They came carrying babies in arms, toddlers in bicycle baskets, the disabled in wheel chairs, the old and the young, to gather under a tree to plan and build back their village and the community.
The meeting at Jeyapuram South in the North of Sri Lanka is held under the Cash for Work Program (CfW) a component of the World Bank’s Emergency Northern Recovery Project (ENREP). The meeting of resettled villagers commences with songs of inspiration, with everyone joining in. The voices are strong, they sing in unison, and hands are raised, the spirits revived.
On the road to the resettled villages we could see a flattened and scarred land with only the outside toilets that still stand as sentry posts in a devastated landscape.
However, heralding the promise of things to come it was cheering to see the bright patches of fresh green replanted paddy. “Revival of agriculture is vital for communities like ours which were primarily agriculture based farming communities,” says Sinnappah Sellayah, in Jeyapuram South.
Sellayah belongs to a group of seven in a welfare committee in Jeyapuram. He says there are 31 such groups and the primary need is water for cultivation. After 30 years of not being in use he says the Devankattu water tank needs to be rehabilitated.
Many women have sustained debilitating injuries and have heartbreaking stories of multiple displacements, loss of husbands and children. But they are out in force, actively participating in the CfW program. Thirubakaran Selvi is the Secretary of the Jeyapuram South village rehabilitation committee. “There are 45 single women households in Jeyapuram says Navi Sellamah, a thin wiry 67 year old who was looking after Kandiah Thevendram in a wheelchair. Asked if she was a relation of Thevendram, Sellamah pauses her betel chewing gives a wry grin and says “We got displaced together, survived together, so now everyone is a relation.”
The mid-day meal is cooked by the not so strong. At their invitation we joined the workers when they put down their tools for a meal cooked in an open hearth under the shade of a canopy of trees in Amaithipuram. The meal of chick peas served on freshly picked green leaves for plates washed down with warm sweet tea was delicious. It was not only touching that the little they had they shared with us so warmly. Serving us as very gracious hosts were 35 year old Anna Mary a mother of five, who lost her husband in the conflict and Sinnappa Anthony Amma another widower.
Both had very sad tales to tell and at first when I wanted to photograph them said “how can we smile when we have lost so much.” But after a chat, they did find smiles for the camera and with it a request to us to return.
The strong sense of unity and community spirit prevails everywhere. The old and the disabled like Thevendram participate in the CfW program looking after babies while mothers work in the field. ”Whatever we lost we will regain,” says Sellayah emphatically in Jeyapuram.
In a corner of the gathering at Jeyapuram a 2 year old girl turns around and steals a kiss from her baby boy friend Vijay Kumar. These babies will not remember the conflict, or suffer as their parents did. The future is theirs. Can we ensure that the future is bright for them?
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