Madhu – Kunaratnam Sabaratnam’s legs were severed by a shell in the closing stages of Sri Lanka’s ethnic war.
But shaking hands with Pope Francis at the Marian shrine in Madhu “was like meeting God, and the pope’s touch took way all my pains of these years,” Sabaratnam told Catholic News Service.
Sabaratnam, a Hindu, spoke to Catholic News Service Jan. 17 at his home at the Claretian-run Vanni Rehabilitation Organization for the Differently Abled in Vavuniya, 25 miles from the Marian shrine.
Three days earlier, he presented a wood carved souvenir to Pope Francis when the pontiff visited the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary, 160 miles north of Colombo. The carving was signed by each of the 120 residents of the Vanni center.
“The pope even shook hands with me,” Sabaratnam, a Hindu, told CNS.
“The pope’s speech was touching. There should be no war in the world,” said Sabaratnam, 50.
For two decades Vanni, the region between Vavuniya and Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, was under the control of ethnic Tamil rebels known as Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The shrine houses a statue of Mary venerated by Sri Lankans since the 16th century. During most of the 26-year struggle between government forces and the Tamil rebels, both sides recognized the area around the shrine as a demilitarized zone, which served as a sanctuary for thousands of war refugees. However, in 2008, the shrine came under crossfire.
Sabaratnam got stranded in the war zone while visiting his younger brother in the Tamil-held areas in 2006, when the truce between the rebels and the government collapsed.
Since the war ended, he said, “I had lost touch with my family and have been feeling lonely, but meeting the pope has given me a life enthusiasm,” said Sabaratnam, a cook at the rehabilitation center.
Kajiendran Asha, another Hindu, also shook hands with Pope Francis.
“I am blessed. I cannot forget that moment,” she said.
“By coming to Madhu, the pope has recognized the suffering of the war victims. He has drawn world attention to our suffering,” said Asha, 25, whose legs were amputated after she was hit by a shell in February 2009.
“I was very happy to see the pope releasing a dove,” the symbol of peace, she added.A war victim (credit: Anto Akkara)
R. Tulsika, who identified herself with only her first initial, lost her left hand and left leg at the age of 16 after she was hit by a shell in 2009 when she was attending the funeral of the grandmother of her classmate. She told CNS she was disappointed that she could not shake hands with the pope but described the event as “a saint coming to Madhu.”
“I felt like encountering God. He touched our hearts and healed us,” said Tulsika, a Hindu who is continuing her education while living at the Claretian center.
Antony Constantine, who works at the Madhu shrine, was proud that his daughter, Mary, got to present Pope Francis with a bouquet of flowers. He said his sons Britto, 14, and Bruno, 12, were among 16 children from the refugee camp at the shrine who were killed in a landmine blast, along with their headmaster, on their way to school in 2008.
“Both of them were altar boys, and I am happy that my daughter was chosen to present a bouquet to the Holy Father,” said Constantine, touching the cross on top of the tombs of his sons in the cemetery where the 16 children are buried.
Constantine said he came to the shrine in 2006 with his family to meet his sister, Holy Cross Sister Ida Thomas, in the convent near the shrine.
“Suddenly the cease-fire ended and there was war. We could not go back to Jaffna, and we decided to stay in the refugee camp,” Constantine said.
“This visit has given a healing touch to the war victims,” said Marydasan Revel, who sells palmira roots. He gets around on a bicycle, steering with his left arm, because his right arm has been amputated.
“I have bought the posters of the pope, and I will hang them in my house. It will be an inspiration for me,” said Revel.