After a delay of around 30 minutes, the bus from Jaffna rolled in through the gates of the Tourist Board Hotel in the historic city of Anuradhapura. Suddenly the DIRC members who were milling around me in the conference hall (which was actually the restaurant) hurriedly arranged themselves in a rigid perpendicular line which would have made a military officer proud. Each of them carried a betel leaf, dressed in their finest attire. As the persons from the North emerged from the stairs, the women and girls who had lined up at the top of the stairs ambushed them with smiling faces greeting them by offering the betel leaf they were holding. Then as if these people had been their best of friends, the Anuradhapura DRC members grabbed their Northern counterparts from their arms and guided them to their seats and initiated a conversation using a mixture of broken Tamil, Sinhalese and wild gesticulations. This may sound as being extremely superficial to a reader, yet I could see that the members from Anuradhapura were making a concerted effort to give their Tamil brethren a hearty welcome. The persons from the North, who initially had been surprised by such an enthusiastic welcome, seemed to start losing their jitters as the meeting progressed. For all that I had heard of mutual suspicion between Tamils and Sinhalese, the group here seemed to show little reluctance at mingling with each other.
The ceremony which was graced by religious leaders from Anuradhapura and the North lasted one hour. Each of the speakers made a passionate appeal to practicing universal values such as brotherhood and tolerance that were essential to guaranteeing a peaceful society. The conclusion of the ceremony saw the exchange of gifts between the two groups of people. The party from the North gifted samples of Northern Sri Lankan cuisine consisting of “Thal Alla,” “Thal Kavum,” and “Thal Hakuru” while they in return received miniature replicas of the “Sanakada Pahana,” a cultural artifact inextricably linked with the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
After some hurried goodbyes, the group then took off to Puttalam where they were joined by members from the Puttalam DIRC on their visit to the South. After lunch, religious leaders from Puttalam, informed the gathering of successful stories of religious harmony in the area, claiming that it was a model town which other parts of the country should emulate. Ven. Chandrarathana Thero recalled how on the recent passing away of a Chief Buddhist monk, all of the students of Arabiya College in Puttalam had attended his funeral despite they themselves following a faith which was drastically different from Buddhism.
The team then took off to Colombo, stopping on the way at the Don Bosco Training Center in Negombo, one of eight training centers in the country. The Don Bosco initiative was geared at providing valuable vocational programs to youth from all backgrounds who had failed in their secondary educational pursuits, let alone those who couldn’t secure admission into the local university system. One of the admirable features of this program, was that unlike many of the private tertiary educational institutes that had popped up in Sri Lanka, the Don Bosco Institute made an active effort to provide their students with employment opportunities upon completion of their courses. It truly was a remarkable initiative that gave a second chance to youth to make a valuable contribution to society. Many of the members from the North concurred that the Don Bosco Model was one which should be worth considering when addressing the humanitarian problems created by the war. Another more impressive reason to duplicate the Don Bosco model was that despite being run by the Catholic Church, youth from all religious backgrounds were welcome to enroll in the courses offered, by the organization. We were informed that the Catholic Church took special measures to provide facilities for Non Catholics to observe their respective faiths.
After a quick tour of the Negombo branch, which consisted of large workshops, residential dormitories and sports facilities, the group headed to the renowned Sri Lanka Foundation Institute for the night.