Northern Promise

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Northern promise was the second in the Deepend Journey series, where elite Australian athletes take on a pretty alternative ‘end of season trip’. The project had 2 aims; first to go and contribute in some small way to the reconciliation efforts involving sport and health that are underway in Sri Lanka after the war. This involved working with on-ground partners in schools, hospitals, local foundations and NGO’s who are using sport as a way of assisting people (especially children) to cope, reconnect with and rebuild communities, express their talent and character, learn, and most importantly, play. Sri Lanka, like Australia is big on sport and having elite Australian athletes involved in this is hopefully a part of a long conversation and friendship between the 2 countries. The second aim of the project was to expose the athletes themselves to experiences they may never otherwise have, that allow them to reflect on what sport can be to people and how their own privileged position as role models can make a difference in Australia, particularly within indigenous communities.

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by Simon Hogan – Geelong Cats

Surrounded by the numerous restored columns which are engraved with the names of those who perished, I notice a couple of young guys sitting against the decrepit stone walls which provides an eerie feeling, now knowing what has happened here.

This site was also the battlefield for the last bloody fight of the civil war, an event which claimed many victims and clearly still lingers in the minds of those who inhabit here.

For the locals, this is clearly a strange moment too with many taking photos of us having not seen tourists for years. This is yet again another confronting reminder of the pain that has been felt in this region and why our journey is important, even if only to bring some joy to these people’s lives.

This was the 13th of October, or day 5 of our “deepend journey.”

A few days earlier on Tuesday 11th of October, I had no idea what I was about to experience as I began my journey with four Australian athletes on a very different end of season trip.

At the invitation of Bluestone Edge and Global Reconciliation, we boarded a bus from Colombo that would practically become our home for the next 9 days as we began the second “Deepend Journey’ to Sri Lanka, led by Pippa Grange.

My fellow travellers Cam Guthrie (on his first overseas trip), Ed Curnow, Shaun Burgoyne and Australian netballer Sharelle McMahon made up the sporting contingent on the group. While Sean Gorman, a renowned researcher known throughout the AFL industry for his work on Indigenous issues and footy, Paul James and Paul Komessarof from Global Reconciliation and psychiatrist Suresh Sundram from Monash University completed our team.

Our trip was about learning and exchange with the Sri Lankan people who have endured so much, especially in the north of the country, who have suffered at the hands of 27 years of war (finishing in 2009) and the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004.

At a deeper level, it was also about exploring how sport can be used as a vehicle for reconciliation and overcoming adversity and what we can to learn to assist our own communities.

And throughout all of this, we were there also simply to play sport with a bunch of spirited, capable kids and bring a smile to their faces.

As our journey began with a bus trip from the relative luxury of the capital Colombo to the very basic and far less touristy, Jaffna, on the far north peninsula, about 30km south of India.

The 400km journey took every bit of 12 hours as our driver, Jayantha, took to the often bumpy roads in a very cautious manner.

With the team in high spirits and eager to arrive we rallied Jayantha to pick up the pace. By the end of the trip we had paid a speeding fine, taken odds, tried bribery, agreed to ride elephants through wetlands with his cousin, and even sung to him, but unfortunately he wasn’t moving any faster.

The north of Sri Lanka is very different to the south. The population is largely Tamil Hindu people and it was the scene of some horrific conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elan (LTTE) for around 27 years.

The effects of this war can still be felt as it was only in 2009 that this war was resolved, with the Singhalese Government declared victorious after the death of the Tamil Tigers leader, and sadly this area is still recovering from the conflict.

There are still many Tamil people in camps, having been forced to move during the conflict. These people are referred to as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) rather than refugees, as they have not crossed any international borders, but for all intents and purposes, they are refugees in their own country.

At one stage there were around 300,000 people in these camps and are still around 7,000 waiting to return home. This displacement, dispossession of land and ‘moving on’ from the place known as home, has obviously similarities with some of Australia’s Indigenous population.

The conditions here are treacherous with the land in the north still scattered with land mines from generations past, and the government is yet to clear to land. Many have criticised the Government for taking too long and the fact that several people have encountered land mines after prematurely heading home indicates that the problem is far from resolved.

We quickly realised that the north and the south are almost like two separate countries. There were security and passport checks at various points along the road and we were required to identify ourselves and the purpose of our travel to stationed armed guards.

We found this situation quite confronting and had we been visiting six months earlier it would have been impossible to pass at all without permission and visas. This is clearly still a complex situation and while it is congenial between the groups, it was unfamiliar to us.

When we reached our destination, the Nullar Temple in Jaffna, we prepared to witness a Pooja ceremony, which involved all men having bare chests to signify equality in front of their gods.

Our guide was Professor Shanmugalingam, a Hindu man who works at the local university. He is a considered the foremost cultural historians in Jaffna and clearly a very wise man. He took the time to explain some of the difficulties that the Tamil people have faced over many years which helped put things in perspective. He spoke of the heartache and turmoil that the Tamil population had come accustomed to throughout the war. He mentioned how important religion was to the locals and how much it had helped them through the difficulties they had to face.

Following this, as we sat on the temple floor listening to the priest, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of privilege to witness the dedication and devotion that is associated with Hinduism and reflect on our own culture. The major role that religion played in the daily routine of locals was very different to what I was accustomed to back home.

I was still pondering this as we boarded the bus and made our way along the dodgy road toward Kilonochi.

Kilonochi was one of the main centres of the LTTE and the destruction caused by the war is very evident from the moment you enter the outskirts and witness the level of poverty, lack of infrastructure, trade or economy.

In the afternoon we had the opportunity to meet some of the locals as we headed to an oval near a school in Kilonochi armed with footballs and netballs. Pippa, Sharelle and I went headed straight for the basketball court to shoot hoops with a group of local players, all about 18 who spoke some broken English.

They clearly knew how to play and while it was very competitive, they certainly had home court advantage as none of us had ever played basketball with a cow moseying on the arena.

After this we introduced the group to the footies showing them how to kick and handball. It was humbling to see their enjoyment driven by the fact that outsiders had shown interest and were simply there just to have fun, which clearly excited them.

There was however, one quite distressing occurrence at these ovals. A young boy had been labelled an outcast and a refugee by the other kids. He was obviously quite mentally ill and the psychiatrist travelling with us thought he may have seen suffering from schizophrenia or post trauma psychosis. His clothes were filthy and the boys said he sleeps in the gutter by the oval and that his family were ‘victims of war’. The kid really didn’t seem to have long to live or much reason to.

That night we met Dr. Shivadesh who is the local psychiatrist. He studied in Colombo and is one of only two psychiatrists in the area. He covers an area of about 600,000 people and mostly performs group therapy to control the numbers. He also performs some individual consultations however they usually only last a couple of minutes.

He spoke of a high suicide rate in the area, particularly amongst the 18-25 age group, who have lost hope and look for a way out by eating a certain poisonous berry or ingesting agricultural pesticides. We learnt that suicide attempts by pesticide were one of the top two causes of hospital admittance, with the other being snakebite.

He also explained that self harm, domestic violence and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are the main health issues in the area and that many locals have had to leave their homes and livelihoods to stay alive during the war and many family members having been killed in the process.

This was a depressing reality and despite the efforts of Non Government Organisation’s and organizations like Medicines san Frontiers, who send medical and health workers on voluntary assignments for months at a time, there is simply not enough help and support available to match the needs of the people.

This does not however stop people from trying. One of my favourite experiences occurred the following day when we visited a local school which is linked to the United Nations World Food Program, and of course play some sport with the kids.

Julia and Paulette from WFP (World Food Program) led us to the school where we were greeted with a traditional ceremony, received a number of leis (flower necklaces) and watching a dance performed by eight of the female students. Their warm welcome was overwhelming, as was the opportunity to speak to the entire school (about 1000 kids) and it was clearly a special a day for both the kids and us.

We spent the afternoon with the kids, kicking the football and Sharelle showed the girls some passing drills, who were beside themselves at the opportunity.

Eventually they just wanted us to kick it as high as we could and then chase us around the yard. It was great fun picking kids up and throwing them on my shoulders, but pretty shortly I was struggling in the searing heat.

I will never forget the excitement on the kids faces as they saw something different and were able to simply have fun. It was these simple moments that will remain my most memorable.

In the afternoon we drove a couple of hours down a dirt road to a school just out of Mullataivu where we played cricket – another easy form of communication with our sub continental neighbours – before sitting down with some of the teachers.

They spoke about the difficulties of getting kids to school and mentioned that only about 10% finish school and about half of those go onto university. They mentioned the importance of sport within the school and how much effort had been placed into the school’s soccer team, who had just become district champions.

It was here we met a group of around six teenagers (aged 14, 15) including 2 girls who had actually been involved in combat as child soldiers – now referred to as child victims. It was unfathomable to look at their youthful faces and think they had been at war two years earlier. Sadly, most kids at the school had lost one or both parents, a horrific thought that no young child should ever have to imagine.

The experience had been very emotional and the next day we certainly needed our rest day. We roamed the beaches of Trincomalee, watched the ropey fishermen pulling in kilos of fish by hand, darted underwater on a sea bob, floated about in the water and just absorbed everything we had just seen. We were all very grateful to have a warm shower and put our feet up for part of the day.

Refreshed and revived, we awoke the next day to begin a four trip from Trincomalee to Mahiyangana, the home of the Veddah people.

The Veddahs are Indigenous to Sri Lanka, but represent less than 2% of the population. There history has a number of variations, in particular, how they came to be in Sri Lanka and this reminded us in many ways of Australia’s Indigenous population.

However visiting the Veddah people was not what we expected. There were tourists everywhere and they had become somewhat of a local attraction. Their way of life was on display and they continually encouraged donations.

We believed that the village was like this because it was a Sunday and a holiday, but it spoilt the romantic stereotype we had and we couldn’t work out if it was a good thing.

In reality they may spend the rest of the week living in their traditional way and spend their time hunting and preserving their culture, however what we witnessed was very different to what we expected.

From Mahiyangana we headed to Kandy, a major tourist destination nestled in the central highlands. We were on a journey to visit the temple of the tooth, a very sacred place for Buddhist people.

A tooth belonging to Buddha was once placed in a sacred tomb within this temple, hence its name. This temple had been a target for the Tamil tigers on several occasions and some sections have had to be restored since the war.

The architecture was incredible as were the numerous sacred areas and it was yet another example of the importance of religion, ceremony and culture in the lives of these people.

That night we headed back to Colombo for the final leg of our journey and enjoyed dinner with a man called Kushil Gunasekera. Kushil is probably best known as the Singhalese manager of Tamil cricketer Muttiah Muralidaran but he is also the creator of the foundation of goodness.

He is an inspirational man who continues to do great things for reconciliation in Sri Lanka and has set up a complex in Seenigama, a small village a couple of hours south of Colombo.

The complex was the focus of last year’s Deepend Journey (see www.unconditionalcompassion.com )

In the days after everyone else had left, Ed and I had the opportunity to see the lasting effect of last year’s Deepend Journey visit. We were amazed to see that around 40 kids still had skills (and some footballs) from last year’s trip.

There energy was amazing as we kicked the footy with them and it wasn’t until everyone was absolutely buggered that the game ended. They were highly talented and we may even see them in next year’s international cup!

This final experience ended our amazing journey, and as we sat as a group enjoying our last blast of sweet pineapple and soggy toast for breakfast, we tried to work out what we had just experienced.

It had been something very different to anything we had ever seen or felt before, and probably something that will take a very long time to really settle in.

The things that were the same between people – lucky ones and not so lucky ones – were as stark as the things that were different.

Sharelle summed it up well when on the last day that she said she felt that absolutely everything she had seen had a shadow side. She explained that everything was more complex than it initially looked, except maybe the joy and happiness on the kids faces when they were running around in the moment playing sport.

This had been a powerful experience for all of us and we discussed what we could do next, with potential ideas including working locally on sport and reconciliation in Australia with last year’s group.

Our amazing adventure had concluded and I now look forward to reading someone’s story next year as they embark on a new Deepend journey…however let’s hope they get a faster driver.

A huge thanks must go to Pippa Grange and Bluestone Edge for organising such an eye opening and worthwhile journey and I also thank the AFL Players’ Association, the AFL and the Global Reconciliation sponsors for their support and contribution to the trip I will never forget.

To see more on this Deepend Journey, click here to view the video on Northern Promise.

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