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Tuesday, 1 October, 2002, 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK
Hope for Sri Lanka's child soldiers
Two Sri Lankan children playing
Campaigners hope to allow more carefree childhoods
Frances Harrrison

"They trained me to move forward while the battle was on and to take a gun apart and put it back together again."

These were the words of 13 year-old Haran, spoken in a squeaky voice that has not yet broken, while he nervously picks at his fingers.

Children are the future, we're talking about the future - not children as a lot of packages

General Trond Furhovde

"The Tigers abducted me on the 2 January and several of us tried to run away but we were recaptured and beaten. But on 7 August I managed to get away," he explains.

His real name is disguised because he fears reprisals from the organisation he deserted.

Haran says he was picked up by the rebels while going to pluck yams from palm trees to sell to support his family.

In his absence his 10-year-old brother has had to go to work. All Haran wants is to go home.

Camp life

He says he misses his mother but he has ended up in a Sri Lankan government rehabilitation camp where he has to remain for a year before he is reintegrated back into society.

Group of child soldiers in Sri Lanka
A group of former child soldiers in Sri Lanka

"There are other small children like him," says 16 year-old Ganesh who tried and failed to join the organisation twice before he finally signed up aged 15.

Ganesh wanted to avenge his father who had died in ethnic riots but even he says he now misses his mother.

"On the third month after the training we were sent with a team to the battlefield," he explains, "the army surrounded us and we surrendered but they didn't do anything to us; they just sent us here."

Home is now a dilapidated camp surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by Sri Lankan police in bunkers.

Confirmed pattern

The boys are taught to use a sewing machine in the hope it might help them find a tailoring job later but the irony is, Haran does not even have a change of clothes himself.

Young boys are kept with hardened former fighters, twice their age, and there is little professional trauma counselling or useful skills training.

In many cases it is poverty and social breakdown that drive the children into the arms of the rebels and there is no attempt to address those root problems when they are finally sent home.

"We are only getting a limited amount of stuff but somehow or other we manage," says Lieutenant Jayathilaka, the duty officer in charge of the camp.

"We have to feed them three meals a day but we are just about doing that," he adds, interrupted by a boy who wants to borrow his bicycle because there is no other means of transport available.

There is no way of fully verifying the details of Haran and Ganesh's stories but they do fit with a pattern of reported child recruitment in the east of Sri Lanka earlier this year.

And the dates of Haran's transfer to the police has been confirmed.

Growing pressure

For their part, the Tamil Tigers deny they have been actively recruiting under-aged fighters.

Sri Lankan women chatting together
Hope: Tamil and Sinhala mothers share a joke

"We don't recruit people under 18," says the head of the political wing of the Tamil Tigers, SP Thamilselvan.

"We have sent hundreds of people back to their homes in several areas, who've been confirmed under age," he adds, "If people come to us and lie about their age and then we inquire and come to know that they are under age we immediately release them".

It seems the peace process is putting growing pressure on the rebels to rid themselves of under-aged recruits, whether they have been signed up recently for political work or previously for military campaigns.

Slow progress

So far there has been no planned and orderly return of child soldiers and the government and donors have been slow to come forward with a scheme to help reintegrate them into society.

The rebels do try to ensure the children get home safely, asking their parents to sign for them.

If they do not want to go back they will be placed in a children's home.

"Children are the future, we're talking about the future - not children as a lot of packages," points out General Trond Furhovde, the head of the international monitoring mission safeguarding the current cease fire in Sri Lanka.

He says: "(The Tigers) realise that when they take the children out of the jungle they have to go to something at least as good if not better than what they had in the jungle," and he believes that is one of the reasons for the delay in releasing child soldiers.

But after all the hue and cry about the issue of child recruitment in Sri Lanka, some say there is little interest in helping the former soldiers restart their lives.

"Nobody cares about us," says 16-year-old Ganesh.

Peace efforts




See also:

22 Jul 02 | South Asia
20 Jun 02 | South Asia
25 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
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11 Feb 02 | World
28 Sep 02 | South Asia
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