On a Ballfield in Sri Lanka, Healing the Wounds of War

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 14, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- With his worn baseball glove freshly oiled, Praneeth Samaraweera stood under a bright sun and began teaching a young player how to hold a bat steadily and swing straight through a pitch.

It was something that even weeks earlier he wasn't sure his emotions could handle.

Just over a year ago, eight players -- more than half his high school baseball team -- were killed when a suspected Tamil Tiger rebel suicide attacker detonated her explosives at the city's main railway station. The attack came as team members were returning from a tournament and just as their coach was buying them a celebratory round of ice cream. The six other members of the team, including Samaraweera, had returned a day early.

For Samaraweera, 19, helping coach the school's new team is a kind of redemption.

"I felt sick. I wasn't sure if I could ever play baseball again. We had all played ball together since the sixth grade," Samaraweera said softly, covering his eyes and turning away to cry as he took a break and sat on the stands recently. "I lost my best friends. For a long time, I just wanted to sit at home. But I made a choice to help the next generation. It somehow helps me."

Across this island nation, nearly every life has been affected by the quarter-century-old civil war. But as the conflict appears to be ending on the battlefield, the country -- like the baseball team -- now has to figure out how to get on with living.

Many say they have to make a decision: harbor resentment and anger or forgive and try to foster some form of harmony in this divided and multiethnic nation of 21 million.

For baseball to continue at D.S. Senanayake school, parents, teachers, coaches and students had to rebuild the team, even when they wanted to quit.

Those who were killed were school heroes, clean-cut jocks who earned good grades and were popular with girls and teachers, said the school's principal, Asoka Hewage, who on a recent day wore a tie in the school's black-and-gold colors, with a matching black blazer.

"The depth of the grief was hard to really comprehend. Many of the students lashed out and said a new team should never be formed again. Imagine: There were empty seats in classes. Most of the students had never lost anyone in their young lives before," Hewage said. "I felt first we had to give it time, mourn. We shouldn't make any rash decisions in the midst of suffering. I feel the same about our nation right now. We need to heal together."

In searching for a way to unite the community, students and parents wanted to hold a viewing for the slain students at the school. But Hewage, concerned about security, said no.

"Then the president called. He offered his condolences. He asked if he could do anything for us," Hewage recalled in his bustling office at the school, which has 6,000 students. "I said, 'You can help us recover by helping us mourn.' "

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