Danushkanth Thiyagarajan drums his fingers to the beat of a song. ‘Ekamuthu Muththuwel’ is sung by three young teenagers in three languages. For Danushkanth, the song exemplifies his passion -reconciliation amongst young people in the aftermath of war.
He, along with Arthiga Ramasamy, are part of the massive youth network that is now known as Ekamuthu Oray Makkal Unity Mission Trust, a movement formed as a family initiative in May 2009, along with the end of the 30-year ethnic conflict and the beginning of a new era.
Bertal and Shyamala Pinto-Jayawardane started off close to home. They would round up provisions through their church every year, and send them off to war-torn areas. What began as a family effort to reach out to the children of Menik farm in May 2009, eventually inspired friends and family to join in the effort and help out. With the help of corporate donors, the project ran from May to September 2009, and the need for healing and reconciliation was very strongly felt.
Thus inspired, they joined hands with the National Christian Council to host a carol service in December with participation of choirs from both the North and the South. Medical camps were conducted in Kayts and Viduthalthivu, and at the end of the second medical camp, an idea was discussed to ‘show the children another world exists’. The concept for a ‘Unity Camp’ was born, a programme where children from across the island would mingle together and learn about each other’s culture through friendship.
The first Unity Camp was held in Colombo, from December 27-29, 2010 with 500 children from 16 schools from the Northern peninsula, Wanni and Kandy. With four schools in Colombo hosting the kids and 125 volunteers helping out, the camp was a resounding success. Arthiga remembers the kids’ wonder and disbelief as they encountered things that are common, almost basic to many of us, but were completely new to them. ‘We gave them short-eats, and they wanted to know what it was before eating- they’d never even seen them before!’ she smiles.
Danushkanth makes special mention of the Sri Lanka Army personnel, who were unhesitant in supporting them logistically during all Unity Camps. He hesitates before pointing out that ‘everyone was rather scared of soldiers’. But this, he concedes, turned out to be completely unfounded. He recalls the soldiers who would wake up two hours before them to make tea and breakfast, and offer helpful tips to them during the course of their camps.
More importantly, says Arthiga, this new image of the kind and helpful army personnel was a revelation to the children from the former war zones. “These kids had a certain image of the army, and initially they were too scared to even cross in front of them to get some water. But over the course of the camps, they realized that the army was on their side, and you could see the transformation in their attitudes!”
The camp included visits to the National Museum, the Dehiwala Zoo, Excel World, a sports programme, musical sessions, arts and crafts programmes, and a tour of the city. Nishan Casseem, a volunteer who took part in that first camp, says the experience is one he wouldn’t forget in a hurry. “It’s funny. After a 30-year war, and all these fake cultural barriers we’ve built around ourselves, you realize that the majority just want to live in peace with each other.”
Camp two was held in Mullaitivu, again with the participation of 500 children. Focused on ‘Leadership Development, Capacity Building, and Personal Enhancement’, it was held in June 2011.
Danushkanth and Arthiga both jumped at the opportunity to be part of another Unity Camp, this time in December 2011, held in Mannar. This too was a resounding success. A fellow camper from the other end of the island Vinod (20) from Mullativu, who will also be a group leader at the next camp, says that the camp taught him essential leadership qualities and how to get along with everyone regardless of race, language or religion. “I wish there were programmes like this across the island. Then Sri Lanka would be a better place,” he said.
The concept of the Ekamuthu Oray Makkal Unity Camp is built around the conduct of a multi-day residential, overnight development and capacity-building personality development oriented programme. Through this, they aim to promote unity, reconciliation, and the building of self confidence. Participants are divided into teams, formed of those from different communities. Two captains of different origins are appointed as well, and the teams battle it out against each other in friendly competition. At the end of the camp, a winning team will emerge. But as Bertal and Shyamala say, the real victory is in the friendships the children make over those three days.
Arthiga says that all is not smooth sailing at first, however. “Some people come to us in tears, saying they can’t understand what the others are saying and how are they supposed to win a competition like that? But somehow, they eventually figure it out and they’re winners by the end of the camp!”
Their friendships are forged in the dead of night, when everybody stays up to chat. “None of us got much sleep during camp,” the two volunteers recall. “We were all busy talking to each other and sharing stories.”
The Unity Mission Trust does not stop with the camps, but integrates the children into a network whereby they keep in communication with each other and are informed of opportunities that come up. Individuals and organizations are encouraged to sponsor a child attending the camp for just Rs 4,500, or even a group of children.
Bertal Pinto Jayawardena makes special mention once again of the Sri Lanka Army, who he says have been invaluable in achieving the organization’s objectives. He expresses his gratitude to the principals of the schools the Trust works with, along with the Northern Province Educational authorities, the Zonal Directors of the host areas and their partner organizations for their unstinted cooperation and support.
They’ve got great plans for their next camp, and for the future of their ‘Ekamuthu Oray Makkal’ children. Bertal and Shyamala lead the group of dedicated young volunteers who are committed to making sure their own future is one devoid of the distrust and suspicions of the past. All they need now is your support.
A helping hand for next camp
The next Unity Camp will be from June 29- July 2 at Tharanikkulam, in the North. For the Trustees and volunteers at Unity Mission, it’s yet another dream project.
The estimated overall cost of hosting the 500 plus people onboard is Rs. 2.1 million. Any financial support would be much appreciated, says Bertal. “I want to stress on the fact that we’re not an NGO, and we also have our Auditors and Bankers to the Trust, and strive to be as transparent as possible.” The organization is an Incorporated Non Profit Trust, governed by a Board of Trustees and a Management Team.
Visit the Ekamuthu Oray Makkal Unity Mission Trust website on unitymission.lk for more information on how you can support their cause.