Peace – an Everyday Activity
Peace-making has not been kind to eastern Sri Lanka in the past generation or more. Home for centuries to people of three religions, two languages, and wide-spread poverty, the region has seen more than its share of tension, conflict and war.
This is also home to A. Sornalingam, known simply as Sorna, a Tamil with three languages, whose wife is Sinhalese. He lives in the region’s major city, Batticaloa, beside the ocean and among the palm trees. Some, including Sorna, see it as idyllic, except for the human destruction that has ravaged too many families during his lifetime.
Sorna has worked for 30 years with a national civil society organization to improve the lives of people in this and other regions of the country. His focus is to strengthen local village groups and organizations so that they may design and execute their own activities to raise living standards and build solidarity among the diverse groups.
Despite three major religious communities – Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu – plus some Christians, most people have lived historically in relative harmony. But poverty and social injustice have been evident and tensions constant; violence is always close to the surface. Sorna sees his role mainly as addressing these conflicts, by mediating and negotiating on a daily basis. His underlying goal is to increase trust, mutual respect and cooperation among people in the different groups.
The long Sri Lankan civil war took these tensions to horrendous new heights: killings, kidnappings, disappearances, and a total disregard for human rights by all sides brought untold fear and pain. Sorna had to protect his family, the communities, and the development work under his responsibility.
He chose to employ honest communication and persuasion with all parties – government, LTTE (Tamil Tigers) operating in the area, communities and their leaders, and people in the villages.
He dealt with life-threatening circumstances for himself and those around him. People disappeared – some were confirmed dead, some were not.
Both the government forces and Tiger rebels were threats; the fighting was brutal and long-lasting. And yet, he still managed to bring most people in his orbit through with their lives intact and the will to rebuild and reconcile.
This will among people and communities also served them all well in rebuilding after the 2004 tsunami that brutally hit eastern Sri Lanka, where the water surged as high as the palm trees.
Sorna could easily have moved to Colombo and taken an executive position with a prominent civil society organization, or perhaps in the government.
But he has chosen to remain in his humble surroundings to work directly with the communities who need his support and mentoring. In spite of the horrendous loss of life through the civil war and the frequent communal conflict over a longer time, Sorna’s presence, his words and actions have no doubt saved many lives and alleviated the suffering of many more.
His work has built harmony and cooperation across conflicted lines and improved the satisfaction of life, directly and indirectly, among thousands. In his quiet and unassuming way, he has made peace an everyday activity.
By: Richard Harmston, Board Member, Canadian Peace Service Canada, (www.civilianpeaceservice.ca).