There’s no looking back for these children

Father Damien and his team of counsellors are helping war- affected children and widows in the north to adjust to a normal life.
Chandani Kirinde reports from Point Pedro

Seven-year-old Kalai Verdan recently brought a newspaper to show his friends who attend special classes with him at the Anjali Aham Psychological Counselling Centre in Thumpali, Point Pedro. He proudly showed off the photograph little realizing that it was an advertisement inserted by his mother in remembrance of his father who was killed in the Wanni area in the north a little over a year ago.

Fr. Damien with one of his young charges

Such innocent acts are common among the war-affected children, many of whom are too young to realize the socio-psychological problems that they face in the aftermath of the conflict. Along with Verdan and his 11-year-old brother Kalai Vernan, there are many children who have been left orphaned or with a single parent as a result of war in this northernmost area of the country.

Helping them adjust to a normal life after the traumatic experiences of the past few years is Roman Catholic priest Father Damien, a trained psychologist and his team of eight counsellors who are working with the affected children as well as the large number of widows in the area.

“Many have lost their fathers while fleeing the fighting and with their mothers too now suffering from psychological problems, it’s an uphill battle to get them back on their feet,” explained Father Damien who has has been in the north from the early 1980s carrying out socio-psychological programmes mainly for adults.

“We are keen not to create a dependency syndrome in either the adults or the children but assist them so they are able to move on with their lives,” he said.

Today at Anjali Aham classes are held in the afternoon and evenings with extra lessons to assist them with their schoolwork as well as classes where the children can develop their artistic talents. The counsellors also visit the homes of these affected and work in 21 villages in the area.

Sudharshini (13), a Grade eight student of Kathkovalam Maha Vidyalaya in Point Pedro lost her father in the war. Her family was among many others who were forced into the Wanni area by the LTTE during the last months of the fighting. She lives with her mother in her grandparents’ home as they have no means of income with the death of the breadwinner of the family. She is reluctant to talk of the experiences in the Wanni but wants to concentrate on her studies. “I want to be a teacher when I grow up,” she says shyly.

Three-year-old S. Ravichandran is the youngest among the group of around 50 children who attend the special classes at Father Damien’s school. He too has lost his father in the war. When asked if he would like to go back to the Wanni, his eyes widen and he shakes his vehemently.

Jasintha Chandramohan is one of the counsellors who has seen first hand the plight of the war- affected. Life is difficult for the widowed women in particular as many of them are young and face various social pressures.

“It’s very easy for these women to fall prey to gossip. There are instances where they are blamed for the deaths of their husband. Also as many of them are unemployed, they are dependent on others for their survival,” she explained.

Anjali Aham also helps the women to become self-sufficient through their livelihood programme. A financial grant is given to them to engage in self-employment and many now run their own kiosks, make food items that can be sold as well as handicrafts using locally available raw materials.

“There are several women who are making a living on their own now. What is more difficult is to cope with the social pressures that are brought on by the stigma attached to widowhood,” she said.
The children at Anjali Aham who had gathered to welcome us sing a song before we leave. They know it’s a song about coming together but because it’s a Sinhala song none of them can understand its entire meaning.

The words have been written down in Tamil for them to memorize and sing. “Enna Nangi, enna Malli, rok wella ………………,” they sing with enthusiasm. Despite the bitter experiences of so many years, the children want to embrace a new life now that the guns have finally fallen silent. The scars however are likely to remain for longer.

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