Tamil Tigers’ child conscripts bid farewell to arms
by Hannah Gardner, Foreign Correspondent
AMBEPUSSA, SRI LANKA
Suresh has a sweet face and gentle manner. His skinny body and the downy fuzz on his upper lip mark him out as boy who is still a couple of years away from becoming a man.
But in January, that transformation was brutally accelerated.
As fighting between Sri Lanka’s army and the Tamil Tigers intensified in what would turn out to be the final stages of a 26-year-long civil war, the rebels once again turned to a demographic they have long exploited to replenish their ranks: children
At the time, Suresh was 15. Despite the escalating war, he was attending school and dreamt of one day becoming a teacher.
All that was to change, however, when his family took the decision to flee their village near the northern city of Killinochchi and to make for the government-controlled areas to the south.
At a chaotic roadblock, Suresh became separated from his family and as he waited to get through, the Tigers abducted him, he said.
“They told me they would kill my family if I didn’t stay and fight with them,” Suresh said, speaking in the Ambepussa rehabilitation camp.
He was taken to a training camp deep in the jungle where he and a group of other teenagers and others as young as 12, were given six weeks of basic military training, including how to handle explosives and use an AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifle.
“They told us we should be prepared to carry out a suicide attack if necessary,” said Suresh, now 16.
They were also instructed to kill themselves rather than be taken alive by the Sri Lankan army.
To do so, they were issued with cyanide capsules kept on strings around their necks and if that did not work, they were shown how to kill themselves by putting a grenade to their stomachs and pulling the pin.
Suresh and his fellow recruits knew that the day was approaching when they would be forced to fight.
“They told us the enemy was moving forwards and that we had to retaliate. We were in fear,” he said. “We didn’t want to go into battle.”
So late one night, he ran away. He risked being beaten if he was caught, but he knew if he stayed he would die.
He threw away his gun and took shelter in an abandoned house where he swapped his Tiger fatigues for civilian clothes. A few days later, he arrived at a hospital on the north-east coast and passed into government-controlled territory. Heeding warnings broadcast on loud speakers, he turned himself in.
Thousands of children were conscripted by the LTTE, purely by force. Each child had to give a child to Eelam. There have been many instances where a parent has been shot and killed nby the LTTE for refusing to obey orders of the Supremo Prabhakaran. This served as a warning to other parents, who meekly surrendered their children to the terrorists.
The children at Ambepussa are slowly but very steadily getting back to a normal way of life. They fell much more comfortable now, than when they originally surrendered or were found in camps. The looks of fear in faces are now transforming into smiles and often laughter.
Of course, a part of rehabilitation is the psychological aspect, and this is being covered extensively at Ambepussa. Some of these children still scream and cry in their sleep. Obviously a sign of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Each child has his or her tale of horror to narrate. Each child has been given an exercise book to write individual stories about themselves and the times with the LTTE. This also goes as a part of the psychological program. Letting out what is stored in one’s heart and mind. I am sure there will be volumes of these heart wrenching stories for people to read in the future.
It is time now for the world to recognize the lowness and horrors of child recruitment and take much stiffer measures to stop it. The time is now.
A law passed in December states that child soldiers who turn themselves in will not be held accountable for any crimes they have committed. Instead, they are expected to spend a year at Ambepussa.
Here, said the people who run the facility, the children are treated as victims of the war rather than its perpetrators.
“This is just another form of abuse or extreme exploitation: we need to see them as victims,” said Haranthi Wijemanna, a Harvard-educated expert in public health issues who works with Sri Lanka’s justice ministry and who helped to create the rehabilitation programme at Ambepussa.
There are 95 former child soldiers at the camp ranging in age from 14 to 28. About 120 other minors who fought for the Tigers have been identified in the displacement camps and Unicef said of the 7,000 cases of forced recruitment it registered during the period 2002 to 2008, about 1,400 are not yet accounted for – though many of these children would now be older than 18.
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Colombo, Western, Sri Lanka