Only three weeks ago I set off with a team of 10 to Northern Sri Lanka. The team included Australian Netball Star Sharelle McMahon and AFL players Shaun Burgoyne (Hawthorn Football Club), Simon Hogan and Cameron Guthrie (Geelong Football Club). We were lead by Pippa Grange (Bluestone Edge Director, Global Reconciliation) who had organized this trip and previously headed a trip last year to the South of Sri Lanka.
Our aim was to connect with Sri Lankan cultures using Sport as a vehicle. We, as sporting professionals, know that sport can be a great tool in Australia to bring communities and people of varying cultures together whilst promoting self worth and teamwork. As Elite Athletes we were hoping to demonstrate how sport could have a role in the reconciliation of Sri Lankan communities; at the same time as learning from Sri Lankan people about how they deal with tremendous adversity and the strategies they have in place to bring differing cultures together to live harmoniously.
We were lucky to have a wealth of knowledge also accompanying us on our trip. On our first evening, in Colombo, Paul James (Global Reconciliation, RMIT University), Paul Komersaroff (Global Reconciliation, Monash University) and Suresh Sundram (Global Reconciliation, RMIT University) were able to convey a brief overview of Sri Lanka’s recent history and current situation. Sean Gorman (Curtain University Associate Professor, Author of ‘Brotherboys’) was able to relate this back to similar issues we face in Australia.
We learnt of the tireless conflict between the Singhalese Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elan (LTTE) over land ownership, culture and heritage rights that had instigated a brutal war which consequently rocked the country for the past 30 years (ending only with the death of the LTTE leader in Mullaittivu, in March 2009.) We would soon find out the country, especially in the north, was most definitely still recovering from the atrocities this war carried and seems a full recovery is still years away. On top of this we were reminded of the devastation the 2004 tsunami inflicted.
We kicked off our adventure with a lengthy 12hour bus ride from Colombo to Jaffna (The very top of the tear drop that is the shape of the land of Sri Lanka). We sat witness to an amazing change in landscapes as we travelled further north from luscious green hilly forests and bitumen roads to dry baron flat lands with roads that only allowed speeds of 10km/hour in the north. The behaviour of our ‘crazy’ driver on the roads kept us thoroughly entertained and awake. In all it was a 400km trip from 7am to 7pm.
Kicking the footy with local kids on the beach in Colombo
On Day 4 we began our school visits around Kilinochchi and were able to do “what we do best” as was so elegantly put by our witty cameraman and videographer Lincoln Leak. The first school we visited was supported by the WFP (World Food Program). We were greeted with a ceremony conducted by the students welcoming us to their school. It was a remarkable experience. We learnt that without the WFP this school would not be able to function. We played footy and netball with kids seven years of age who appeared no older than four due to an obvious lack of food and nutrition that had stunted their growth. The infrastructure at this school was terrible. Their kitchen consisted of two large pots sitting over outside fires under a small makeshift corrugated iron shelter. We discovered mothers from the community worked hard to rebuild their own homes and livelihood post the war whilst also spending all their available time cooking and cleaning at the school. We gave them footballs, netballs, AFL gear and Melbourne Vixens apparel. Mark Squirrel, an Australian World Aid activist, set up this visit for us.
At another school we were able to play cricket with students and discuss the new sports programs that teachers had recently put in place. We were told two soccer teams had just won the district championship and were going on to play against Singhalese Southern teams. However they had no team gear! We said we could help with that.
Using our image as Sportsmen and Sportswomen we were able to bring great enjoyment and excitement to the kids in schools. They did not know who we were but were ecstatic just to kick a footy, throw a netball or play cricket with us. I am sure this interaction with the youth will have given them respite from their daily reminders of the leftover affect the war has had on their land, community, homes and family. Of the students that go to school in the North only 10% pass their studies and around 5% go on to Higher Education. Others work with their fathers on the farm or in small goods. Importantly education is free.
We drove on to Mullaittivu. Our Singhalese bus driver was quite apprehensive about driving us through the northern Tamil communities of Sri Lanka. On the way we stopped at a hospital and met with Psychiatrists from Germany and France who were excited to meet us. Most of their work involved building strong relationships within the community. They were in Sri Lanka for four and eight months respectively and described their time helping local people in the north as tough but fulfilling.
From the psychiatrists we met in the north we found the overwhelming issues they were treating were post traumatic stress disorder, “missing people” cases, suicide ideation, grief counseling, depression and teenage pregnancy. Most of these issues are a direct result from the impact of the war. Talking with other local Doctors we discovered the highest local death rates are from snakebites and suicide via chemical poisoning.
Mullaittivu was a beautiful fishing village set on the beach with a stunning old church on the waters edge. Fisherman proudly showed off a Lizard and sea snake they had caught. The church had the names of those who passed when the tsunami struck (on Sunday the 26th of December 2004) etched onto its pillars. The Tsunami only temporally stopped the Singhalese-Tamil fighting.
As we travelled throughout the north we became aware of the large military presence at schools, road blocks and in the town centres. By the roadside acres of land were still taped off for demining. Due to the demining processes IDP (Internally displaced people) camps were still functioning as it was not safe for local Tamil people to return to their homes. The Singhalese Sri Lankan army working in the north believed they were playing a vital role in assisting the Tamil communities to re-build their lives. Tamil locals felt as though they were occupied in their own land.
On our way back to Colombo we were able to stop off and catch up with a group of ex-child soldiers in Vavuniya. They were a remarkable group of young men starting a support organization for their fellow former child soldiers in an effort to help them to integrate back into society. They used poetry, art and music as tools to express their feelings to the world. They also wanted to work closely with local psychiatrists in their communities. We were fortunate to assist in the opening of their foundation centre. One of the ex-child soldiers sang us a song that described the loss of a mother from the war and a child grieving. Unfortunately they had yet to obtain a computer and so could not publish their work on the internet.
Team standing in front of The Temple of the Tooth, Kandy
For me the highlight was meeting the first ever Sri Lankan Olympian High Jumper, Dr Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam, at a school in Mankulam where the Foundation of Goodness was spreading their wonderful program. Dr Ethirveerasingam reaffirmed the reasoning behind our trip. He spoke as a former elite athlete, current sports lover and conflict resolution worker emphasizing that sport is “the essence of life” and can be a “therapy for stress.” He told us that “we are not post-conflict but in the middle of post-war and post-conflict, no single action will resolve the conflict” and that “purposeful communication had to inspire.”
Dr Ethirveerasingam affirmed that as sportspeople we can be “tools” to help support and encourage sport as a means to bring different cultures together as one, not just individuals. It was both reassuring and uplifting to hear his words.
I’m very grateful for being giving the opportunity to participate in this journey and experience Sri Lanka. It is great to see how the little things, like having a kick of the footy with a group of kids that grew up in a war-zone, can have such a positive impact. The great thing about sport is it can bring people together from a variety of backgrounds, to strive for a common goal, helping us realize we are all not so different from one another.
It was a wonderful experience and I would like to thank:
Bluestone Edge and Global Reconciliation for enabling this trip to occur (especially Pippa Grange) and acknowledge the wonderful work of The WFP (World Food Program) and the work of Anura de Silva and Kushil Gunasekera with their development with ‘The Foundation of Goodness’ in Sri Lanka