By Dr. Palitha Kohona, Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United Nations; edited by Jim Luce
Galle, Sri Lanka. I went home to Sri Lanka unexpectedly for just a few days in June. Of course, one of my goals was to visit the Payagala Orphanage with which I am associated. I had not had the opportunity to visit the orphanage for over six months.
But, a few observations on Colombo before I move to describe the visit to the Payagala Orphanage. From my vantage point in Colombo, I could observe the Galle Face Green. Originally a parade ground by the sea used by the colonial administration, in post independence Sri Lanka it became a very popular open space for families to relax on weekends, for children to play and lovers to cuddle under umbrellas.
Then came the reign of terror unleashed by the Tamil Tigers which lasted over 27 years until May 2009 with road side bombs being exploded regularly and civilians being targeted indiscriminately. Thousands of civilians were the unwitting victims of the terrorism of the Tamil Tigers. The Galle Face Green emptied and remained abandoned by the public during this long period. There were no childish squeals or coy giggles of young lovers.
The LTTE, as it withdrew deeper in to the North East as the security forces
advanced, removed the roofing material and door and window frames from all
buildings, mainly to prevent the people from returning on their own accord. The
immediate challenge for the government is to restore these schools and houses.
Today, with the demise of the Tamil Tigers, Galle Face is thronged with people. Children flying kites, ice cream and kadala vendors competing with each other to attract their attention, balloons bobbing up joyously in children’s hands, lovers cuddling under black umbrellas – this is peace indeed after the end of the dreaded Tamil Tigers. The kites compete with each other to attain greater heights.
Many parents, of different nationalities who were playing with their children at Galle Face Green, had avoided being together in public, including going to work in the same vehicle, for twenty seven years. Not for any other reason but to avoid being caught in the same terrorist bomb blast and thus making the children orphans. I lost a staff member, a young mother of two, when she was caught in a blast that targeted a packed passenger train taking office workers home.
No words can describe the desolation that I saw in her husband’s eyes as he sat silently watching her dead body. Now, happily, the fear of a thousand hot pellets searing through your body as you do your daily shopping is gone as parents go to work together, and play with their children together in an environment of peace.
Sri Lanka is rapidly leaving that era of fear and uncertainty behind. The nation as a whole is moving forward. Billions of dollars are being pumped in to rehabilitate the areas formerly controlled by the Tamil Tigers and left behind economically. Vast infrastructure projects, including trunk roads and railway lines, are being undertaken with the assistance of friendly countries such as China and India. India has agreed to build 50,000 houses for the displaced returning home.
The UNDP and other members of the U.N. family are playing a critical role in restoring economic and social normalcy by building houses, schools, roads, power links, irrigation networks, etc. in the areas formerly controlled by the Tamil Tigers.
The U.S. and Australia are major donors in Sri Lanka’s efforts to bring economic and societal normalcy to the North and the East of the country, including through the building of houses. Elections have given the people the opportunity to determine their own leaders. The country desperately is seeking to leave the era of conflict behind and move on.
Inward tourism to Sri Lanka has increased by 60% in 2010. Colombo hotels are crowded with expatriates who have returned after many years, businessmen eyeing opportunities and carpet baggers looking for deals. FDI is expected to exceed one billion Dollars this year. Reflecting the new mood of the country, the new Performing Arts Centre in Colombo built with Chinese aid is nearing completion. It looks like a lotus flower about to open up.
The children of the Payagala orphanage stand to benefit from all this. They will grow up in a world not clouded by fear and uncertainty and conflict but where hope and opportunity prevail. They will not fear death from road side bombs as they walk to school. With increased economic activity, they will have greater opportunities in their adult lives. Their future will need to be secured with better learning facilities, training in IT, English, and other skills that are marketable.
The orphanage will continue to need additional resources as we seek to provide a better life to these children. This is a challenge, particularly as the country focuses its resources in restoring normalcy to the North and the East.
Dr. Kohona has received many awards over the years, including the 2010 Global Citizenship Award for Leadership in Helping Humanity presented by Orphans International Worldwide (OIWW).