One by one the villagers arrive, each carrying a little blue book that chronicles a history of loss and heartache.
On the back of each book is the patient’s name. Inside, on the first page, a family tree. An “X” is scrawled next to each loved one who has died. A “?” next to the missing. Underneath the symbol is the cause, and more often than not, it is written in simple capital letters: “WAR.”
If bearable, their trauma would have remained private, behind the walls of modest homes in this northern part of Sri Lanka shaded by coconut trees and often still bearing the scars of bullets and fire. But it’s not. So they come for monthly public counseling, lining up to see Dr. V. Jegaruban.
Known as Dr. Jegan, he is a government psychiatrist who has made it his mission to help people piece their lives back together after the small island nation’s devastating civil war ended in 2009, after 26 years and more than 100,000 civilian deaths.
“Everyone is focusing on building roads, building houses, building hospitals after war,” Dr. Jegan told me this year, lamenting the lack of urgent attention to addressing “the collective trauma.”
“Very few people focus on the lives, on helping bring back the happiness,” he said. “It is not easy.”
Our world is one of traumatic wars that fade from one to another, rarely affording any chance for large parts of a generation to look beyond the daily struggle for physical survival.
The hope one clings to is this: Even the longest of wars do end some day. I have kept coming back to Sri Lanka to see what even a deeply scarred peace looks like.
Many of the fundamental inequalities and ethnic divisions that led to Sri Lanka’s civil war remain. But it is hard not to be moved by how everyday people, driven by a culture of volunteerism, have rallied to deal with the deeper trauma that continues to grip large parts of the society.
The government estimates that nationwide about 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s roughly 22 million people suffer from some form of mental disorder, with nearly 800,000 suffering from depression.
Research suggests those numbers are far worse in northern areas, where much of the fighting was concentrated. Small studies in the northeast around the war’s end found the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among children as high as 30 percent.
Sri Lanka’s suicide rates long remained among the 10 highest in the world. Improvements in infrastructure to access hospitals over the past decade, as well as restrictions on deadly pesticides that people have used to kill themselves, have improved things. But the country still ranks in the worst 20 percent.