One of the highlights of my recent trip through South Asia was returning to Sri Lanka.  The entire journey through the subcontinent was intense, with meetings scheduled back-to-back from 7 A.M. well into the late evening, including working lunches and dinners. Yet despite the busy schedule, it was a wonderful opportunity to see up close both the immense challenges on the ground and just some of the ways USAID is addressing them.

Sri Lanka was more of a homecoming for me.  I visited Sri Lanka in 1979 to attend a wedding of close friends – a British bride and Sinhala groom.  Their close friends were Tamil, from the north, and we continued the celebrations in Jaffna, during my three-week sojourn to Sri Lanka.  Jaffna was once the center of Tamil life, and full of excitement and prosperous.  Since the civil war erupted in 1985,  Jaffna sadly had been closed off to most foreigners.

During my recent visit, I was really looking forward to seeing a revived and rebuilt north. The government is rebuilding the infrastructure, but clearly nearly 30 years of war has left the population in the north severely traumatized.  Most striking was the impact on the women and their families.  Thousands of war widows are unable to reclaim family lands because they lack the documentation required to prove ownership.  As a result, even if they find land to settle on, they are prohibited from farming because they lack title to the land.  Poverty is extensive in these communities, and it impacts even male-headed families.

Although the government is providing jobs through infrastructure development, the jobs employ men imported from southern Sri Lanka, and not Tamils from the north.  In addition, large contingents of military soldiers are now embedded in massive camps dotting the landscape.  This has led to a breakdown in the social fabric, where survival requirements have pitted women-headed households with no employment opportunities against an influx of male soldiers and day laborers.  As I met with villagers to discuss their plight, my visit to Sri Lanka some 35 years ago became a distant past, with the country I was seeing now bearing no relation to what I saw in1979.

USAID has run a number of programs in Sri Lanka to both address the direct humanitarian crisis of the displaced persons, as well as to foster long-term interethnic reconciliation and cooperation. In the past, we’ve supported efforts to counsel widows and children affected by the trauma of war.

One USAID project assisted such widows by providing chickens as a source for family consumption and for sale. Now we are part of a public private partnership with a garment company to deepen interpersonal bonds among workers from several ethnic groups on the factory floor as part of the interethnic reconciliation process.

I’m hoping programs like these continue to provide support and raise awareness over the continuing humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka, and particularly in the north.  While I can’t return to 1979, I do hope one day to return to the lively and thriving Jaffna I remember.