During my recent travels in Sri Lanka – from Colombo’s traffic snarls to Kandy’s lush mountains to Trincomalee’s empty beaches – the echoes of conflict rang silent to me. The knowledge that Sri Lanka’s people have been free of civil war for only five short years, and that the majority of civil wars restart within ten years, seemed somewhat unreal when juxtaposed against the calm I found. The still regular outbreaks of bloodshed between opposing groups in the country flew in the face of what I saw as a culture of tolerance, in which Sinhalese and Tamil, Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu and Christian, appeared to live together without issue. The very recent violence of Bodu Bala Sena (a pro-Buddhist extremist group) didn’t seem to fit the context.
Sri Lanka was humbling, because it served as testament to the fact that often, for an outsider looking in, what we see can be so limited in respects to what actually is. I knew this intellectually, but I felt it experientially for the first time in that beautiful, complicated country.
My time in Sri Lanka only strengthened my belief in Peace Direct’s “Local First” approach to ending violent conflict, and the work of our local Sri Lankan partner, the Centre for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation (CPBR). The nuances and subtleties of Sri Lanka’s violent past were lived by CPBR’s staff. They, along with other Sri Lankans, are most invested in lasting peace. Sri Lanka belongs to its people, and it is its people who will determine the country’s as of yet uncertain future.
CPBR’s current initiative – Voice of Image (VoI) – is a bold effort in ensuring Sri Lanka’s future does not come to echo its past. Tapping the energy and commitment of its Young Visionaries – a youth branch of the organisation – VoI leverages the power of photography and story to strengthen interfaith and interethnic tolerance in communities throughout the country. By providing young Sri Lankans with the tools and training they need to visually capture Sri Lanka as they know it, and then highlighting their work in exhibitions, VoI harnesses the power of art to promote peace. Wanting to learn more, I visited both CPBR staff and VoI youth members to hear exactly what VoI meant to them.
“Voice of Image is a way to initiative a dialogue within and between communities to broaden understanding and find solutions for problems people face in day-to-day life.” says Dishani Jayaweera, CPBR’s cofounder and director. “It’s a way to bring different ethnic and religious youth groups to understand and connect with each other, something that is lacking in our country. There are very limited opportunities for this.” Sitting across from her at CPBR’s office in Colombo, there can be no denying Dishani’s enthusiasm for the grassroots nature of her organisation’s work, and for the VoI programme.” Numerous photographs taken by VoI’s youth photographers lie scattered on her desk. Looking at them I’m surprised they were shot by amateurs. Some of them are truly beautiful, occasionally even haunting. She holds up one depicting two young children standing in the middle of a narrow, dirt-floored alley staring openly into the camera, and explains.
“This photo, by our group in Kattankudy (a majority Muslim community), was taken to show the limited space the community have inside the villages for their children, and for living. Tamil and Muslim villages in that area still have violent conflict, sometimes killing each other. It’s because Muslim people are using Tamil lands. When the VoI youth were in discussion about this photo, one young Tamil man, Sanjay, expressed shock. He confessed that, though he’d lived in neighboring Batticaloa (home to a large Tamil population) for 21 years – and passed through Kattankudy daily – he’d never gone into the community and seen the reality of their lives. He shared, ‘I finally realise why these people are coming to our lands. I can finally understand.’”
“The photographs are evidence,” Dishani continued. “You don’t have to engage in long dialogues to explain what it is. The evidence is there. The emotion is there. The feelings are there. The honesty is there. So naturally with the dialogue they trigger, the understanding is there too.” As she shared more of the photos and their stories, I found myself drawn into them, curious, wanting more – a deeper insight into what they revealed, a better knowledge about who they showed, a fuller understanding of the histories behind the images. The truth in her statement was obvious.
A few days later I was in Kattankudy, on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast, to meet with Abdul Cader Mohamed Mahir, CPBR’s Voice of Image Programme Manager. Mahir had volunteered to introduce me to youth from both the Kattankudy and Batticaloa VoI groups, and act as translator while they shared their thoughts about VoI. We met the Young Visionaries in a small office, where I was immediately struck by their warmth and excitement at having the chance to talk about the VoI and their work. Sitting in a circle in the middle of the room, with my phone acting as a recorder, they opened up. The first to speak was a young woman – a Tamil Hindu from Batticaloa – and what she said perfectly expressed the communal nature of all of CPBR’s work:
“We cannot help society alone. We have to do it as a group.”
If what I witnessed during the hour and a half I spent with the young men and women from Batticaloa and Kattankudy is any testament to the potential inherent in groups working toward positive change, then the future of Sri Lanka is bright. CPBR’s model is working. The Voice of Image programme is making an impact. Seeing young people from two communities with a deep history of mistrust now bridging the gap to not only engage with one another, but to actively collaborate and support each other, is a beautiful thing to witness. Despite acknowledging that many of the deeper issues that caused the civil war still exist in their country, the Young Visionaries nevertheless expressed hope, and demonstrated commitment to it. It is in them that lasting peace finds a foothold.
I probed them with more questions. I asked them what they found hardest about doing the work VoI asks of them.
“Most of the time, the young people from other communities are happy to have us come and show our photos,” shares a young Muslim man from Batticaloa, “but sometimes the older people are harder. They have more memories of the war. They don’t trust us. Sometimes they wonder what we’re trying to do with our cameras.”
“You boys are lucky,” one of the young women chimes in, “It’s harder as a girl. People are always more skeptical when I go to take photographs, older or young.” The group laughs, the boys acknowledging that what she says is true. Some of their challenges are cultural, with their roots in Sri Lanka’s rich history, and others are things that any photographer can relate to. “Sometimes people just don’t like to have a camera pointed at them. It is much harder to capture real life if they see you before you can take your photo.” The group nods as one unit. The passion for photography is evident. None of them had ever tried their hand at it before Voice of Image. Now they talk about future careers as photographers.
I liked the dynamic at play there. It was easy, casual and authentic. VoI addresses many issues central to the world of peacebuilding – youth, women, community – and, to my surprise, has more technical aspects to it as well – one young man highlighted how VoI acts as an early warning system to areas of potential volatility. Yet, it does so in such a way that it feels entirely unforced. The programme was designed to reach the outcomes I was hearing about, but those outcomes felt as if they’d come from the youth and communities themselves – a natural outcropping of the people, not the result of programming. I knew CPBR and staff like Dishani and Mahir were behind VoI’s success, but the fact that it felt as if all these young people needed to begin with were a few cameras to make Voice of Image a reality is testament to the grassroots focus that defines all of CPBR’s work.
When I spoke with Dishani, she told me how she made the decision during the war to go – as a Sinhalese woman from Colombo – and live among the Tamil people in the heart of the violence, so as to better understand what was happening in their lives. That empathetic and very personal approach to peacebuilding has resulted in an organisation and programmes that are inclusive, authentic, and homegrown. What I saw of CPBR, the Young Visionaries, and Voice of Image served as undeniable proof to the power of Local First in action.
En route to Kandy in Sri Lanka’s central highlands after a warm send off by Mahir and the group, who loaded me up with a bag full of local Kattankudy delicacies and many Facebook friend requests, I was thinking again about the nuances of the country that I could never have known alone. Peace, indeed like so many things, can be deceptive. As the crowded bus bumped along the highway, I sat with my head against the window, looking out. I saw men and women, some tall, some short, some light, others very dark. Is she Tamil? I wondered. Is he Muslim? I saw a man in a red jumpsuit with an automatic rifle and bright white sneakers. He was talking to an old lady selling mangoes. Did she feel the effects of the war? Did he fight in it? The questions came as quickly as the landscape changed, and I laughed at my unknowing when I thought about the final question I asked the youth before I left, and the response they gave me:
“If you could tell someone that isn’t from Sri Lanka one thing you don’t think they understand about your country, what would you tell them?”
“Normally, people think Sri Lanka is a country of Hindus and Muslims, of Buddhists and Christians, of Sinhalese and Tamils. But those are all just definitions. The truth on the ground is much more. We are much more.”
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Support CPBR’s Voice of Image programme today on Indiegogo. Your donations will provide the cameras, training, and support needed to bring VoI to more youth in communities throughout Sri Lanka. Building peace is possible. They can do it, you can help. Thank you.