Healing Wounds Through Drama
Apr. 5, 2016
A theater troupe in Sri Lanka is supporting young Tamils heal old wounds, in themselves and their audiences, from the pain of war.
The island nation was torn by a long civil war between the government and ethnic minority Tamil rebels that started in 1983 and left tens of thousands dead.
Even after the war ended 7 years ago, the Tamil people's freedom was limited. And despite reconstruction efforts, people still bear deep mental scars.
As the main Tamil rebel stronghold, the town of Kilinochchi was the scene of fierce battles during the fighting.
"We lost almost everything in the war," says one resident. "Even now it's painful to recall those days."
A group of young Tamils formed the theater troupe last year. Most of them had lost family members in the war. An international NGO runs the troupe and pays the young actors so they can live independently.
Mahenthiram Lipsiya lost her mother and older brother in the conflict.
She now lives with her father and younger sister, and family duties prevent her from working. Still haunted by memories of the war, she has made 3 suicide attempts.
"Eight of my neighbors were killed in the shelling. That brought home to me the terror of the war. I thought I would die, that I wouldn't survive," she recalls. "Talking about this is just..."
She couldn't talk to others or laugh like she did in the past. A concerned neighbor recommended that she join the troupe. At first, she had trouble fitting in.
"She would not talk to anyone. It seemed like she'd had a really hard time ever since she was a child," one of the troupe members says.
But the other actors had also lost loved ones. Seeing young troupe members with similar backgrounds making great efforts, Lipsiya gradually opened up.
"I lost my mother and brother, but many people experienced much worse," Lipsiya says. "So, I began to think that doing something for them would make me happy."
The troupe performs about 10 times a month. About 50 local people showed up to watch one recent performance.
The troupe's performances offer people a chance to confront their problems, some of which are thought to be caused by the trauma of the war. These include alcohol dependence and domestic violence.
One story the actors perform is about an abusive alcoholic father. Lipsiya plays a teacher who tries to protect the man's child.
"Stop yelling at her! Don't you think her future is important?" Lipsiya says during the performance.
After the show, the actors invite the audience to discuss possible solutions.
"What do you think should be done in such a situation?" one of the troupe members asks.
"The older brother should tell his father not to drink," a member of the audience replies.
Lipsiya now wants to become a counsellor to help people overcome their trauma.
"I have all kinds of problems, but now I've come to appreciate life again, joining the troupe gave me motivation," Lipsiya says. "I want to keep acting with them."
Born and raised in the shadow of the civil war, many young Tamils still have mental scars. But they're now trying hard to create their own lives.
NHK World's Kenichi Tanaka joined anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio from New Delhi.
Beppu: So Kenichi, seeing the story, I understand 7 years after the civil war, people have started to speak out. What do you make of this change?
Tanaka: Political change is behind it. After a decade in power, Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated by Maithripala Sirisena in last year's presidential election. That means a lot to the Tamil people who lived through years of fighting. They are finally enjoying a taste of freedom.
Under the Rajapaksa administration, the military strictly monitored the Tamils. In that climate, minorities hesitated to express themselves freely. It was also virtually impossible for them to gather in large numbers.
I interviewed residents of an area of northern Sri Lanka with a large Tamil population. They said that under the former government, they were afraid to be interviewed. But now they feel free to speak out.
During the war, the military set up checkpoints between the Tamil-dominated north and the south, where many Sinhalese people live. Those only came down about 6 months ago. Now everyone can travel as they like.
Shibuya: Now Kenichi, after mentioning the changes, what is the biggest challenge lying ahead?
Tanaka: National reconciliation remains the biggest challenge. Seven years of peace have not healed all the psychological wounds on both sides. President Sirisena has expressed his resolve to deal with alleged human rights violations. But the question is can the country squarely face its past? That hard task has just begun.
Narrowing the economic gap is another challenge. Sri Lanka's economy is growing, but not in the Tamil-dominated north. More and more young people are leaving their homeland to find better opportunities elsewhere. Young people like the troupe members are doing what they can to overcome the social problems on their own.