After a brief stopover in Kandy, we made it back to Colombo. There was only one more project left to see, the Child Action Lanka centre just south of the city in Kelaniya. We popped down there the next day, keen to catch up with D, the centre’s project manager.
For the first part of our week in Batticaloa, D had joined us. We were chatting about our time on the east coast over lunch and she began to tell some of her story.
In 2005 she had been hired as a translator for an NGO working in Galle on the south coast after the Boxing Day Tsunami and was also doing lots of volunteering with children’s projects. The main focus of her work was on child protection and self-awareness with the children who had been traumatised by their experiences.
One of the things she learned there, she had done with the children in Batticaloa. She told a story about a caterpillar feeling worthless and becoming a butterfly but not recognising how beautiful and strong it had become. She then asked the children to decorate paper butterflies, name their butterfly after themselves, and then speak to their butterfly, telling it about how beautiful and strong it is.
While she was in Galle all those years ago, she told us, she had a revelation – she realised she wanted to work not just with children, but with children whose lives had been shattered by the war. She shared this idea with a young Sri Lankan she met while she was working there who was from Batticaloa, an area of the country which was badly affected by conflict.
‘Don’t come to Batti,’ he told her. ‘They’ll hate you.’
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but as a Sinhala woman, the fact that she was in a Tamil town still carrying the marks of civil war was a big deal. In 2005 after the tsunami, before the war ended, it absolutely wouldn’t have been safe for her to go to Batti. And so she shelved her dream, and carried on working with children where she was in the south, and then, a couple of years later, she joined CAL as the centre manager in Kelaniya.
Kelaniya opened four years ago, but the Batti project only started six months ago, the newest of CAL’s centres. These days there’s much less likely to be trouble in the east than there was in the post-tsunami, pre-peace days. D was given the opportunity to come, her husband agreed, and almost ten years later, she got to visit the children born into the end of the civil war.
At each of the five projects the children decorated butterflies with her. The children LOVED their butterflies, and I was forced to take a gazillion photographs of them. They were so proud.
At one of the centres one boy coyly wandered over to her, to have a look at D’s butterfly and started to copy it. ‘No no,’ she said. ‘This is me. You have to decorate your butterfly to be you.’ Carefully and slowly, he chose colours and made his butterfly very beautiful. Afterwards I photographed the two of them together, she and the Tamil boy with their butterflies, laughing, arms round each other.
‘Nobody hated me,’ she said. ‘I was able to go and be with the children and I wasn’t the enemy.’
We don’t have to be bound by the old resentments, the inherited hatreds, the cultural prejudices, the unforgiveness of our histories. We can throw our arms round one another, laugh and be free of all of it, owning who we are now and making the future in a different mould.