Former child soldiers move on in Sri Lanka
Vinojan’s boyhood ended when Sri Lanka’s civil war reignited.
Fifteen at the time, he says he joined the separatist Tamil Tigers to save his older brother from forcible conscription, and became a reluctant fighter as the rebels fought their last, desperate battles for survival.
Now, having won the war, Sri Lanka is trying to make patriotic citizens out of child soldiers like Vinojan and others who just months ago were fighting against the nation.
Vinojan, who nurses a dark scar on his wrist from a shrapnel wound, is just trying to reclaim what is left of a childhood cut short.
“We wanted to be students. All that was shattered,” he said.
About 570 children, some as young as 13, are among an estimated 10,000 captured rebels who have been sent to government rehabilitation camps around the island since the 25-year war for a separate Tamil state ended in May. Tamils are an ethnic minority in the country of 21 million people off the coast of India.
“These are children who were exposed to danger, taken away from their families and deprived of their childhood,” said Maj. Gen. Daya Ratnayake, the military official in charge of the camps. “Our hope is to get them back to normal as much as possible.”
The former child soldiers say they want simply to be reunited with their families. But some have lost relatives or are still searching for them.
Meanwhile, the government is working to ensure they don’t pick up arms again. But it has done little to fulfill its pledge to tackle the Tamils’ long-standing grievances by sharing some power with them.
The ex-fighters’ treatment stands in stark contrast to the plight of nearly 300,000 displaced Tamil civilians who are held in overcrowded government camps in the north. U.N. officials have pressed for their release and aid workers fear coming rains could lead to outbreaks of disease.
In Ambepussa, Vinojan, about 80 other children and 32 adults — start their day by hoisting the Sri Lankan flag and singing the national anthem (“Mother Lanka we salute thee! ... Ill-will, hatred, strife all ended...”).
They study English and Sinhalese, the language of the country’s majority ethnic group, and take classes in plumbing, metalwork, sewing and cooking. They watch TV, listen to music and play cricket, the country’s favorite sport.
Maj. Herman Fernando, who runs the camp, said he is trying to get the children into nearby schools.
Most in Ambepussa are expected to go free after a year of rehabilitation and psychiatric evaluation.
UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Fund, said the kids in Ambepussa appeared well treated.
Spokeswoman Sarah Crowe looked forward to them rejoining their families and communities, saying: “These children have been deprived of their childhood and will need all possible care and protection to start a new life.”
These children of war look very different to what they looked almost six months ago. They are very confident of themselves. They even speak Sinhala, the language they were taught to hate. By the next academic year, they will be schooling in mainstream Government schools and the Sinhala kids in those schools are anxiously awaiting to welcome these child soldiers.
It's as pity that news media such as Channel 4, WSWS, Tamilnet (LTTE arm) don't report on such stories.
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Colombo, Western, Sri Lanka