Journalist attacked in Sri Lanka: how far away are we?

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“Just got attacked. Driver beaten. They’ve taken my colleague. Holding him hostage saying they will only release him [if] I return,” I spotted in my FB news feed one of the latest status updates from Megara Tegal, a Sri Lankan journalist and my former colleague, with whom I was working on a the World Conference on Youth just about a month ago in Colombo.

Around 9 am (UTC+2:00) Megara posted that in Aluthgama clashes between Budhists and Muslims six people were already confirmed dead, “Heading over to Aluthgama. Curfew is still on but was told they’ve got petrol bombs ready in case violence breaks out again. Not sure which side.”

My other former colleague, also a Sri Lankan journalist Yudhanjaya Wijeratne wrote today in his blog:

“Aluthgama, a town situated on the Galle-Colombo road, is on fire. The properties of several Muslim citizens are burning. The violence has spread to Beruwela, where Deputy Minister Faizer Mustapha is reportedly walled up inside the Nallemiyah Arabic College in Beruwala, with an armed mob standing outside the gates. In Dehiwala, almost at the feet of Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, a few stones have begun flying”.

As The New York Times posted, “three peo­ple have been killed and 78 in­jured.” “They fought us face to face for two hours,” said M. Hus­sein, a Mus­lim man in­volved in the fight­ing on Sun­day night. “The po­lice didn’t show up un­til af­ter peo­ple were dead.”

According to BBC, Muslims are “being pulled off local buses and beaten,” “unconfirmed reports say security forces also used gunfire,” “Muslim homes and a mosque were stoned.”

Aljazeera wrote that “the two groups attacked each other with stones in fighting over the weekend”

The civil war ended in Sri Lanka in 2009, however recently the tensions started building up again “with Muslims calling on the government to protect them from hate attacks by Buddhists, and Buddhists accusing minorities of enjoying too much influence”

I am recalling the week in Colombo, working in a team with talented Sri Lankan journalists and bloggers and interviewing youth activists from all over the world. One of the panels I attended invited young Sri Lankans to speak about their experience in the battlefield. Several boys and girls, about my age – all of them went through the long process of rehabilitation, finished education, some got married, and seemed very calm sharing with us what they went through.

I do remember those faces. And I can’t imagine what they must be feeling right now, when the memories of the war revive together with the clashes of violence escalating again.

I also remember how during the conference opening ceremony one of the moderators announced President Mahin­da Ra­japak­sa as “our leader, our inspiration, our father, who brought prosperity and peace to Sri Lanka”.

As the latest updates say, Megara is now safe and her colleague was released. I don’t want to end this post with making any statements of my own or raising any questions.  What is clear now – the peace is gone.


#WCY2014: Young, blond and in Colombo

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Part of the most amazing Social Media Fellows team

“Where are you from?” – “Moldova, you know, it’s in Eur…” – “Can I take a picture with you?” – was the ritual I kept going through several times a day. At some point I lost track – I think I smiled into 15-20 cameras with quite random people by my side. Once even with some Sri Lankan official who shook my hand and even bothered to give his business card.

I must say, being blond means belonging to a minority, which is subject to an extremely positive discrimination. Everyone is willing to help you out. Although I should admit that the WCY volunteers were very helpful not only to me. In spite of normal organizational mess, they always knew ‘what, where and how’ – and even if not, they were eager to solve the problem. Just for you.

We felt like stars. Amazing hotel rooms, red carpets, cameras flashing non-stop – and these masses of Sri Lankan people brought to greet us, play music for us, dance for us, listen to us, or just stand with flags in a life corridor towards the opening ceremony. I am 24 and I’ve never consciously witnessed this kind of political rhetoric. I let myself be curious and journalistically excited.

The President of Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa. Speech during the opening ceremony

“That’s our leader, our inspiration, our father, who brought prosperity and peace to Sri Lanka…”A country with a totally different perception of leadership. With memories of war being fresh, people free and the power strong. To me, a European-student-being, this was exotic.

A word on the opening ceremony. One month before the conference started, it was mysteriously moved to a different city: Hambantota, which happened to be four hours away from Colombo. City of origin of the presidents’ son, promoted as Sri Lankan ‘city of the youth’. Rumors suddenly proclaimed WCY going political. One plane with high level officials, around 7 buses with honorable youth delegates, a total of 9 hours on the road for a two-hour ceremony – and an unexpected beach party. For kids – to socialize.

DSC_1266When a conference unites 1500 people in a permanent chaos of negotiations, workshops, side events and coffee breaks happening in several buildings, it’s insanely hard to define a team. Suddenly everyone in the room looked so similar – it was just as amazing as being surrounded by so many very different, but all beautiful faces. ‘Europe and the other’ regional meeting gathered a minority. And it was fun – being one. We were global. We all had a common mission (sorry for the drama, but it really was so).

Last day of negotiations, 10 pm, room half empty, next morning closing ceremony and departures. Error – consensus still not found. “Dear delegates we have substantially completed our work, except for one paragraph…” Guess what , non-discrimination grounds once again in the spot-light.  “The meeting should be suspended. We need time to consult our ministry” – with this being said on one end of the world, a transsexual was about to win a European song contest in the other.

You will not find ‘sexual orientation’ in the Colombo Declaration on Youth, but there is a separate chapter on gender equality, including “other gender identities,” as well as many other successes.  With the major one – having youth and governments sign one document.

For the first time in history.


And I became part of it. With many other personal ‘firsts’: My first jetlag and first ocean, Indian. First tuc-tuc survival, and then second, and third (addictive, I assumed). My first mango, eaten entirely and personally cut. First papaya and first waiter giggling to his colleague “blah-blah-blah-papaya-blah-blah”). First pool party. First scoop in its classical connotation and first hashtag I successfully threw into Twitter.


It was my first time in Asia. In fact, not just Asia. It was my first time outside Europe. Observing world and all kinds of its beauty – from a truly global perspective, for the first time in my life. I can’t say that I’m simply thankful. I am happy and honored.
Friday, 11 pm, negotiations room – the last survivors. Declaration adopted!




Who Are They? #WCY Youth Now and in 10 Years

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DSC_1185“What will you be when you grow up” is a quite irrelevant question at the WCY as everyone agreed that we all can be leaders right now. And we are. When you are a journalist you can approach people with silly questions. So I picked this one, only changing “grow up” to “ten years.” Meet the WCY youth – reality check and ambitions in one story.

Oh boy, I don’t think so far,” – replied Chernor, youth advocate and a formal refugee from Sierra Leone. In ten years he will be doing what he is doing now – simply educating world citizens.

John from UK has own business and has never studied. In ten years he will definitely be somewhere, but his “thinking hasn’t decided where.”

Vanessa is studying psychology, Buddhism and Poli in Sri Lanka. In 10 years she will be back to Brazil “living with crazy people” and working in a mental health hospice, which are at the moment prohibited in her country.

Her friend Luiz also from Brazil took a year off from psychology studies to “do something great” and moved to Sri Lanka. In 10 years he will be teaching, “doesn’t matter what”.

Damien is president of Amnesty International group in his university in Dublin, and in ten years wants to work with the EU and UN on development and youth policies, researching how religion overlaps with law. “So worst case scenario – just a diplomat.”

Philipp from Danemark is also a president, but of one of the student unions. In ten years he’d like to be Simba from the ‘Lion King’ – “good looking and a king!

Jerry from Netherlands is a board member of the European Youth Forum. In ten years he will probably be still there, although “fully educated and fully employed.”

Meanwhile Joan is already full time unemployed volunteer” at the Spanish Youth Council and in ten years he will be the Spanish negotiator for the #Post2040.

Inder studies economics in the U.S. and works in a think tank. In 10 years he will be saving the world in a UN agency, “throwing money on developing countries and [turning to Joan sitting next to him] being ignorant to the European Youth Council.”

Stephanie from Malta is working in the EU Council in Brussels. In 10 years she will be influencing decision-making on social issues, manipulating leaders of her own country to make world a better place.

Mayor of the capital and ambassador to the world!” said Doru from Moldova, who is now president-volunteer of the National Youth Council, entrepreneur and a teacher.

Ahmad is a “semi-doctor,” studying medicine in Egypt. In ten years he will hopefully be a doctor earning enough money to get into aviations, “and become a public health advocate, and a pilot, and an ironman.”

“Do you know the Pogo cartoon?” asked me David from Sweeden. I didn’t, so I “googled” and found some environmental picture that made sense. In ten years David will be Pogo, wise and with big ears “living in a changed world”. As for now he represents focal point for Major Group of Children and Youth on sustainable consumption and production and is “frustrated over the crazy state of the world with dual unsustainability”.

Lydia is the UN Youth delegate for Austria, but in ten years she will “talk a bit less and change a bit more.” The former UN Youth delegate for Austria Aleks is now Youth delegate of Vienna and in ten years expects to be “active, still ambitious and still positive.”


Technology Making Agriculture “Sexy”

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DSC_1295“I understand that agriculture is not a sexy occupation anymore. But technology can make a difference,” said economist and researcher Anushka Wijesinha (@anushwij), referring to the 70% of youth in Sri Lanka, which live in rural area and mostly work in agriculture. Three happy end stories showing  how changing landscape of technology can have a catalytic impact on youth.

Story #1

Just 50,000 rupees of investment in the irrigation kit brought a young farmer from Batticaloa over 200,000 rupees in additional profit. He wasn’t watering the farm with a hose for hours each day- he just switched it on and waited in the shade. A sack of chillies from his farm increased in weight by 10 kilos. Increased yields, improved community’s food security and increased income. More than anything, it made agriculture an attractive option for this young farmer again.

Story #2

A mobile service provider for only 20-50 rupees a month shares with farmers information on food prices. With people stationed at a vegetable collection center and updating every hour, most of the farmers are signed up for it. A young boy wasn’t planning on harvesting  sweet potatoes this morning. But as soonas he checked the prices and found that they were better than expected, he immediately got to work with others, harvested it all and took potatoes to market. He made about 20% extra income that day.

Story #3

In a community media center in a village kids were taught basic computer skills. When Anushka visited them,  there were 14 year olds creating a flash animation from scratch in 10 minutes. Some of them had even been given outsourced web design jobs from the city. They had the skills, and now they could aspire to a better life than their parents. Life without poverty.


Unemployed Mothers, Forced Labor and UN Internships

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DSC_1287Moldovan casinos advertising jobs for “good looking women only” or requirement for a cleaning lady in a Romanian Orthodox church to be Orthodox – are just a few examples of discrimination in labor market worldwide. More on the youth discrimination in the interview with Reiko Tsushima, ILO Senior Gender Specialist.

What groups of young people are mostly affected by labor discrimination?

Gender remains the most sensitive ground. Employers don’t want to hire young women, because of maternity leave payment. Women of reproductive age are particularly affected by this trend, and also once they have a family. In countries like Moldova, where childcare systems are yet not well established, women have to become part of informal economy, or end up working part time, which also lowers their income and hinders career growth. If a family ends up with a divorce – these women are left alone on the labor market with no education or work experience needed.

UN agencies became nowadays part of the new global phenomenon of internships, which are mostly unpaid. How does it coincide with the UN mandate of advocating for youth rights and against youth unemployment and discrimination?

It is an important policy issue. However it has to be understood that there is also a training benefit, which has to be taken into consideration. There are more critical situations which have to be addressed. For example in South Asia there are so called ‘marriage schemes’ internships. During a 6-months-long internship payment is extremely low, however with a promise to provide a substantial sum for “marriage” once the internship is over. They attract long term commitment with a very low pay, nearly bordering with forced labor. If you quit half way – you lose this money.

How about young people who lose in competition over a qualified job, because of not having financial means to go through an unpaid UN internship in New York?

Social stratification is inevitable in the end. It is very important that educated youth unites to voice their concerns. ILO actively works on promoting international conventions on non-discrimination, forced labor and other to become part of recognized international law.

The WCY participants seem to be very passionate and rather idealistic about the outcome document. Do you believe that the Declaration has a chance to make a real impact?

Depends on youth undertaking action. It is crucial to keep highlighting the Declaration on international agenda and gain support of the political network, such as workers organizations and trade unions. For it to have implementation, Declaration should find its way in other agendas.


Young and at risk

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DSC_1255“Because it’s a marginalized youth session, I’d like to be as inclusive as possible,” opened the roundtable facilitator Jeffry Acaba. – “Can everyone understand English?”

Surprisingly no one complained about the language. What did become one of the major points of discussion, was access of young people living with HIV too health services. “5,4 million of adolescents live with HIV,” noted representative of the UNAIDS Asia-Pacific Support Team Aries Valeriano.

More shocking numbers came from the Youth Lead: 95% among new HIV infections in the Asia-Pacific region are young people, said regional coordinator Thaw Zin Aye. Moreover, according to her 60% of the female sex workers are under age of 25 and are not easily included in HIV treatment because of the age restrictions in access to sexual health.

The problem derives from both flaws in legislation, as well as stigma and discrimination creating more barriers for getting quality treatment: “19 countries in Asia-Pacific criminalize same sex relations.” The topic was further developed by the UNFPA Bangladesh representative Argentina Matavel: “If a person with disabilities asks for a contraceptive, the first reaction of the health worker is to shame them and laugh”.

Tom Cruise, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking are just several names among many more celebrities, which were either born with or developed very serious disabilities in early age. “Depends on where you were born – 15% of the world population lives with disabilities and 4/5 of those are in developing world.”

According to Ms. Argentina Matavel, none of the MDGs indicators mentions people with disabilities: “Family sees them as a curse, a failure. They hide disabled child or abandon.”

The breakout sessions brought up more specific aspects. “I was really glad that delegates focused on intersectionality and non-exclusion of young marginalized groups from each other,” concluded facilitator Jeffry Acaba after the session.

War, Peace and Young People

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DSC_1260“War vs. peace, violence vs. tolerance, acceptance vs. ignorance,” started his opening speech facilitator John Loughton. “I heard President Rajapaksa mentioning during the ceremony yesterday that he defeated terrorism and brought to Sri Lanka peace and reconciliation. Fascinating words to use. It’s one thing to stop violence – another is to fight reasons that caused the bullets”.

Impressive and passionate as it was, the speech focused on several points:

  • ‘Conflict and violence hits women and youth the hardest’
  • ‘Conflict in its extreme form is extremely preventable’
  • ‘Conflict causes social inequalities’
  • ‘War can have kids. Every time I see a child soldier on TV, I see a victim’
  • Young people are not stubborn. We can understand and move on’

“It’s easier to have passion when you are 18, and much harder when you are approaching 50 as I am. But I’m trying to be idealistic,” made a confession journalist and writer Nalaka Gunawardene. Indeed, in world politics young people play crucial role in what was mentioned as “replacing confrontation with collaboration.”

“We work in 188 countries to promote human dignity and peace. Over 15 million volunteers worldwide and half of them are young people,” said the Red Cross Red Crescent Youth representative Sandra Tesch Wilkins.She stressed that youth are not just beneficiaries, but also role models.

As participants concluded, young people must be at heart of any genuine solution to conflict around the world as “young people choose hope over fear and future over the past”.