Nageshwariyamma looks down and opens her small black purse. She pulls out her daughter’s identity card.
She was shot in 2006, just three years before the end of the 26 year civil war in Sri Lanka.
She hands it round to us, smiling through the pain, careful to keep one of her few remaining memories of her child close in her sight.
During the war Nageshwariyamma lost her husband, and her son was disappeared. It’s a common story among women in the north of the country. She still prays that one day her son will return. I’m not sure if it is the hope or resilience that is more devastating to witness.
Visit Sri Lanka today and you could easily confuse a nation that was at war just nine years ago with a tourist’s dream.
It’s an island of white sandy beaches, luscious palm trees and hospitality with a beaming smile.
But this side of paradise could easily gloss over a history of civil war and violence where scars have yet to heal, tensions between different religions and ethnicities continue, and a devastating kind of hope that those who disappeared might one day come back prevails.
Rebuilding, reconciling differences and overcoming deep religious and ethnic divisions is a long term task as our partner, the Centre for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation (CPBR), well knows. Their work ranges from supporting war widows like Nageshwariyamma – and there are an estimated 90,000 of them – with livelihoods projects, to bringing diverse communities together.
I was there in September for International Day of Peace, to remember all those who disappeared, or lost their lives, and to celebrate the work our local partners do to rebuild what was destroyed over 26 years of war. I visited women like Nageshwariyamma and was part of their celebrations of reconciliation and resilience.
One of the core projects brings diverse communities together and uses photography to speak about painful or difficult issues. Young people are given cameras, training on how to use them, and go into rural communities to capture their every day lives.
It’s a grassroots approach that gives voice, and image, to issues that cause tensions in local communities. The project brings people together, invites them to view the photographs and use them as a platform to discuss the meaning and feelings they brought up. This is exactly what we did for International Day of Peace.
The messages of resilience were powerful to hear. Witnessing such openness and understanding, and Muslims, Christians, Buddhist, Hindus all lighting candles around a monument created for sessions like this was an incredible moment.
For communities that fought viciously for 26 years, coming together to all remember the same losses is a huge step. Each person said they found peace and healing from sitting with people who, like them, had all experienced suffering in the same way, and lost the same things.
There are lessons in the kind of effective interfaith work CPBR run, particularly in a time when differences are increasingly leveraged as reasons to fight. The inspiring men and women I met show a different story. War causes suffering that we all feel in the same way. Instead of emphasising what divides us, we can celebrate what unites us.
It is the words of Shalirea, a Muslim who had hosted refugees in her house during the war that remain with me: “My hope is that all people, all the religions in Sri Lanka, come together so we can live happily and in harmony building the nation. When people from different religions, languages and cultures come together, only then can we rebuild.”
This is the way to bring about long term change and, eventually, peace.