By Dharisha Bastians
Travelling on the Kandy-Jaffna A9 Highway as it passes through the former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) stronghold of Kilinochchi, a dilapidated building used to catch the eye.
Two girls from the A Level class ~ For Tamil people, a university education is considered the end goal. despite the lack of employment opportunities for graduates, parents in the area prize the college degree greatly
Two storeyed and pockmarked with bullet holes, the yellow walls stood out in this embattled region, partly because it has had its entire roof blown off, a poignant war memorial even when Kilinochchi Town became the Tigers’ showcase capital during the ceasefire years.
But its true attraction often lay in the sight of white-clad children, playing or taking lessons inside the ruined structure. The image presented a startling contrast: of schoolyard innocence set against the ravages of war, and it made visitors to the region take pause.
Analysts say that in Sri Lanka, education has often been at the root of all insurgencies and violence. As educated young men and women realized that academic prowess alone was not going to improve their economic prospects, insurgency erupted in both the north and the south of the island, around the same period. A perception of injustice towards the educated was created and propagated.
In the 1971 uprising in the South, the Sinhalese youth perceived this as a class struggle; their counterparts in the north, began to perceive it as a race struggle, after the disastrous Swabasha legislation in 1956 that not only granted official language status to Sinhala alone but also gradually took away English as the medium of instruction and administration, dealing a dual blow to thousands of Northern youth against whom the doors of employment, particularly in the public sector, were slammed shut.
Abandoned Building Projects ~ Several building projects appear to have been started and stopped abruptly, possibly owing to a renewal of violence in the area after the ceasefire broke down in 2006.
In both the north and the south, schools and universities became recruiting fields for the insurgent movements. They were places in which youthful passion could be easily ignited, where injustice and discrimination were keenly felt. LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran did not even possess a basic educational qualification, but recruits to his separatist organization at the initial stage were Advanced level or university students.
In the island’s North, very few things survived the separatist war Prabhakaran waged against the Sri Lankan state. But through the death, destruction and complete breakdown of a social order, the Northern peoples’ traditional faith in education seems to have endured. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the small school on the side of a road connecting north and south, at the heart of the LTTE’s former de facto capital.
Kilinochchi Central College bears greater war wounds than the other buildings in the area. Or perhaps it is the sight of children moving around inside that makes it appear to have endured more suffering. The school’s prime location beside the highway makes it accessible to students from as far off as Point Pedro, a 90-minute commute each way on very bumpy roads. But that is not necessarily a selling point for the students.
“It’s like we’re animals in the zoo,” 18 year old Mayuri complains.With gaping holes framing the classrooms adjacent to the A9, students here used to be completely exposed to the elements – traffic, pedestrians, cyclists and even the occasional herd of cattle. With a resigned smile, Mayuri says that whenever she looked up from her books, someone was peeping into the schoolroom, especially after the war ended and Northern ‘tourism’ expanded.
The school bore the brunt of the damage to Kilinochchi town during Operation Sathjaya in 1996, when the Tamil Tigers used a corner of the school grounds to launch mortar attacks on Government military positions. It was the retaliatory attacks that extensively damaged many of the school buildings and especially the classroom structure standing right beside the main road. Inside, every corridor is filled with battle scars. Strangely, there is rarely a deficiency of smiles, not when the guns had fallen temporarily silent in 2002, not when war erupted around them during the final push and not now, nearly four years after the conflict ended officially.
‘Kilinochchi Maha Vidyalam’ is the largest school in the Wanni. While its student population fluctuated wildly during the conflict years, more than 2000 students now attend on a regular basis. Fifty eight Government teachers serve on the staff.
It is reputed to have one of the best science and maths programmes in the region and a relatively high exam success rate even during the war years. Mayuri, an only child boards in Kilinochchi during the week in order to attend classes there. She is a biology student with ambitions.
For Tamil people, a university education is considered the end goal, says Vartharajah Muralitharan, an English Teacher at the school. He says that despite the lack of employment opportunities for graduates, parents in the area prize the college degree greatly, even though it rarely contributes to an improvement in the family’s economic condition. “They will do whatever they can to make sure their child gets into campus,” Muralitharan says, illustrating Mayuri’s case. “It is a cultural thing. The Northerners have always been an educated, cultured people,” he explains.
In 2011, out of a miniscule Advanced Level batch of 200, 40 qualified to enter university. Five students from Kilinochchi Central College entered the elite Medical Faculty of the Jaffna University in 2011 and another five qualified to pursue Engineering at the Peradeniya University. One student even made the grade for Veterinary Science at Peradeniya, the only university to offer the programme in the island.
This is achievable partly because of standardization of the qualifying test scores that make students eligible to enter state universities. But given the circumstances under which the school has been operational for nearly 30 years, it is still a major success story. Until last year, the school functioned without laboratory facilities for the science and maths streams. Most students faced their final exams never having attended a science practical. A science lab was constructed and equipped as a one off measure several years ago, but by 2012 the chemicals had long since expired and the lab was dead bolted and off limits to students.
The school has a computer science programme but computers donated by a state bank some years ago could never be used to set up an IT laboratory because the machines were simply too old. Several building projects appear to have been started and stopped abruptly, possibly owing to a renewal of violence in the area after the ceasefire broke down in 2006. The school has suffered a serious deficiency of teaching staff over the years, with several subjects simply unavailable despite being mandatory on the curriculum because there was no one to teach them.
Vartharajah Muralitharan, who hails from Point Pedro and undertakes the gruelling journey each day, has been teaching English and Sinhala at the school since 2005.
Muralitharan, who hails from Point Pedro and undertakes the gruelling journey each day, has been teaching English and Sinhala at the school since 2005. Recalling the horrors of the war’s final phase between 2006-2009 the English Teacher notes sadly that the school lost 23 children to the conflict. Many of them, he says, travelled to the Central College from the jungle villages of Mullaitivu, the district in the Wanni that witnessed the worst of the fighting in 2009 and where Tiger Supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran met his gruesome end.
Many others were conscripted to fight by the LTTE, as the rebels suffered heavy losses in the final phase of the war. “This is nothing new,” he says, “it has been the story of Kilinochchi Central College throughout the conflict.” The phenomenon is not unique to this one school either. In fact the more remote the school, the greater the chances of them being caught in the crossfire and students being forcibly recruited to fight, teachers say.
Till mid 2012, despite three years having elapsed since the war ended, few things changed at the largest school in the Wanni. Development was coming faster to Jaffna, an area that had been under Government control since 1995. Even as schools in Jaffna began projects to construct auditoriums and celebrated the opening of swimming pools, the Central College in Kilinochchi continued to hold classes in a building without a roof, its foundations compromised by the shock of the blasts.
Non Government organizations ensured safe drinking water and sanitation facilities were provided to the school, but there was little to showcase in terms of true infrastructure development post-war. Technically, the school is billed to be rehabilitated and upgraded by the Emergency Northern Recovery Project (ENReP) under the auspices of the Economic Development Ministry headed by Minister Basil Rajapaksa. Several schools in the Wanni have already been improved under the project, often assisted by foreign donors.
About seven months ago, the Government decided to completely demolish the war-struck building on the side of the A9. A new building is to be constructed in its place. Last year, a private bank set up a functional computer laboratory at the school as part of its corporate social responsibility initiatives. Progress is slow, but students and teachers feel something might finally be happening.
In the final analysis, the story of the school in the Tigers’ former de facto capital is one of tremendous resilience against all odds. Its legacy speaks to the success of the free education system and a nation’s will to remain connected, even by the thinnest of threads, while being ripped apart by war. Facilities may have been grossly inadequate at Kilinochchi Central College during the war years, but for nearly two decades, every Government continued to pay the salaries of teachers and hold public examinations even in the throes of heavy fighting in the area.
It is said that even the children of Tiger Leader Prabhakaran were permitted to sit their examinations under the Chandrika Kumaratunga Government. In a private system of education, it would not have been the business of the state to continue to support education infrastructure in a territory it did not even hold during years of conflict.
And successive Governments did so in the full knowledge that students of these very same schools and universities were being forcibly recruited to fight against Government troops in the front lines of battle. The state stands on moral high ground here, but it is important that this knowledge fosters greater understanding about the history of our conflict, rather than be reduced to jingoistic rhetoric and finger-pointing at the other.
In post-conflict Sri Lanka, much of the hope also lies in education. Barriers can be broken down by effective language education; learning a combined history can foster understanding and ethnic harmony in younger generations of Sri Lankans. Tragically few steps are being taken in that critical area, with Sinhalese students still learning largely Mahavamsa based history, while Tamil students learn history from different sources.
This is not the case with maths and science curricula, which are the same irrespective of the language of instruction. In the business of reconciliation, education could become a cornerstone, if teachers are made to teach a certain subdued history that brings communities together rather than polarizes them and language education could be structured to foster communication between the communities. The schoolroom could be the place where Sri Lanka could finally bid goodbye to nationalism that fosters hatred because of a lack of understanding and seek to build a truly multi-ethnic, pluralistic society.
Kilinochchi Central College is a symbolic representation of all that hope.
If education were to create equal opportunities for all students, irrespective of where they come from and their socio-economic standing, Sri Lanka is much less likely to see a resurgence of conflict, especially in the north of the island, where continuing oppression and lack of opportunity four years since the end of the war, has already begun to sow frustration that could fester below the surface for years to come.
The challenges of reconciliation seem daunting, at first glance. Sri Lanka’s north is a place trapped in time, while the rest of the island has moved on in every way. The schoolrooms of the war-weary region, where fresh-faced, still-hopeful futures reside, might be the best place to begin rebuilding.
Lessons from a war-zone
What do you do when the roof of your classroom has been blasted off? You find a way to play among the ruins. How do you come to terms with the death of your schoolmates? You learn to carry on. What lessons do you learn in a warzone? Loss, survival and the incredible endurance of the human spirit (Courtesy: Echelon Magazine)