Where there is art there is hope

How the disabled - many of them victims of a long-running and bloody conflict - are helping bridge t

The island of Sri Lanka should be a tropical paradise. With its golden palm-fringed beaches, diverse vegetation and dramatic landscapes, it is a stunningly attractive country. Lying off the southern tip of India, it was known to Arab geographers as "Serendip" and it can boast a rich and colourful history.

Over the centuries, the island was settled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and eventually the British who seized control of the land then called Ceylon. This year Sri Lanka celebrates the 60th anniversary of gaining full independence from British rule.

Sri Lanka has all the ingredients necessary to be a popular tourist destination. But this most beautiful and seductive country is also one of Asia's most tragic. Owing to its position, Sri Lanka has sometimes been referred to as "India's tear drop" and sadly this name is now all too appropriate. For the last 25 years life on the island has been marred by a bitter conflict raging between the country's two main ethnic groups, the majority Buddhist Sinhalese community and the minority Tamils.

In the 1980s, a civil war broke out when the Tamils began a military campaign aimed at securing self-rule. Although most of the fighting has occurred in the north and east, few parts of the country have remained unaffected. So far the violence has claimed the lives of more than 60,000 people as well as causing immense damage to the country's economy.

Inevitably, the conflict has also increased the number of disabled Sri Lankans. Many soldiers and civilians have incurred injuries during the fighting. However, it is disabled people who are at the forefront of attempts to break down barriers between Sri Lanka's ethnic communities.

A decade ago, an innovative organisation called the Sunera Foundation was established. Sunera is the name of a mountain in Hindu mythology. In the Sinhala language, it means "hope" and that is what it provides for people in Sri Lanka who have been born disabled or acquired a disability during their life. Sunera's purpose is to encourage disabled people's creativity and self-expression through the performing arts. It runs training programmes in music, dance, drama and art, and many of those who attend its workshops are victims of the civil war.

Sunera's workshops tend to begin with simple communication exercises designed to help participants overcome their inhibitions. This is followed by a mixture of music, songs, puppetry and mime. Sessions usually culminate with participants putting on a group performance. Since Sunera began, its work has expanded considerably and today as many as 750 people attend Sunera workshops each week all over the island. At least once a year, all the workshop participants are given the opportunity to perform in front of a wider audience at a drama festival in their region.

These shows can have a huge impact. Disabled people are among the most marginalised in Sri Lankan society. As in many parts of the world, disabled people on the island are often regarded with suspicion and stigmatised. Some families see them as a source of shame and consequently try to hide them away. Sunera aims not only to uncover disabled people's hidden talents but also to break down prejudice towards disability. It wants Sri Lankans to celebrate difference rather than fear it, and to recognize how much disabled people can contribute to their country. By giving Sunera's participants a chance to display their skills at public performances, the foundation develops disabled people's self-esteem, dignity and confidence, raises their status within their family and the wider community, and enhances their integration into society. For the first time, individuals that may have been written off by their community are able to demonstrate what they are capable of achieving.

There are other benefits as well. In recent years Sunera has improved participants' access to doctors by holding "medical camps" alongside the workshops. It also indirectly helps family carers who accompany disabled people to the workshops, by enabling them to meet other carers in a similar position to themselves. In this way, carers can share experiences and support one another in the challenges they face.

Sunera was set up by a formidable woman, Sunethra Bandaranaike, who belongs to one of Asia's most distinguished political dynasties. Both her parents became prime minister of Sri Lanka (her mother was the first female prime minister in the world) and her sister used to be president. But Sunethra decided that her life would take a different course. She rejected a career in politics and instead focuses her energy on the Sunera foundation.

Sunera involves people from all ethnic and religious groups and acts as a force for harmony in an otherwise divided society. Individuals from all backgrounds are welcomed at Sunera workshops - Sinhala, Tamil, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian. Its inclusive productions have been seen not only in Sri Lanka but around the world, including the UK, Australia and India.

In 2001, a Sunera group of 45 mostly-disabled Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims came to London to perform their moving play Flowers Will Always Bloom, a powerful portrayal of the ethnic conflict from both communities' point of view. The play evocatively depicts how two children are separated from their mother during warfare, found and adopted by a childless Tamil couple and grow up in a refugee camp. What made the play particularly haunting was the fact that many of the actors on stage had been injured during the civil war or become refugees themselves. It was dedicated to all victims of armed conflict around the world.

In 2006 a British trust, the Friends of Sunera Foundation, was formed to increase awareness of Sunera and to enable more people in the UK to support the organisation's work. As well as raising funds for Sunera, FSF aims to help people with relevant skills and talents to go out to Sri Lanka to work with the foundation.

In recent months the violence in Sri Lanka has escalated again. At the start of this year, the Sri Lankan government pulled out of a ceasefire agreement with the Tamil Tigers. Since then, two government ministers have died in bomb blasts blamed on Tamil Tiger rebels and in April dozens of soldiers were reportedly killed in clashes in northern regions.

Only last month, bomb attacks on two crowded buses and a commuter train in Colombo left 64 people dead and more than 100 injured. The rebels are determined to cause disruption and carnage in the south by targeting public transport. Meanwhile, the army is accused of killing civilians in the north. Once again, aerial bombing, roadside mines, suicide attacks, restrictions on movement and arbitrary arrests are becoming part of day-to-day life for large numbers of Sri Lankans.

Thankfully, Sunera manages to continue its work despite the deteriorating security situation. Its dedicated staff and volunteers ensure Sunera workshops keep going even in the most politically unstable parts of the country. At this time its message of celebrating difference and promoting diversity is more important than ever. All those disabled people, Sinhalese and Tamil, currently taking part in Sunera activities are showing the rest of their country how people from different backgrounds can live, play and work together in peace. It's a lesson many non-disabled Sri Lankans need to learn quickly. But as the Sunera motto says: "Where there is art, there is hope".

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