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Government inaction worsens plight of Sri Lankan child fighters

At the age of 15 Ramya was kidnapped by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to fight in the violent separatist war against the Sinhala-majority government. 

Jeyarani, 45, lives a life of regret – at not moving out of the war-zone before hostilities resumed, and not taking up the offer of a job in a West African country. Most of all the mother-of-three regrets not marrying off her 17-year-old daughter when she could have.

Jeyarani, who lives in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, was overjoyed when Ramya, then only 15, returned home demobilised from the ranks of a renegade commander of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) called Karuna in 2004. The LTTE, composed of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, has been fighting a violent separatist war for over two decades against the Sinhala-majority government.

Ramya, like many other children, had been kidnapped by the breakaway LTTE band – she was walking home after private tuition when she was picked up in 2002, ironically just after the LTTE had reached a ceasefire agreement with the Sri Lankan government. For a year, Jeyarani had had no news of her daughter, but now she nursed hopes that Ramya would resume her studies and sit for her Ordinary Level examination in two years. Perhaps she would get married before long.

But Ramya had changed: she was withdrawn, sullen and avoided school, where she was teased by other pupils, shunned by her former friends and ignored by teachers. Then, one balmy September night last year, armed LTTE cadres came looking for Ramya. In desperation Jeyarani tried to hide her in a back room of her house, but her attempts were futile. And neighbours could do little to stop the guerillas from taking her away.

Since then, Jeyarani has petitioned everyone she can think of, including the LTTE's civil administration office in her eastern town of Batticaloa – a rebel stronghold – the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), a group of Scandinavian truce monitors.

But her case is yet to be investigated. In an environment where relative normalcy is speedily deteriorating into an 'unofficial war' there is no relief in sight for thousands of parents like Jeyarani. Her case is just another one for the books.

There are at least 1,500 outstanding cases of underage recruitment or re-recruitment in Sri Lanka, but only a fraction of them have been investigated. Of the investigated cases that have taken place since January this year, 135 are confirmed as first-time forcible recruitment and 20 as re-recruitment. In 2005, there were 543 confirmed reports of forcible recruitment. But both UNICEF and the SLMM believe the actual numbers to be much higher. Between 2005 and 2006, the average age of the child recruit fell from 16 to 15 years, Amnesty International, the human rights group, reports.

The main culprit is the LTTE, which has repeatedly reneged on its pledge on underage conscription, and the Karuna Group, which broke away from the LTTE in 2004 and is now reported to be colluding with government forces.

Some experts are worried that the state appears to have washed its hands of the process of demobilisation and reintegration of child combatants. The basis for its inaction, they say, is a tripartite agreement on 'Children Affected By War' signed by UNICEF, the government and LTTE in 2003. Under the agreement, aimed at addressing demobilisation and other children's issues, the task of rehabilitating child fighters falls upon international agencies, the LTTE's social arm called the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation, and local NGOs.

During the four years of the ceasefire, successive governments have done little to rebuild the war-damaged infrastructure or start up industries or self-employment schemes in the violence-racked northern and eastern provinces.

Meanwhile, many child soldiers – whether they are demobilised or escapees – find the task of reintegrating and readjusting back into mainstream society an exceptionally daunting one.

Ranjan, 18, escaped with a broken leg from the Karuna-LTTE while fighting government forces in Batticaloa in 2004. Although he is now learning to repair boats under a programme sponsored by Save the Children UK, an international non-governmental organisation, Ranjan is unsure of his future. "I want to get out of Batticaloa," he says. "I want to go abroad and work anywhere. But I can't – I am trapped. Any day they will come back for me – I can't hide forever."

Ranjan's problem is that he does not have a national identity card, the main identification document carried by adult Sri Lankans and essential for obtaining a passport or to be allowed to pass through military checkpoints when demobilising and from war-torn districts such as Batticaloa. "Without an ID card I cannot travel out of my village, and I cannot go abroad. I heard they are looking for me. Every night I sleep in the jungle. Sometimes I feel it is better to join them than stay in hiding," Ranjan says.

The release of a large number of child soldiers such as Ramya and Ranjan in April 2004 was the most significant event in demobilisation during the ceasefire. These children were lodged in vocational training centres set up specifically to help resettle them, but both UNICEF and Save the Children UK now admit that their capacity at the time was far below what was needed to handle the large numbers of released child soldiers – estimated by UNICEF to be more than 2,400.

"The vocational training was standard: sewing and food processing for girls, mechanics and farming for boys," says Sivan Spiritheyon, director of a local child-oriented NGO that conducted such training programmes. "Many had no interest in these subjects. Skills- training is not backed up by employment opportunities and markets. Trained youth go back home to idle and become possible targets of re-recruitment."

"Unfortunately, ex-child soldiers all over the world are trained with the same kinds of tool-kits," agrees Dr Andreas Heinemann-Gruder, academic and demobilisation specialist at the Bonn International Centre for Conversion. "And they end up being disappointed. They attend a course, get a diploma and they expect to begin a civilian life. But these expectations are not fulfilled."

The future of demobilised child soldiers in Sri Lanka has never been more bleak. Recently, the Karuna group has begun house-to-house visits calling for child recruits. UNICEF has confirmed reports of 30 cases in Batticaloa alone in June.

"A normal future is a distant dream," says a local NGO field worker. "These children have nowhere to go."

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