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Sunday, 8 November 2009

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From the darkness of war to the light of education

The fragrance of talcum powder enveloped the dusty, hot morning air. With big black ‘pottus’ small girls and boys, clad in clean uniforms and holding each other’s hands were coming to school - a temporary school- with huts and tents. Rain or shine, they all attend school.

‘Children of war’, who cried and hid in fear and saw only sights of blood and flesh a few months ago, are slowly erasing their bitter memories. Their innocent smiles greeted us on this bright day.

Back in their own world, full of big dreams, they are now finding solace in books. It gives inspiration to us too, their courage to see the light at end of the tunnel through education.

Sri Padmanathan Priyanthi is a special kid among all the others in the primary section of the school in the Kadirgamar Welfare Village in Vavuniya. Of all the Grade Five students who sat for the Year Five Scholarship examination in 2009 from the school, she scored the highest marks, 162 and becoming fifth from the Kilinochchi district. The little girl, displaced several times escaped Puthumathalan amidst heavy fighting and shooting carried out by the LTTE to stop them fleeing the area.

They secured top marks at the Year Five Scholarship Examination - 2009

* Mannar district - third place (Marks 146) - Thurairaja Gowarthini

* Kilinochchi district - fifth place (Marks 162) - Sri Padmanathan Priyanthi

* Vavuniya North - sixth place (Marks 123) - Parhithawan Parmilan

* Mullaitivu District - Ninth place (Marks 156) - Selvakumar Vilakshan

Sivaviraj Sanjeewan

It is a small miracle, how these children with their nightmares and horrific memories still fresh in their minds, and wounds deep in their hearts could still focus their minds on books and do well in their examinations. Forty three Grade Five students of the makeshift school have passed the Year Five Scholarship Examination this year.

School bells rang for the interval, but the majority of children didn’t run out of their classes. They flocked around the teachers to clarify difficult sections of the lessons they had just learnt. Used to a hard life from their birth and having seen only guns and bombs, they now want to enjoy their lost childhood with toys and books.

Brimming with heaps of dreams, children in the Kadirgamar School want to become doctors, engineers, lawyers... the list goes on with some even aspiring to become musicians and singers.

“My name is Sivaviraj Sanjeewan. I am 10-years-old and in Grade Six. I am from Kilinochchi and want to become a teacher”, he introduced himself in English.

The children confidently ‘announced’ their ambitions. The little ones recalled their harrowing journey to freedom; how they crossed the huge earth bunds and braved the rains of bullets over their heads. These little children fled from Mallavi to Kilinochchi to Dharmapuram to Visuwamadhu to Mullaitivu. Sanjeewan walked over five km from Puthumathalan to the last point where soldiers saved their lives at Vellimullivaikkal. Twelve-year-old Anuskala from Mullaitivu and Pithursan (12) had the same story to tell. Both want to become doctors, whom they said were ‘saviours’ of lives.

Mobile library

Anuskala

Kamalakanthan Varajihan

The Sarvodaya Mobile Library with story books and textbooks, coming from Chettdikulam was popular among these children as well as their parents. “We read science fiction books borrowed from the library”, they said.

Their families are not fully re-united as the sisters or brothers of some children are in rehabilitation centres.

Kamalakanthan Varajihan, an 18-year-old Advanced Level student, had narrowly escaped becoming a child soldier.

His life was saved by his parents, both teachers at the Vidyananda College, Mullaitivu. The parents guarded the underground bunker where they had hidden him, for months. Learning music for his A/Ls he wants to become the ‘world’s best musician’.

The Kadirgamar School was opened with 408 students on February 2, this year. With the mass exodus of displaced people from previously LTTE-dominated areas during April and May, the number of enrolments to the school increased to 5,160. The school holds classes from grade one to Advanced Level. (The number of schoolchildren has reduced to 2,400 now as they have returned home under the resettlement program.)

Support from all

Lt. Col. Donald de Mel, the Zonal Commander, Kadirgamar Relief Village said the Army together with the Ministry of Education have provided all equipment and facilities for the children to continue their lost education until they return home.

He said that before the students sat for the Advanced Level examination, teachers from popular schools in Colombo, including Royal, Ananda, Nalanda and schools in Batticaloa and Trincomalee held special classes for them to catch up on the missed lessons. “All equipment and stationery for these children are provided by the 21st Division of the Army. We receive lots of support from the Ministry and also from the Zonal Directors of Education to upgrade the standards of the school, though it is a temporary school”, he said.

Lt. Col. de Mel attributed the dedication of children, parents and school staff for the school’s performance. “The Government teachers volunteer to give tuition to these children and they have classes in their temporary shelters. Before the A/Ls, children asked permission from me to use the school in the evenings for their studies. They got into groups and studied hard”, he said.

“I always tell the parents to give their children a good education so they will not take up arms”, the Zonal Commander said.

Sinna Thanmi Raja, the Principal said there are 315 government teachers in the school and over 2,048 children in the primary section.

No permanent buildings

From the principal to teachers and children, all were displaced and sheltered in the Kadirgamar Welfare Village. With no permanent buildings, the classes were held in huts and tents in an area of three acres.

Raja, the former Principal of the Vatarappalai Maha Vidyalaya said that all subjects in the Primary and Advanced Levels are taught at the school. Some teachers travel from Vavuniya daily.

He said that children are very keen on studies and the Ministry of Education is supporting him to run the school.

Pithursan

Asked how he and his teachers and students feel now, the Principal said that ‘life is 100 per cent better’.

Earlier government servants including teachers did not have the freedom to perform their duties. “We all had to respect and obey the LTTE rules. They openly propagated the LTTE in schools. We watched helplessly”. He kept away his two daughters from the evil eyes of the LTTE.

The LTTE surrounded his house but his teaching staff helped him to save his daughters. “I am lucky I got their support, but how many parents who have not been so lucky lost their children in the battle? They openly snatched underaged children while the parents cried, pleading and cursing the LTTE”, he recalled.

He said the LTTE opened the ‘gates’ for their kith and kin and supporters to escape the battle while throwing more innocent children and elders to the forward defence lines to fight.

While the battle was getting fierce and the LTTE was becoming more ruthless, Raja with 100 other villagers, fled the LTTE dominated areas, carrying only vital certificates, he surrendered to the Army.

Raja said that every parent wanted to give their children a good education which they lost due to the war. The Vanni people, who lag behind in development and education, are ready to ensure a good education for their children who have entered a new era - a future without guns and bombs.

They know they can rejuvenate the minds of children of war only through education.

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