Among the pages of a newspaper – With one memory…Lessons learnt from Nugelanda and the Pillayaradi fields…
One day in the late nineties, I visited the village of Nugelanda on a reporting assignment. I cannot recall the exact dates, perhaps it was the year 1999. Nugelanda is a rural village in the Uhana Divisional Secretariat in the Ampara District. It was a border village that was frequently attacked by the LTTE at that time.
At the end of the village boundary was a vast paddy field, that stretched like a river, about a kilometer wide. On the other side of the paddy field was the Pillaiyaradi Tamil village in the Batticaloa district.
As a journalist, I visited the Nugelanda village on this day because a noteworthy incident was reported in the vicinity of this paddy field. As far as I remember, I went from Colombo with Ven. Keeraththidiye Pagngnasekera Thero.
The village was in an uproar when we visited. The reason for this was the lack of approval from the security forces for an event scheduled for the next day.
We attempted to understand the situation. The settlements in this region, which belonged to the Galoya settlement scheme, were established in the late 1950s.
From the very beginning of the ethnic conflict in the country, the agrarian settlement schemes were also discussed as a major factor in the conflict. After the outbreak of the war, STF soldiers were stationed in Sinhala villages while LTTE terrorists were stationed in the Tamil villages. The result was that the paddy field became the boundary between the two camps. In the language of the battlefield, the paddy field became a no-man’s land and a war zone.
The problems faced by farmers on both sides with the loss of their livelihood did not come up for discussion at the national level. The focus of the media was primarily on the war and not on the problems of the people. However, there were also people who were sensitive to the common problems faced by those at the grassroots.
One of them was Fr. Nirmal Mendis of the Nugelanda Church. Kumari Kumaragamage, who was working among the Tamils in the Eastern Province, was another. Among them were also the monk of the village temple and several farmers. This discussion soon turned into a discussion between the two villages. After some rounds of discussions, the Nugeland farmers’ leaders addressed the Chiefs of the Security Forces in the South, including the Inspector General of Police, while the Pillayaradi farmers met with the LTTE leadership in the area. Both sides demanded that they be allowed to work freely in their own fields. Their common demand was “peace on the paddy field.”
After several rounds of talks the proposal was given the green light. Dates were also set for the resumption of paddy work. We went there to record the special moment when that auspicious event began.
But by the time we got there the day before, the situation had changed once again. That is why the village was in an uproar. The reason was the lack of guarantee for their security.
But the villagers had already prepared for the event to be held the next day. Sweetmeats had been prepared as if for a feast. Negotiations with the security forces resumed. While the results did not appear to be favourable, the villagers remained optimistic and prepared for the next day.
The next day the sun rose along with thousands of hopes. The villagers bearing catties, manatees and sweetmeats lined up in the village center. Despite new hopes, there was also a sense of doubt and curiosity among the people. No one could say from where and whose firearm would go off at any moment.
The next morning, as the sun rose over the paddy fields, the villagers walked along the deserted footpaths to their fallow paddy fields.
As the procession from Nugelanda entered the middle of the paddy field, a similar procession that had left the village of Pillayardi at the far end of the paddy field was approaching the middle of the paddy field as well. They met in the middle of the field, hugging each other and shedding happy tears.
They celebrated that triumphant moment by cooking milk rice in the middle of the field and eating it. Though it seemed like a triumphant moment at first glance, I felt that there was a mystery behind it that none of us could see as we returned to Nugelanda after the field festival.
“The event was successful, but do not write anything about it in the newspapers yet.”
The moment I received such advice from the activists involved in the program, I was left dumbfounded. Facing the dilemma between having the freedom to write and the responsibility of not writing, I returned to Colombo the next day after spending that night in Nugelanda.
Twenty-two years later, those old memories are largely forgotten. These stories are only occasionally remembered among old friends.
At that time another group from Colombo also attended the event. The story once again cropped up as I shared past memories with Udaya Kalupathirana, who was also a member of the other group. Following this I spoke to Kumari, and through her memories, we connected with a man who was an activist of the Nugelanda village at the time. His name is W.M Wijekoon. He acted as a village leader at the time.
“Today it may seem heroic, but back then it was a gamble between life and death. We only realized it much later … ”
He explained how the media also played a part in this.
“Losing our paddy fields was a problem for us, but not for everyone. Some of the media in this country looked at it the same way they looked at the war. They formed the opinion that the LTTE would benefit from this work. Meanwhile, the LTTE thought that this would benefit the Sinhalese. They never wanted Sinhala and Tamil people to work in unity. Surprisingly, some of our journalists did not even understand that. At the same time, some people accepted certain statements made by these journalists. We suffered on both sides. “
“The day before we went to the field our house looked as if a funeral had taken place. The family kept crying asking me to not go to the field. But I was in a position where I could not avoid it. So off we went. But with great hesitation. “
“The fear that the LTTE would come with the Tamil people and attack the village had spread across the village”
“That idea was created by the media. We slept in our homes for weeks after that in fear of death. We can’t imagine what would have happened if someone had come and fired at the village. It is not the LTTE that would have killed us, it would have been the villagers themselves. It was the media that created that idea …. ”
“That’s why we told you not to write anything about it. If this story appeared in the media, those people would start writing more against it. We would be in trouble yet again “
These words were enough to understand what kind of trust they had of the media.
However, peace in the field did not last more than one season. Peace in the field faded away with the stealing of a tractor by a Muslim man who had come to work in the fields next season.
With the passage of time, only one more informal memory of it remains. But there is much to be learnt from that. This experience illustrates the role that the media, in general, has played, especially in the conflict-ridden history of the country, as well as the level of confidence the people have in the media in this country.
Apart from this incident, I have visited several villages in the Galoya settlement and witnessed the tragedy following LTTE attacks. Like us, all other media in this country also reported those incidents.
But it is questionable whether it shed light to create a true understanding of these events for the readers of this country, or provoked the reader’s emotions and created further darkness.
We often tried to present those events in their historical evolution and context. This was done through the insight gained from practice and on the guidance received from our predecessors. Formal training began later. Therefore, I still believe that the inner realization of the subject is paramount in this field of work.
Journalists are often confronted with conflict. About 30 years ago, I first entered journalism because I was interested in agriculture and the environment. I have seen man clash with his land and the environment; with the same intensity that he fought with other men. We are still reaping the adverse consequences of this. That too is an unfinished struggle. Although the war is over, reconciliation between ethnicities and many other diverse communities is still a long way off. We need better media practices to facilitate this process.
The world will be a more beautiful day when the media can make society understand that we are members of the same society, despite the differences. That is the media lesson I learned 22 years ago, from the Nugelanda and Pillayaradi fields.