn’t want to cut their paintings as they love them”, she said.Lara said the kids in her group learned the technique well and she was really stunted by their products.Ashok, an award winning photographer who won several awards including the BBC award, while touring around Sri Lanka was amazed by the stunning natural beauty and also saw the impact of the prolonged conflict which ended two years back.

It immediately made him wonder about the children he encountered in the battle-scarred communities and the unthinkable trauma they must have gone through having witnessed the horrors of war first hand.He decided that there must be a way that he could use his creative talents to help these children.”I was in Sri Lanka last year and what I have saw during my visit to the North had an effect on me. I was always thinking what and how I could contribute something for these children. I see a different world through my camera and I decided to share my artistic skills with children so they might use them to see the world differently.

“The project gave them their lost childhood back a little bit and we wanted to teach them new skills and also some positive ideas”, Ashok said recalling how the children who for the first time saw a sophisticated camera rally around him and how they were surprised to see their images in the camera screen.

“We are leaving some cameras with the schools and we hope to have a dialogue with the children until we come back. There is a message from these children. ‘All of them want the world to hear that living in Wanni is not so easy.

With lives torn apart by the conflict they want the world to know that they are picking up with life slowly forgetting their bitter past.

They also want the world to know that there is beautiful place call Wanni in the North of Sri Lanka and children in that part of the world are standing on their own feet erasing the deadly and bitter memories that hurt them barely two and half years ago”, Ashok said.

Pix: Nissanka Wijeratne

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