Post-War Sri Lankans Get Back to Business

Sri Lanka lake

In northern Sri Lanka, Celestamma Sandabale uses a diesel-fueled pump to bring water from a nearby pond to her vegetable garden, where she grows chilies and other produce. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

“My son was a soccer star. He won first prize in our area, and went to the capital for a tournament.” Sixty-five-year-old Pakkiyanathan’s eyes are proud when he remembers his family’s life before war struck his village. “He was excellent.”

A rice farmer with six acres in northern Sri Lanka, Pakkiyanathan was getting by before a catastrophic civil war hit. “Because of God’s grace, I was earning enough money and our lifestyle was OK.” The family had food and shelter, and a steady, if small, source of income.

But starting in 1998, that security began slipping away. Eventually the conflict that had been roiling for decades in this island nation came to their doorstep. “Our village was caught in the middle. Each side was shelling and nine people died, so we left,” he remembers.

Sri Lanka peppers

CRS gave this farmer a water pump, enabling him to grow more plants. He is making a good profit and saving it, with plans to buy a tractor. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Like hundreds of thousands of people in northern Sri Lanka, they ended up in a camp for displaced people. For twelve years they lived in the camp, and were allowed to do sharecropping on borrowed land nearby. But an explosive device on that land meant to kill pigs had a tripwire, and one night Pakkiyanathan’s 21-year-old son accidentally tripped it.

“My son was heartsick that he lost his leg, and so was I.” Though it happened six years ago, Pakkiyanathan still weeps as he remembers it. “It was just crushing, emotionally.”

The war ended in mid-2009, but it wasn’t until January 2011 that Pakkiyanathan and his family were permitted to return home. Like most of their neighbors, they had nothing; houses had been destroyed, fields lay fallow, and no one had money for food, let alone seeds and farming tools.

To help returning families help themselves, Catholic Relief Services talked to villagers about ways they could earn money. For the majority, it was farming or raising livestock–so CRS distributed seeds, tools, goats and more. But for the many people who’d lost limbs to bombs, farm work wasn’t always an option.

“My son can’t work in the fields, but he can work in a restaurant,” says Pakkiyanathan. CRS gave the family what they needed to start small roadside café—things such as dishes, cooking pots, and flour. Thousands of other people received similar help, with each family choosing two livelihood options—like a sewing machine, or a bicycle for door-to-door sales. That way, they weren’t dependent on only one income stream. Pakkiyanathan chose the restaurant package along with a farming kit; then his family got down to work.

“My son makes the tea and brings the food to people. We serve rolls, tea, and snacks,” he explains. The family earns about three dollars a day in profit from the restaurant, enough to jumpstart their rice farm. “My rice paddy is clear, with no landmines. We’re already farming it,” he says. As they feed others, they can feed themselves: “If not for this, we’d only eat one meal a day.”

Pakkiyanathan is happiest about his son’s cafe. “Now he has his own business,” he says with pride. “I don’t know if a woman will marry him, but I hope so. He is still heartsick, but at least he can earn money, like other young people. ”

With funds from CRS donors and the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, and partnering with local organization Caritas, CRS has helped thousands of families earn their own living and regain their independence.

Their lives are changed, but not over.

“I am so grateful for what you did. My son is more active now,” Pakkiyanathan smiles. “He has faith and confidence that he has a future.”

Laura Sheahen is CRS’ regional communications officer for Asia. She is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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One Response to “Post-War Sri Lankans Get Back to Business”

  1. Fred Hatch Says:

    Good article telling of just a small bit of the good that CRS does.
    Did his son get a prosthetic leg from the CRS program in Vavunya?

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