Shattering Ethnic Prejudices in Sri Lanka Through Communication  

Forgiveness was a difficult word for Kalaivani Saravani when she was growing up as a war orphan in Sri Lanka. But recently the 18-year-old Tamil university student discovered personal healing, almost by accident.

Kalaivani Saravani, Radio Producer, Real Voices

Kalaivani Saravani, Radio Producer, Real Voices

This happened when she was selected to participate as a trainee radio producer in a weeklong Internews cross-production workshop in early May that brought together 15, mostly young, Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim journalists to cover stories that affect the lives of local communities.

Kalaivani, who grew up in the troubled Batticaloa district in Sri Lanka’s east coast, related, “In 1994, there was heavy fighting in my village in Batticaloa between the Sri Lankan armed forces and Tamil Tiger (LTTE) rebels. My father was killed by the Sri Lankan army and my mother went missing.’’

Her voice hoarse with emotion, she continued, “My eight siblings and I were in an IDP camp for a while and then we were transferred to an orphanage. Till today I don’t know whether my mother is alive or dead.”

Since 1983, the people of Batticaloa district have suffered the consequences of the war between the Sri Lankan forces and the Tamil Tigers. Until December 2006, 80 percent of Batticaloa district was under rebel control and 20 percent under the Sri Lankan government. After five months of intense fighting, the whole district is now under Sri Lankan government control and administration.

While Kalaivani excelled in her studies in the orphanage and managed to get entrance into the Open University, she confessed that she had extreme hatred for all Sinhalese.

‘’The Sinhalese form the majority of the Sri Lankan forces that killed my father,’’ she explained with pain in her eyes.

‘’But I realized that hatred was destroying me. While I was good in Tamil language and English, I refused to even learn a word of Sinhala and avoided coming into contact with Sinhalese people. I was killing myself with this burning anger,’’ she said.

Little did Kalaivani realize that she would be undergoing a personal transformation when she was selected by Internews for a journalism training workshop. As part of the workshop, she joined a group of Tamil and Muslim journalists traveling from the east to the predominately Sinhalese-dominated southern coast in the cross-production workshop.

She was assigned to report and produce a radio story in Tamil on communities displaced by the construction of a superhighway from Colombo to Matara. To produce her story, she had to talk to Sinhalese villagers in Akmeemana village, near the tourist resort of Galle. An interpreter was available to help her.

“My initial nervousness all proved to be just a bit too stupid,’’ she admitted. “The Sinhalese people in Akmeemana village opened their hearts out to me even when they knew I was a Tamil and couldn’t speak Sinhala. They made me feel so welcome.’’
“I was touched when they wanted to tell me their problems. They wanted their sufferings to be heard by Tamil listeners of the radio stations. They, too, were trying to reach out to their Tamil brothers and sisters to say that all poor people have the same problems, regardless of whether you are Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim.’’

At the end of the cross-production workshop in Ampara, a city 200 kilometers from the capital, Colombo, on Sri Lanka’s east coast, Kalaivani shared with all the 15 Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim trainees the story of her personal transformation.

“The people in Akmeemana village made me realize that my anger and hatred were all just misplaced. I’ve been conscientiously trying to learn Sinhala this week and will continue to do so when I return to Batticaloa,’’ she said in halting Sinhala, to a round of hearty applause.

Stimulating community dialogue and raising community awareness of youth issues are an essential part of Internews’ Real Voices Radio program, which creates a space for common voices in the mainstream media, regardless of ethnicity. Through four cross-production series since the 2006 inception of the USAID-funded Regional Media Houses in the east and south of Sri Lanka, Internews trainers have managed to introduce empathy, nonviolence and creativity into stories done in the conflict areas with Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim reporters.

These reporters are trained to understand conflict partners from the inside and recognize in all parties their joint creativity in finding ways to transcend the incompatibilities. This in turn is reflected in their stories, which are broadcast by four radio stations transmitting the Real Voices programs in East and South Sri Lanka. Two of the radio stations - Ruhunu Sevaya FM and Uva Radio – are popular with young Sinhalese listeners.


Banner photo: Women cross a section of the road washed away by the floods. (credit: Amantha Perera/CC)