Canvas of colour from the camps

An art camp in Vavuniya helps internally displaced children to tap their creative talents as well as act as a form of therapy
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

No words are needed. Their colourful and vibrant paintings speak volumes…..and it is important to take heed, for in most instances they are the unheard voices in any situation.

These are the voices through art of children ranging from as tiny as four years old to that vital teen-age of 15 years old.

Clearly and visually their thoughts and innermost feelings have been put on paper, being made possible by an ‘Art Camp’, the first of its kind to be held among the children who have lost home and hearth but found some semblance of stability in the camps for the internally-displaced in Vavuniya. The Art Camp was held in Zone 4 in two open tents on August 16.
The children engrossed in their task at hand

It had a two-pronged objective, the Sunday Times learns. It was an attempt to do something different to enable the channelling of the children’s creative energies while also making art a form of therapy to identify children whose mental wellbeing had been affected by what they had gone through. It all began with a first visit to the camps by IT specialist Manori Unambuwe in late April soon after the “mass exodus” of men, women and children to Vavuniya in the last phase of the war.

Recalling the scenes in April that “moved” her deeply, Manori, herself a mother of two, a son and daughter, says families were coming in busloads. “They were malnourished, starving, sick and shell-shocked.” These were the families who had lived under the terror of the LTTE.

“They had been living on rice and water. They had been amidst the shelling, amidst the dying,” explains Manori, asking what would have been the impact on the children……..“obviously, they were battle-scarred”.

It was then that it struck her that they could do something for them through art. While she mobilized her son, Ineshke, “who helped on the creative side” and daughter Anekha “who meticulously planned the programme”, she mentioned her idea to a friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, who mmediately joined forces to coordinate the funding and sponsorships.

Colour Products Ltd. contributed the chalk, Richard Pieris’ the pencils and erasers, Green Cabin the cake, Sunquick the juice concentrate and the water, Uswatte the snacks and Kandos the chocolates for these children, says Manori.

The Art Camp was also made possible by the unstinting support given by the Health Ministry’s Disaster Preparedness and Response Division Coordinator Dr. Thushara Ranasinghe, and the efforts of those at ground-level who handled the logistics, according to Manori, who picks out IDP Healthcare Director Dr. H.D.B. Herath, Health Development Coordinator Dr. A. S. A. Safras and Medical Officer of Health who is also Coordinator of Human Resources at Menik Farm Dr. Ishanka Thalagala, all of whom are based in Chettikulam. Another name that keeps cropping up is that of Education Coordinator Mr. Nagendrarajah, who had been a Zonal Principal in the Wanni.

Although the original plan was to have the camp for 200 children, they finally ended up with 315 children painting to their hearts’ content, stopping only for a sip from their drink or a bite of cake.

Seeing a knot of curious youth, they gently mobilized them to help out with mixing the drinks and serving the food. For Manori, among the many, Sherine who became their impromptu interpreter stands out. There was immediate bonding with Sherine, who is assisting the doctors and nurses in the Zone 4 primary healthcare centre.

So what did the children’s art reveal?

A majority drew something colourful and beautiful houses, with trees, flowers, birds and people. These were happy pictures. Only about 5% portrayed what Manori calls “dark thoughts”.

With the hope of bringing groups of children from these camps to Colombo to get to know the rest of the country and also exhibit their work in Colombo, Manori and her band of volunteers have vowed to make these children put their past behind, integrate into Sri Lankan society and be the heirs to a lasting peace.

Art camps and more

It’s not just a one-off thing, assures Manori who is not only planning to hold bi-monthly art camps but has also mapped out many other activities including a fully-equipped psycho-socio centre to be opened in Zone 4 on September 5.

The International Organization for Migration has already put up the tent for the centre and is now doing the floor, says Manori, adding that equipment for it and also the future Art Camps will be from a donation of Euro 20,000 received from the ‘Back to Life’ foundation, the corporate social responsibility project of NKar Travels and Tours Pvt Ltd., which had secured the funding from its principal tour operator Wingtips of Germany.

If you feel the need to help out, Manori may be contacted on e-mail:

Positive pictures

The most striking feature among the paintings is that they could have been drawn by children from any part of the country, says Dr. Raveen Hanwella, Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, explaining that a majority had drawn what children love to draw like houses, trees, fruits, the sea and animals.

Only a handful had drawn pictures of war or injured and this seems to clearly demonstrate that children are very resilient. Despite the fact that some of them would have had distressing experiences in the past, when asked to draw any picture they like, they focus on the positive, he says.

Dr. Hanwella urges that we need to learn from this and provide a positive environment for them to enjoy things that all children enjoy like play, school, drawing, singing, acting, sports etc. instead of only focusing on their negative experiences.

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