Many children grew up knowing nothing but the trauma of war, which pitted the majority Sinhalese against the minority Tamil ethnic group.
In 2012, as the country was struggling with reconciliation, a privately funded group called the Music Project was launched. It aims to bring together children of different ethnicities through the formation of a youth orchestra.
Shalini Wickramasuriya is the driving force behind the project. Her inspiration for the venture, she explained, emerged from a similar project in Venezuela.
“In Venezuela, many children come from broken homes. Their childhood is disrupted by the violence that surrounds them. Music is a great healer, and it has done great things for children over there. I hope to emulate that over here with these children who have been exposed to the war,” she said.
The children chosen for the programme come from northern Sri Lanka, where much of the fighting took place, and they are selected from both Sinhala and Tamil areas.
Many of those who were chosen for the inaugural group in 2012 were directly affected by the war.
“Some of these children have lost parents to the war,” said Wickramasuriya.
“As the conflict was fought on ethnic lines, the idea that children from different races could come together to form an orchestra shows the country has a promising future.”
Music for friendship
Since 2012, the number of children in the programme has swelled. Today, nearly 500 children between the ages of 11-16 take part.
Because of difficult travel logistics, children are given music lessons at their schools through an after-school programme organised by the trainers of the Music Project. Twice a year, the kids and their parents come together for a one-week camp where they perform a concert.
The project has seen children from different ethnic backgrounds form strong friendships.
On the final day of the camp, the children spent their lunch break playing with one another, showing no signs of division along ethnic lines. In this part of Sri Lanka, students learn both the Tamil and Sinhalese languages in school, so they are able to easily communicate with one another.
At one point, Kavin, a 12-year-old Sinhalese boy, grabbed his friends – one of whom is a Tamil – and said that he wanted a picture taken of them.
“We are going to start a band together, but only after we play cricket for Sri Lanka,” he promised.
The boy explained that he started playing the flute when he was nine years old.
“I never played an instrument before. I only wanted to play cricket. Since coming here, I can play cricket all day with my friends and also practise for our band.”
Kavin responded in a confused manner when asked whether he enjoys playing in a band made up of Sinhalese and Tamil children.
“I like playing in this band because I like my music,” he said. “A lot of the others who play here are my friends, so I enjoy that also.”
In addition to the children’s friendships, Wickramasuriya said some of their parents are also becoming close.
“These parents have spent their lives associating [with people] from similar racial backgrounds. After 30 years of war, it is heartening to see friendships sprout up between the Sinhalese and Tamil parents.”
N Balakrishnan, the mother of a Tamil girl, said the programme has helped her to move on from the war.
“For almost 20 years we had very little contact with the Sinhalese. We only knew them as soldiers. Even when I was a child I had little contact with them. Thankfully, my daughter does not have that same issue,” Balakrishnan said.
She said her daughter is close friends with a Sinhalese girl who also plays the flute.
“They write letters to each other and are almost inseparable during the programme,” said Balakrishnan.
The music the children play is mainly classical Western music, and most of the trainers are specialised in the field. In the future, Wickramasuriya said she hopes to also have the children play traditional Sinhala and Tamil music.
“For this programme to be a real success, we must expose the children to the different cultures that inhabit the country,” said Wickramasuriya.
Now in its fourth year, the programme will soon attempt to hold concerts around the country, said Wickramasuriya.
“The musical talent that is being uncovered by this programme is astounding. The children deserve the opportunity to show off their talent to the country,” Wickramasuriya said.