People Choosing Peace: Dishani Senaratne (Sri Lanka)

Original story published by Peace Direct.

The Sri Lankan civil war, which pitched government forces against the Tamil Tigers from 1983 to 2009, left lingering wounds in the Asian island nation. Dishani Senaratne, a writer from the capital Colombo, recognized that if children of different ethnicities could read the same stories in their own languages, they could find common ground and get a better understanding of each other’s cultures.

The project, called Writing Doves, not only encourages cultural understanding among the children and their parents, but promotes literacy as well. In an interview with Peace Direct, Dishani discusses the project, the moment she realized she needed to challenge her own assumptions, and what makes lasting peace.

Tell us about yourself and the work you do.

I’m Dishani Senaratne and I’m an independent researcher and the Project Director of Writing Doves – nonprofit initiative that is aimed at enhancing intercultural understanding between young learners in Sri Lanka through trilingual narratives (Sinhala, Tamil and English). Based on the premise that children’s literature is a tool to both look inward and outward to promote reconciliation in post-conflict Sri Lanka, Writing Doves also conducts storytelling sessions for children across Sri Lanka to foster an interest in reading to build positive cross-cultural relationships.

Why did you start your work?

In May 2016, I took part in Write to Reconcile (WtR) - a creative writing project aimed at promoting reconciliation in post-conflict Sri Lanka, initiated by the critically acclaimed Canadian-Sri Lankan writer Shyam Selvadura. The poetry that I composed culminated with an anthology which was published as part of the project. Most importantly, WtR enabled me not only to shed my rose-tinted glasses, but also to be self-critical of my own assumptions and affiliations. The experiences that I gained from this program catalyzed me to initiate my own project. Having witnessed that initiatives that focus on young learners are scarce, I decided to embark on a project in 2019 that was aimed at engaging children, particularly those who live in former conflict zones.

How has COVID-19 and virus-related restrictions affected your work?

A nationwide curfew has been declared to combat the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Mobility has been restricted, and all the planned activities of Writing Doves have been temporarily halted. Sadly, there has been a recent spike in gender-based violence, which testifies that women are the worst affected during times of crisis. (Citing the increase in domestic violence, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently urged all governments to prioritize women and girls’ safety when addressing the global health crisis.)

Since we are experiencing a global crisis, it may be used as a catalyst to bring people together at every level. Peacebuilding should not stop during a pandemic. But we must be aware of how it might affect our work. Right now, focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable groups such as the displaced and the persons living with disabilities is of paramount importance. Since we are experiencing a global crisis, it may be used as a catalyst to bring people together at every level.

What does peacebuilding mean to you?

I think that peacebuilding is a slow and gradual process. Preventing violent conflicts and achieving sustainable peace is cornerstone to peacebuilding. Following the three principles of “do no harm,” “be self-aware,” and “embrace complexity” is of paramount importance to engaging in peacebuilding activities. I feel that peacebuilding is an overarching term that encompasses myriad concepts that range from inclusivity to transitional justice.

What is the most challenging moment you've had as a peacebuilder?

I find that communities that have not been directly affected by conflicts tend to assume that peace means the absence of warfare. This popular myth is a barrier to developing peacebuilding activities. I myself have met many people who are skeptical of initiatives that attempt to bring together people at the individual level. On the other hand, there is a tendency to reject concepts such as human rights and transitional justice mechanisms as “Western imports”. Raising awareness on these matters is indeed a need of the hour.

I find that communities that have not been directly affected by conflicts tend to assume that peace means the absence of warfare.

What is the most hopeful moment you've had as a peacebuilder?

When I conducted a storytelling session in Arippu, Northern Sri Lanka, I met a number of mothers who had accompanied their children to the program. The storytelling session was a novel experience both for children and adults. At the end of the program, the women promised me that they would read a book to their children before going to bed. Prior to this, they had viewed reading as a passive activity. Such daily accomplishments give me strength to continue my work.

Do you have any daily practices that give you peace?

Inner peace eliminates anxieties, fears and worries. Before getting out of bed in the morning, I meditate for a few moments. Before going to bed at night, I try to avoid using electronic devices and read a book. I meditate for a few minutes as well.

What is your message for people who want to build peace in their own communities?

Never underestimate the power of one person. Small-scale grassroots initiatives contribute to peace, even if the results are often hard to see. Little drops make the mighty ocean, and together we can achieve more.

Photo Courtesy of Writing Doves

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