Our role is not to condemn but to reach out

“Healing is a message that resonates. Those who have faced the brunt of the war are open to it because they know the cost of a war," Brigadier (Retd.) L.C. Perera, founder of the Heal Lanka forum, is thoughtful as he speaks to the Sunday Times about the forum's cause. “Heal Lanka is a gathering of like-minded people who want to see Sri Lanka move on from a divided past into a united future. For that, we must heal. Not just the victims of the war. All of us must heal. We must accept, acknowledge, feel and own the collective pain of our people.”

A former LTTE cadre at the Vavuniya rehabilitation centre feeds his mother as part of Mother’s Day celebrations. Pic by Priyantha Hewage

The Brigadier speaks from rare first-hand experience of the country's ethnic conflict. As the former Chief Coordinator for Internally Displaced Persons for the Ministry of Defence and the Coordinating Director for the Ministry of Resettlement during the last stages of the war, he knows the price of war and the toll it takes on the country's development. "I believe our true victory will not be in destroying the LTTE, but rather destroying the platform that the LTTE stood on. We must recognize the need for a serious, inward look at ourselves as a society if this is to be done. That is part of the healing process."

Heal Lanka, his brainchild, came into being with this idea in mind. The forum meets whenever they feel the need for discussion over a topic relevant to their cause; they connect problems to solutions, says the Brigadier. "For example, when Jaffna had a severe problem of child molestation, we contacted the relevant authorities and ensured that doctors were brought in and awareness was raised." It is an attempt to create inclusivity even in formerly wartorn areas, something the Brigadier admits is vital if the Tamil community is to be rid of their 'minority complex.”

Heal Lanka members are practical about their cause –they know they can't reach out to every single Sri Lankan, so they aim to create what the Brigadier calls a 'ripple effect'. When one person is healed, they believe that person will move on to 'heal' other people, spreading the message of hope and reconciliation across their circles. It's a positive message that is likely to resonate among everyone, even those who still harbour bitter feelings towards the ending of what they believed to be a 'just war'. "In a way, I understand the pro-war Diaspora more than I would condemn them," the Retd. Brigadier explains. 'Sri Lanka has two generations-the one that was born before the war and knew a time of harmony, and the one who has known nothing but this war. Many of the Diaspora falls into the second category. The concept of peace is something that they find hard to grasp. If we truly want peace, it's our duty to reach out to them and start dialogue-show them that things have changed and Sri Lanka is a country ready to move on."

Brigadier (Retd.) L.C Perera. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam

This process of reconciliation is something that he believes cannot be forced. And he explains that healing is not just among the different ethnicities, as is general consensus. “A lot of people think north and south when it comes to healing. But an important part of this process, especially with regards to the war, is the one between the Tamil people themselves. In the IDP camps, a lot of struggles arose between the Tamils. The killers and the families of the deceased sometimes had to coexist together, and more often than not our soldiers would risk physical injury to break up tussles.

"We have to realize that our task is not to condemn, but to reach out. Condemning would only lead to festering an open wound. We must see past differences and work together, if we are to heal. You cannot force reconciliation and you cannot force healing. It'll take a while but we'll get there-for that, certain structures need to be strengthened.”

The Brigadier is a great advocate for the role played by the armed forces. "Our armed forces are so capable. They fought a war so different from the wars that other countries' forces fought; our men were fighting their own people. If you think about the difference between a surgeon and a butcher, both of whom cut and chop at the end of the day, that difference is the motive. A surgeon tries to extricate the bad and work with the good to heal, and likewise, our soldiers work to remove the violent edge from the society. In a way, I feel that this is what other nations find so hard to believe-that our soldiers were so people-oriented. I remember telling some of them that we were rehabilitating former LTTE child soldiers and they said that must be an impossible task. I shocked them, when I said that those kids called me appa (father) now.

"Some years back, I was visiting a colleague in hospital, and he informed me that there was an entire ward full of disabled soldiers. I went to visit them, and I was shocked to discover that they were all extremely young. They looked to be about 19 or 20. I walked around the entire ward, stopping to speak to everyone, and before leaving I turned back to say a few parting words. Looking at their young faces, I was speechless. I could think of nothing to say to these brave young boys who had sacrificed arm and leg for their country. Then one of them spoke up. He said, 'sir it doesn't matter about us. Just end this war soon, so no one else has to go through this.”It was very emotional."

He notes that peace in itself is not enough. "Our identity is wrapped up in this war. The true victims of the war-they want peace with dignity, respect and security. It is not just enough that we've crippled the fighting capability of the LTTE; we also need to foster justice, fair-play, inclusivity, love, faith and acceptance. We have to be multi ethnic and united in our diversity."

"Somebody asked me where I want to see Sri Lanka, and I said 'just like back in the day, before the war’.” He pointed out that the war began for a reason, that there were no 'good old days' and even if no one was taking a gun and shooting people down, the tension was always there. So I say, let's not go back then. Let's look at the future. A future of unity that begins with healing."

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