The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Fourth time round and they all want more

The Ekamuthu Oray Makkal Unity Mission Camp, that looks to bridge the gap between the north and south builds strong bonds

The organisers of the Ekamuthu Oray Makkal Unity Mission Camp have something to be surprised about every year. The camp held last month in Tharanikkulam was their fourth, but if they thought they knew the drill by now-they were in for a surprise.

Every time you think you’ve got these children figured out, they turn around and do something completely out of the ordinary, says Bertal Pinto-Jayawardena, founder of the Unity Mission Trust that was formed three years ago to aid post-war reconciliation efforts by focusing on integrating children of different cultures together through leadership camps.

The three previous camps were held in Colombo (2010), Mullaitivu (2011) and Mannar (2011). While they were all three-day affairs, this last camp was four days to accommodate countless pleas from the children to extend it, says Bertal. “Despite this, now we get requests to increase the duration even further!” he adds.

With the participation of 473 children from all areas of the country but mainly from the North, the camp was held from June 29 to July 2. Starting off with registration they moved into the opening ceremony where Bertal, aided by translators, welcomed the children to the camp and encouraged them to make the best of it. Afterwards, they were assigned to their teams; an exercise that is a little awkward at the beginning but always delivers in the end, says Dushy Weerasekara (20), one of the young organisers behind the camp.

The teams combine children from the North and the South, compelling them to work with each other to win challenges. Have there ever been any hitches? “Never,” Bertal says quite adamantly. “The children have never fought or refused to work with each other. To them another youth is just another youth.” They are encouraged to learn at least 25 words in each others’ language and make a minimum of five new friends, whom they voluntarily keep in contact with after the programme.

It’s in these teams that these children spend the next three days, completing challenges and forging friendships that will last a lifetime. During the camp they enthusiastically took part in such events such as drawing competitions, jewellery making (they eventually gifted each other their creations), singing, drama, public speaking, sports and so much more.

The singing and music sessions were a hit, says Bertal. Conducted by renowned musician Rukshan Fernando, they were on all four days of the camp, due to popularity with the children. It was at one such session when they were looking for the Tamil-language equivalent for a song praising Sri Lanka that a young girl, Kuveniya Kumaraswami stepped up composing a beautiful song within 20 minutes.

“Discovering the talents of the children is another great part of this camp,” says Bertal. It’s with this in mind that they’ve opened a new scholarship programme, where they pick gifted students and sponsor them in their studies and extra-curricular activities.

The organisers make special mention of the Sri Lanka Army, who were present to manage the logistics and security of the camp.
With four camps behind them, confidence is growing in the task they’ve taken on. “It makes the kids feels special,” says Dushy. “The Unity Camp provides everyone with an equal chance and at the end of the day-all these kids want is a chance. I don’t think they really get that encouragement and support at home, and when we give them an opportunity, they know someone cares and that’s the best thing about the Unity Camp.”

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