Project Brings Together Divergent Ethnic Groups in Sri Lanka

A film documenting an annual pilgrimage in Sri Lanka shows the promise of peace for an island too long torn apart by war. The film was produced by the DAI-led Reintegration and Stabilization in the East and North (RISEN) project, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI).

In the film, colorful floats, dancers in vibrant costumes, and barefoot devotees from diverse religions fill the road as part of the annual pilgrimage to Katharagama on Sri Lanka’s southern coast.

The festival has long symbolized Sri Lanka’s potential for religious harmony. However, due to security and travel restrictions during the civil conflict, participation by communities in the North and East has been low in recent decades.

With RISEN’s support, young people from conflict zones in the North and East participated for the first time in the inter-religious festival. More than 300 young people from the northern districts of Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya, and Mannar, as well as from the eastern districts of Batticaloa and Ampara, joined the celebration alongside their peers from the southern district of Matara and thousands of other young people from the south. More than 100,000 people watched the evening parade that showcased 500 traditional performers and highlighted national unity.

“Now we have stories to tell our community and our family, such as we walked together, worked together for the community, and came together for our country,” said Yalini, a young woman from the eastern town of Vakarai.

These young people from different ethnic and religious groups—supported by OTI and the National Youth Service Council—joined together to clean up communities along the pilgrimage route and sensitized participants to health issues, such as dengue fever and alcoholism, through street dramas. They also distributed reusable cloth bags bearing the message “Called Together, One Nation, True Hope” to promote recycling and environmental protection.

RISEN also enabled Tamil performers from the North to participate in the Katharagama Perahera parade for the first time in decades.

“We gained an opportunity to form relationships with people from the North and East after decades of being separated because of war,” said Vishvanathan from Matara. “We realized we all share pain from the conflict. We really are one nation and one family.”