Born in the midst of Sri Lanka’s brutal Civil War, Pirem spent his childhood in a Tamil-majority village on the outskirts of the Ampara District, an area ravaged by constant violence.
“Our neighbors were two other Muslim and Sinhala villages,” he explained. “During the war, we were constantly harassed by people from both communities. Whenever the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Ed.) attacked a nearby village, they would complain to the military, and [the military] would come and attack us.”
“When I was little, we would evacuate the village and hide in the jungle for days to avoid getting beaten up,” he said. “They used to raid our village and take the villagers with them.”
Sometimes Pirem’s neighbors came back home the following morning. Sometimes they didn’t.
His parents wouldn’t let the kids go outside, terrified that they could be attacked or kidnapped. But the war didn’t just put them at risk of physical harm every day; it also made them go hungry. The family crops were destroyed during the fighting; without a source of income, Pirem and his siblings had to drop out of school, while his parents struggled each day to scrape together a single meal to feed their kids.
Then, in 2009, the war ended. The now 16-year-old Pirem moved away from his village to resume his studies. He became a construction technician and, four years later, he eventually returned to Ampara.
The cracking noise of gunfire was a distant memory, but Pirem’s fear and resentment lingered.
“I did not have any Muslim or Sinhala friends,” he confessed. “The traumatic experiences of the past made us feel bitter about others. I used to always look at them as our enemies. They took away everything from me – my childhood, my relatives. I always hoped that they would be punished for everything they put us through.”
In 2015, Pirem met Search. Our Sri Lanka team had just launched the SMART program – an acronym for Sri Lankans Mobilized to Achieve Reconciliation and Transformation. Following his mother’s advice, Pirem joined the initiative.
SMART’s aim is to heal the wounds left by two decades of war in Sri Lankan society, promoting reconciliation and collaboration across ethnic and religious divides. We achieve our goal by training young people in leadership and communication, empowering them to create locally owned reconciliation programs, and building relationships between them and the government, media, and other civil society groups.
Pirem joined SMART reluctantly. “When I was told that other ethnicities were going to be there, I did not want to take part in this program. I dreaded associating with them,” he explained.
Slowly but surely, his feelings started to change. As part of the program, he participated in many workshops on trust building with members of other groups. The turning point was an activity called the Blind Polygon, in which the participants are tasked with building a geometric shape with a rope while blindfolded. “At this training, I was in a group with many Muslim and Sinhala participants. I had no other option but to talk with them and work together with them,” he explained.
Under his guidance, Pirem’s team finished first. Everyone – including the Muslims and the Sinhalese – congratulated him.
Finding warmth and friendship instead of hatred and enmity awakened something new inside him. The experience of collaboration and human connection wiped away his mistrust. He decided to abandon his reluctance to speak with his perceived enemies.
He found that they were not different. “When I spoke with the others at the training, I realized that we are almost the same. We had similar likes and dislikes. The only thing that separated us was our language, but apart from that we loved the same things – cricket, movies, and traveling,” Pirem explained.
Cultural exchanges are also an important element of SMART. “I was given the chance to visit a Sinhala village in Uhana. This was truly an amazing experience for me; I was surprised by their unexpected, warm hospitality. It was the first time that my friends and I visited a village with a Sinhala-majority population. […] We were introduced to their traditions and customs and learned so much about their culture,” Pirem said.
He emerged from SMART as a renewed man. “I understood two things during this program,” he explained. “Firstly, […] the training brought out the leader in me. I used to be a very reserved person, but now I can confidently interact with people. Secondly, […] I felt that the fear I had was of no use.”
Today, Pirem counts the Muslims and Sinhalese people he met through SMART among his good friends. He wants to use these connections and his new skills to create programs for reconciliation with other young people from his village. He hopes to change his neighbors’ attitudes towards each other and build a united community.
“All these years, I was afraid. It is a great feeling to not live in fear of others. […]
I want to carry the good news to my people.
I want them to not be afraid anymore.”
Learn more about our Sri Lanka programs on the official country page.
Sankini De Silva is a Communications Coordinator at Search for Common Ground, based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.