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.' "

With the streets lined with police, more than 20,000 people came to view the bodies of the baseball players, dressed in their school uniforms. The school built a monument to the players: It included their names and two shrapnel-scarred bats found on the train station floor. For weeks, the school's employees wore white, the color of mourning here. White flags flew around the campus. The students raised money for a water heater and donated it to a Buddhist temple atop Sri Lanka's tallest peak, in memory of the team. They also placed photos of the eight slain ballplayers on the mountaintop.

But it was the weeks and months after the funeral that proved most difficult. Teachers screened the 2006 American film "We Are Marshall," about a West Virginia football team that struggles to overcome grief and form a new team after a plane crash claims the lives of many players.

The principal and several teachers encouraged students to reach out to one another, visit the families of those who died and re-form the baseball team. While cricket remains Sri Lanka's favorite sport, baseball's popularity has grown, largely because Japanese donors have funded high school programs. Japan is one of Sri Lanka's largest backers.

"At first we thought, how can we ever let our children play again? Would there be security for school buses? Could our sons be safe even leaving the school grounds?" said Padmin Mahamidahige, whose son died in the attack. "Our religion teaches us to forgive. But I miss my son," she said, covering her face with a white gauzy scarf. "Maybe as Buddhists we have lost our way. Maybe this war has left us like that."

More than 70,000 people have died since the Tamil Tigers began fighting in 1983 for an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who are largely Hindu, after decades of what they say was discrimination by Buddhist Sinhalese-dominated governments.

The school's student body has always been a mix of ethnicities.

But in an example of how the war has cut across ethnic lines, a Tamil baseball team member -- the only Tamil on the team -- was killed in the attack.

Classmates carried 17-year-old Rajarathnam Ratheeswaran's coffin to a funeral ceremony, where his body was covered in marigolds. He was dressed in his black school blazer. A certificate he received for playing baseball was placed in the coffin, which was draped in the school's black-and-gold flag.

At his family's home, his mother, Wasantha Rajarathnam, said that at first she didn't think the team should be re-formed.

She showed off faded family photographs of her handsome, curly-haired son.

"Here he is at 8 when he chipped a tooth," she said. "Here is when he wore a fake mustache and played a Hindu king."

On the day of the bombing, she was attending a wedding and came home to learn her son had been killed.

"I can still remember my son's voice," she said, recalling a phone call shortly before the attack. "He was happy and said, 'Mama, I am coming home tomorrow. Will you make my favorite foods?' "

She also remembers when Sinhalese neighbors and parents from the school brought fresh roti bread and dishes of rice and fish to her house soon after her son's death.

"It was a sign that our pain was beyond being Tamil or Sinhalese," she said. "It gave me hope for Sri Lanka."

A few weeks ago, Samaraweera came to visit and told her that he wasn't sure he could make it out on the field to coach the younger players.

"I told him that the war is ending. He should try and play again," she said. "I recently heard that he listened."

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