One year after the attacks: healing wounds and breaking down barriers in Sri Lanka

The 2019 Easter attacks reawakened fears of violence that this island nation thought had been consigned to its history. An initiative to help people come to terms with the civil war in a peaceful way is working to counteract this and is bringing different groups together.

Attacks on several churches and hotels rocked Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 2019. They stirred up memories of years of clashes during the civil war, which had only ended in 2009. The fragile trust that had been built among different sections of the population was put to the test. Religious tension, primarily targeting the Muslim community, clearly re-emerged after the attacks.

The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH responded quickly to this new situation and provided direct support. GIZ has been working on behalf of the German Federal Foreign Office and the European Union since 2017, helping people to come to terms with the civil war in a peaceful way and bring about reconciliation in the country. This meant that GIZ was in a position to draw on existing partnerships and lessons learned to reach affected people directly and promote communication among groups.

More than 300 survivors and victims’ relatives received direct psychosocial care. The project assisted a grief support group and house visits for surviving relatives. Volunteers received key training in providing psychological first aid. Short videos that helped to prepare children to go back to school were produced for parents and teachers.

The project supported interfaith encounters in Negombo and Colombo where the attacks happened. Participants forged networks where different sections of the population could share their experiences – an important step to easing religious tension for a long time to come. A nun who took part in these meetings stressed her support for cohesion, ‘All religions – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam – have extremists. That doesn’t mean that we are all extremists. It’s time that we break down these barriers.’

Anti-Muslim sentiment swelled on social media after the attacks, as well. The project sends out positive messages on its social media channels to counteract this. It has also worked with a non-governmental organisation and more than 1,000 young people to produce several videos that tell stories of diversity and coexistence. And success is tangible: these videos have reached more than 1 million people.

The project is currently preparing a study on the dissemination of hate speech on social media. The insights should help to better guide work on reconciliation and dialogue – both online and in communities. The project is able to demonstrate its flexibility and adaptability in the coronavirus era, too, and is drawing on psychosocial support services. A network comprising more than 100 psychosocial experts is now able to communicate even better thanks to support from GIZ. They assist people as they deal with the social impacts of the restrictions put in place because of the virus.

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