Sri Lanka: What is peace?

As the World Food Programme receives the Nobel Peace Prize medal, 5 staffers look back at responses to conflict and climate change. By Sheshadri Kottearachchi

Pathmarajani Pathmanathan, Project Lead, WFP Sri Lanka

Peace to me is being able to go to bed with a clear mind and waking up the next morning with the same peace of mind — knowing that there will be nutritious food on the table.

My responsibilities while working at WFP during Sri Lanka’s civil conflict [of 1983–2009] covered every aspect of food distribution — from the warehouse right down to the distribution locations within the conflict zone. Families living within conflict zones were constantly worried about whether they would have enough food for their children.

When there was a lack of food, people had no peace of mind. They felt threatened and this resulted in disputes among each other. Where there was food, people were less anxious and had a better chance of living peacefully.

Flooding in the south-west of Sri Lanka in May 2018. Photo: WFP/Asela Bandar

I’ve worked as a Project Lead for WFP for over 17 years. During the conflict, I was positioned as a food-aid monitor in support of the National School Meals Programme and oversaw the supply of food for displaced families who were living in camps within the conflict zones.

Throughout the conflict, WFP provided targeted nutritional support for pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and children aged under-5, by providing them with supplementary and readymade food items. There were several such programmes, adapted to meet specific nutritional needs, which are sometimes overlooked during severe hardships.

Karunadasa Liyanage, Driver, WFP Sri Lanka

Driving into the school premises in the North during Sri Lanka’s civil conflict, I knew it wouldn’t be long before the children would come running outside.

Karunadasa Liyanage. Photo: WFP

After several weeks of us delivering food and cooking utensils for the School Meals Programme, young students lit up when they saw the large blue logo on the WFP vehicles.

Since we were distributing schoolbooks along with food items, the children would eagerly wait to see what new books they would receive. It didn’t take long for me to become a familiar face among the community, and someone they could trust.

I’ve worked with WFP Sri Lanka for over 20 years. During the height of the civil conflict, I was responsible for transporting food and supplies to families living within the conflict zone in the Northern Province. Checkpoints and bad road conditions made the journey take up to six hours.

Working in a conflict zone is challenging. I have witnessed landmines exploding on my way to work. When I took this job, I committed my life to it. I knew of the risks it entailed but I also knew that it was my responsibility to help as best as I could.

Based on my experience in assisting vulnerable communities within conflict zones, my understanding of peace is one where different communities can live together in unity. WFP’s award of the Nobel Peace prize is a global recognition of the organization’s ability to help unify communities, by enhancing food security during emergency situations including climate shocks.

I’ve also seen how heavy rainfall and drought affect farming communities. People can’t grow their own food, and this leads to food insecurity. During the conflict, WFP provided rice, sugar and oil for families in the North. Most of the schools in the area benefited from the School Meals Programme. We also provided packets of a maize-based supplementary food product and schoolbooks for the children.

Muthukumar Arulmoli, Driver, WFP Sri Lanka

Muthukumar Arulmoli. Photo: WFP

I was leading a convoy of vehicles when I smelled something burning. Glancing at my rear-view mirror, I could see dark, grey clouds billowing, not too far behind us. It was then that I realized we had narrowly missed a bomb blast on our route back to the WFP office after delivering food to a conflict zone.

Working in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province during the height of the civil conflict meant that getting caught in crossfires and bombings was a recurring fear. I often drove swiftly to avoid any incidents. When I returned to the office that day, my entire body was shaking but I couldn’t dwell on my worries for too long as there was work to be done.

My priorities as a WFP driver in the North involved transporting staff and supporting daily food delivery programmes during the 26-year long civil conflict. I learned on day one, food security is the foundation for peace. Until then, I believed peace to only be freedom from fear of violence and the absence of conflict; for people to be able to gather safely and live a calm and happy life.

In my role, I was responsible for the safety of the staff members whom I would transport every day. At the time, one of our main concerns was avoiding M18 Claymore mines.

In addition to staff transport, I was also part of the food supply service for vulnerable communities living within the conflict zone. We faced poor road conditions and the risk of running into landmines. We had to leave early in the morning in order to reach the warehouse on time. We travelled for nearly 82 km, back and forth, daily. As we worked long hours and were regulars at the food distribution activities, we soon became well-known among residents in the area.

Some would burst into tears of relief when they saw us — many hadn’t seen such vast quantities of food for months.

When WFP received the Nobel Peace prize, it was a proud moment for us all.

Sivayogan Arjun, Supply Chain Focal Point, WFP Sri Lanka

While working in Sri Lanka’s conflict zone in the Northern Province, I met a young mother with three children under the age of five. She did not know where her husband was. As a mother, she was unable to leave for work and was in a very vulnerable position. When we visited her home I noticed how she would leave rice to soak in water overnight, to be eaten the next morning with sliced onions. They would then put the remaining rice back in the water to be eaten the following day.

This is where my understanding of peace comes from. When there is peace, people have freedom and access to basic rights. One of these basic rights is access to food without restriction. During the 26-year civil conflict in Sri Lanka, there was limited access to food and other essentials within the conflict zones.

I joined WFP in 2005 and started work as a Programme Assistant at one of the field offices in Sri Lanka.

During Sri Lanka’s civil conflict 120,000 vulnerable people were supported through our feeding programme alone.

There were around 13 camps for Internally Displaced Persons in the Jaffna district for which WFP distributed cooked meals.

WFP didn’t only provide food during the conflict. It boosted the morale of people.

Yaseer Arafath, Finance Officer, WFP Sri Lanka

Working as a National Finance Officer for WFP during the civil conflict , I imagined that my priorities would be limited to managing cash transfers. However, I was often directly exposed to and deeply affected by the plight of the communities living in the conflict zones. I recall an incident in the Northern province of Sri Lanka where an elderly lady came to collect her money from WFP’s cash distribution point. After seeing her a few times, I learned that she was a cancer patient. In addition to looking after her orphaned granddaughter, she was dependent on WFP’s cash assistance for her healthcare needs. We were glad to have been able to provide her with consistent support during such a difficult period.

I have been working with WFP for nearly 15 years. Over the years, I have worked in several countries such as Myanmar, Nepal, Iraq and Papua New Guinea in emergency operations and development.

From what I have experienced, we can get one step closer to peace when resources are easily accessible to everyone. In many cases, nutritious food is a resource that isn’t available to all, and I’ve seen this resulting in conflicts and disagreements.

WFP’s work includes supporting vulnerable people during conflicts and natural disasters. In 2005, we provided support to communities ravaged by the tsunami. In 2009, during the height of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil conflict, we were able gather our resources within a short period of time to support over a million beneficiaries.

In my role within the Finance Unit, I was required to provide front-line assistance during the civil conflict. Banks were not operating in the conflict zones, the country did not have internet banking facilities, nor were there automatic transfer facilities. We made sure that the cash was utilised appropriately. There were several instances where cash distributions to the locals were made in-person.

Learn more about WFP’s work in Sri Lanka

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme

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