Cinderellas of Chulipuram

Elmo Jayawardena in the Sunday Leader, 27 February 2011

The hamlet sleeps under a clear blue sky. The place and the people in this almost desolate corner of northern Sri Lanka have seen and suffered decades of turmoil and had accepted the devastation of the thirty year war as a way of life. Even in peace the scars of strife clearly remain. The recollections of the people are sad and are common, of the young going to fight and returning in coffins. Many of their loved ones are buried in shallow graves in makeshift cemeteries. Seldom are they marked with name and place for remembrance. This is what insignificance and down-right poverty does to the departed. Many have gone simply missing, expendable innocents of the battles that took place in the name of ethnic divisions. A lot died at tender ages, fighting a war that was not theirs to fight, dragged into a conflict they knew little about except that they were born to a different race, in a country they rightfully called home.Such is the sad legacy of war. Chulipuram today is inhabited mainly by the old, the widowed and the children, the rest of the inhabitants are missing, never to return again, almost looking like an unfinished jigsaw.

If there is to be peace, the seeds need to be sowed in the minds of the innocent. That is an unarguable sentiment. The war is over, the last corpse had been lifted with bullet wounds from the mud splattered banks of the Nandikadal Lagoon which marked a different dawn for different people, some to celebrate as victors and some to lament as the vanquished. Thirty years of a battle cry cannot be silenced and forgotten and erased from memory in a short time span. It applies equally to both sides. Seedlings of peace need to be planted and cared for to reap a harvest on a distant day where people of this blessed land could walk hand in hand as brothers and sisters. Such farming for collectively should

reach places like Chulipuram, where the distant and the almost forgotten survivors of the terrible war we all suffered languish in uncertainty.

The newspapers and the televisions often splash plans of reconciliation and paths to progress which to people in places like Chulipuram is pure mythology. They do not have televisions nor do they read newspapers. Their day is from dawn to dusk and hours of light where they irk a living from the land and the surroundings, a mere existence from hand to mouth, true to the expression. What would they know of a luxury bus service that travels on the A-9? Or of International aid and elaborate plans to prosper the north? What are visions of peace to children who walk to school barefooted on empty stomachs wearing a crumpled uniform and a rag-tag piece of cloth hanging from the neck with a safety pin that is called a school tie?

These are children who had heard the sounds of gunfire instead of nursery rhymes and seen death paraded constantly in their day to day life. I wonder what has remained in their memory as the remnants of the war to which they were born through no fault of theirs.

The Cinderellas of Chulipuram are just one of a lot that represent a different generation from Jaffna to Batticaloa. The ones in need of a little kindness, a little friendship and a little bridge built across racial divisions which would be the seedlings of peace I spoke about.

Thiruvadanilai Saiver Tamil mixed school has one hundred and seven students. One hundred and seven little minds that need to be rescued from the dilemma of ethnic disharmony of which they are incidental share holders. Mr Kadampanathan is the Principal of this tumbledown semi-building, ploughing a hard furrow running a school in the shade of “takaran” sheets and partitions of ‘this and that’ to section the class rooms. A few teachers make up the staff, a deep-dug well gives drinking water and the black boards are scratched and lined but suffice the writing of lessons with broken pieces of chalk. That is the school.

I was there in Chulipuram in the November of 2009 to open a small library in a project named ‘Peace begins with me’ organised by CandleAid Lanka. Thirty one such libraries sprang up from Jaffna to Kalmunai. Each library was sponsored mainly by the Sri Lankan Diaspora, a chance to link with the unknown and the unfortunates of the war. The word ‘race’ was replaced by something infinitely more beautiful called ‘us’ and thirty one seeds sprouted out in the name of uniting a nation. 

The project was simple and effective, nothing to reach the media headlines or a broadcasted ceremony in Rupavahini. There was no political mileage for anyone or a peg in corporate social responsibility with glossy year-end reports or otherwise. It was just saplings of peace planted for a united future that we all fervently hope for. The intention was to participate in search of racial harmony, none other than us the ordinary, the denizens of Lanka who believe in equality and peace in the real sense.

Then came the story of the Cinderellas of Chulipuram. A photograph of little girls and boys smiling for the camera, grouped together in a ramshackle school yard reached someone’s kind heart. Each child displayed a safety pin attached tie and strange as it seemed, their feet were bare, shoeless they stood under the blazing Jaffna sky, a touching sight that would strike a heart with an awareness of the hardships suffered by the children of the conflict.  

Inquiries came, “what can we do?”  “We have children too.”  “Can we buy shoes for them?” So said someone in a distant land and spread the word about the Cinderellas of Chulipuram and their bare feet. Kindness is inherent; it only needs conduits to travel from distant sources to meet the deserving wants of humanity. A link was made from Singapore to Chulipuram to collect funds to give shoes to all the students of Thiruvadanilai Saiver Tamil Mixed School.

They went to Jaffna, CandleAid’s representatives, a husband and wife combination who spearheaded the northern sector of its library project. The couple had worked tirelessly to open small libraries to link the northern children to us from the south and to the rest of the world. 

It was no horse drawn carriage they journeyed as in the Cinderella tale. They had no ‘glass-slippers’ from a fairy godmother to fit the feet of the children of Chulipuram. They travelled the A-9 by bus, having ordered the shoes from a Bata store in Jaffna along with two hundred and fourteen pairs of socks. The couple carried with them a duffel bag full of used tennis balls, given by another kind person who had just returned from Oman; his gift to the future Muralitharans, a simple gesture full of meaning.

The foot sizes had been drawn on paper and sent from Chulipuram to the Bata man in Jaffna to ensure the right sizes were purchased.  

What is there to write more about all this, the pictures tell the story, the before and after is a fairy tale by itself.  

“Some of them had never worn a pair of socks and we had to put them on to their tiny feet to show the way,” said the shoe providers from CandleAid. 

The Cinderella story of Chulipuram is now over and the children have a pair of shoes each and socks to match. Yes, it may not be much, maybe trivial too, as some would conclude. But wasn’t it the saintly Mahatma who said “it may be very insignificant in the greater picture of things what we do in the name of humanity, but it is vitally important that we do them.” Isn’t it also true that between the big things we cannot do and the small things we do not do, we often end up doing nothing?  

How distant are we from these war torn corners of a motherland that belongs to us all. The victory parades had been walked and celebrated and the victors heralded, the ones who fought and the ones who planned and sadly too the ones who stood nowhere in the battles and simply burrowed credit. Where do we go from here? Do we forget the vanquished? The easiest ones to forget are the defeated. I read the fancy rhetoric written by the learned in newspapers and see the endless TV arguments of politics and politicians vociferously voicing who the saint is and who qualifies as the villain in this eternal argument of the rights and wrongs of the ethnic conflict.

Kings have become prisoners and prisoners have become kings, what would the children of Chulipuram know about all this? 

It is them we need to reach, maybe a shoe, maybe a sock or maybe a used tennis ball. Something certainly is better than nothing, especially when ‘nothing’ is most of this big talk broadcasts usually achieve. Haven’t we seen so many myth-mode plans become moth infested and fizzling as time takes its toll?

Maybe it is a worthy thought to ponder what we owe this beautiful land in the name of peace. Isn’t it time to plant saplings of harmony in children’s minds and ensure racial divisions are eradicated?

Chulipuram was just one of them; we have thirty more places to reach with gestures of peace.   

Maybe you too would want to say ‘peace begins with me.’

I would silently nod ‘amen’.

Capt Elmo Jayawardena 

ONLINE Comment: Lasantha & Vinu Mendis February 28, 2011

Dear Uncle Elmo,
Thank you for writing about these wonderful children. They are indeed now a part of our lives. The effectiveness of any goodwill gesture goes beyond just the material grant, when the motive behind it is love, love & more love.
As a spin-off of Cinderella,the Humedica monthly medical camp is held regularly, in the school. Not only the students, but their siblings & parents, also receive treatment & preventive medication- a mere drop in the ocean of needs, but significant in it’s impact on a short-term basis, till the transport system is improved & the hamlet is better connected to basic amenities available 15km or so away, in Jaffna. We are now working on the play ground project you wanted. Our aim is to have the equipment installed by the 21st of March 2011.
We are blessed to be able to be of service.
Thank you for choosing us.
Warm regards,

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