By Poornima Weerasekara in Ambepussa
“Kindness will help you make friends,” the bold print hung on a lime green wall is the first thing that grips your attention as one enters the administration building at the Ambepussa rehabilitation centre for ex-child combatants.
Tucked away in a lush green alcove, in Wahawita Ambepussa, about two and a half hours away from the capital Colombo the centre houses 76 children. Abducted, forcibly recruited or allured by the fake bravado of the LTTE, these children have served as front line fighters, cooks, drivers or even messengers in the most ruthless terror regime in Asia.
As the curtain falls on the three decade long bloody civil conflict in Sri Lanka, between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the stage has been set for these children to shed their former lives and redefine themselves as envoys of peace and become the most potent symbol of hope in post war Sri Lanka.
Grappling with inner ghosts
But learning to cope with painful memories is a daily struggle. According to the Ambepussa Centre Manager Major Fernando, the children have made a remarkable turnaround. But there are still a few who suffer from epileptic seizures, mainly due to post traumatic stress.
Senthuran*, one of the children who suffer seizures was injured in a shell attack four months ago, while fighting in the LTTE front line for the first time. He was captured by the army, produced before courts and brought to the centre. However Senthuran says that he still has shrapnel’s left in his skull and his shoulder and that has resulted in fits and fainting spells.
“I only saw my mother once after being captured from the clutches of the LTTE. I want to see my mum. I will only be happy if I can see her,” he urged. Senthuran’s mother and two sisters are currently in a camp for the displaced in Vavuniya.
Senthuran’s hometown is Vavuniya. Their family fled to Vanni after being displaced due to fighting. It was then that he dropped out of school, in grade five and started working as a mechanic.
“We were all afraid of the LTTE. They were a brutal outfit. We are happy and safe here. But I want to see my mother,” he said.
This is a common request amongst many children who were part of the newest batch of over 50 kids who arrived at the centre about two months ago in a bus at about 3.00 a.m. They were mainly children who were either captured while fighting with the LTTE orthose who had surrendered at the Omanthei checkpoint, the main cross over point from the former rebel held Vanni to government controlled areas.
Unicef is making arrangements to facilitate parents in Internally Displaced camps to visit their children at Ambepussa soon.
“We have also urged the Unicef to increase the communication facilities available for the their parents at the displacement camps, so that they can be in touch with the children more often. But at our end, we have only one phone, so the kids queue up on Sundays to wait for their call,” Major Fernando, the centre manager said.
The children’s day starts early at about 5.00 a.m. “One measure of progress is based on how our water bills increase. The children, specially the girls, like to bath twice a day," he chuckles.
Everyone assembles at 7.30 at the play ground, to begin the day by hoisting the national flag and singing the national anthem.
According to Major Fernando one child is appointed as the leader each day, and that person is responsible for hoisting the flag. Regular classes commence at 9.00 a.m. At present the vocational training courses include aluminium fabrication and welding, tailoring, cookery and basic computing. A retired teacher also comes to teach Maths and English. The children are also taught spoken Sinhalese.
The classes usually end with a song and an appraisal of each student’s performance that day. Then its time for lunch. “Each meal we give them is a daily ration of a soldier, which ensures they get a balanced diet. For instance lunch consists of 4 vegetables and either fish or chicken every day,” he said.
Group games like cricket and netball follow. Then the children are free to read books, newspapers and watch TV until the light are switched off at 10.00 p.m.
“A routine helps children adjust quickly. Most children settled down soon,” Major Fernando, a veteran teacher at the Combat training school said.
At first he was apprehensive of the task at hand. “My wife was a little jittery when I said I’ll be working with former child combatants. That was because of the misconceptions about these children. But after coming here I have realized that they are no different from my own kids. Even the boys put powder and you’ll see that quite a few of them have even painted their nails. They are trying to relive the childhood that was snatched away from them,” he said.
At first glance one may wonder why military personnel have been deployed as rehabilitation officers. However, all the rehabilitation officials at centre are from the Army cadet corpse. They are trained teachers, with extensive teaching experience in civil setups, before volunteering to become part of the cadet corpse.
Hunting for their families
We met chirpy 17 year old Devi while she was engrossed in her sewing lessons.
Devi’s mother had abandoned her family and gone abroad when Devi was a mere toddler of two. She was bought up by her aunt in Yatiyanthota, and studied in a Sinhala medium school until grade 5. Then she had gone back to the North, to live with her younger aunt.
Devi was abducted when she was 16, in a white van and put into a make-shift jungle kitchen to churn out food and deliver it to carders fighting in the front line amidst the shelling.
“I was given weapons training but they put me to the kitchen after I started having fits and fainting spells. There were several children some as young as 12 with their heads shaved,” Devi said.
“The LTTE camps were in a thick jungle in Pudumattalan. We were really afraid, because we could hear constant explosions. Five of us were plotting to escape and one morning we ran away, when the commanders allowed us to go to the toilet in the morning,” Devi recalled.
She managed to go back home to her aunt. But she was separated from her family at the Omanthei checkpoint, amidst the exodus of civilians who were fleeing LTTE controlled areas.
“The army called for persons who were with the LTTE to come and register. So I went to this big tent. They took my information and handed me over to the police. Then I was produced before the Vavuniya magistrate and brought here. But my aunt doesn’t know I’m here,” she said. The International Red Cross has promised to find Devi’s aunt.
“Some children receive letters from their parents. Some parents come to visit. But many children don’t here from their parent’s at all.” She said.
The Bureau of the Commissioner General for Rehabilitation is attempting to setup the next rehabilitation centre in Vavuniya, to house another 250 ex-child combatants who are currently with their families in IDP camps. The decision was made to locate this centre in Vavuniya to ensure that the children are living in close proximity to their families.
The Ambepussa centre was started in March 2008, mainly to rehabilitate children who were freed from the clutches of the TMVP, a breakaway group of the LTTE which fought in the Eastern province.
About 99 persons freed from the TMVP, including 21 children, 3 adult females and 75 adult males who were former TMVP cardres have already been released from the centre.
Five others, who had joined the TMVP as children but are now above 18 are waiting to go abroad for employment opportunities. Vageesh, who came to the centre 26 months ago, is one of them.
“The LTTE caught my brothers and sisters as well, but they escaped. I was the only one who joined the movement. At first I didn’t realize the seriousness of this move. But I had to suffer a lot. My life was totally different to that of my brothers and sisters who were with my parents,” he said.
“After I joined the LTTE I ran away. But then they took my sister forcibly. So I went back to get her released. Later on I escaped again. But this time they came and assaulted my father. They took my family members hostage for 4 months. Therefore I had to rejoin,” he added.
“I was in the Mannar LTTE camp and food was scarce. Three of us decided to surrender to the army and then we were bought to Vavuniya. We surrendered in 2005 and was first taken to the rehabilitation centre in Pallekele and was then bought to Ambeypussa. My father came to visit me once. I haven’t seen my parents since,” Vageesh continued.
His father and sister were killed in a shell attack on his village in Killinochchi. His 11 year old brother lost one leg and had to insert a plate to the other. Only his mother was spared.
“I couldn’t even go to put soil on my father’s grave because the war was raging at that time. All I want to do now is to look after my family the same way my late father did. If I can work abroad for five years, that’s enough. I need to save money to secure the future of my younger brother and sisters. One of my sisters is 18 and I have to collect the dowry for her,” Vageesh said.
About his life with the LTTE Vageesh said “I don’t want recall that life. I want to forget it. It was two years of suffering. If I was told to shoot I shot, if I was told to cut I’ll cut. I did what they asked. I want to have my own family. I want to have my own life now.”
“I even have a girl friend now,” he said, with a shy smile.
Ragu, another experienced fighter, who joined the movement when he was 12 and had risen up the LTTE hierarchy to reach a ‘major’ rank, is also awaiting his visa to go abroad.
He has been in rehabilitation for 23 months and has followed three courses in tailoring, landscaping and another basic compute skills program. “Before I came here I didn’t know much about the outside world. But now I regret what I had done,” this young man of 28, who had been a front-liner fighter with the LTTE for 12 years said.
Ragu had participated in several major operations and lead a group of 150 carders. However, disillusionment set in after a group of senior leaders jumped to Switzerland during the ceasefire period. However, he was too involved in the movement to escape at this time. But Ragu seized the opportunity when the Karuna group split from the LTTE and surrendered to the army with a five others.
“Two of my friends were also rehabilitated at the centre here. They have gone back home and one had married. I have two elder sisters and one younger sister. Our parents abandoned us when we were small,” Ragu said.
Ragu’s birth wasn’t registered by his parents and he didn’t have a birth certificate. It was the officers at the rehabilitation centre that helped him to get a birth certificate and a passport with the aid of a doctor who estimated his age.
Ragu had joined the LTTE after being allured by the bravado claimed by the tigers during a cultural show in Batticaloa. But with time he realized the hollowness of his decision. “Sometimes when small children used to come and voluntarily join the movement, I would give them cash and ask them to go back home,” Ragu, a sensitive soul according to many, said.
According to Captain Chanaka Weerasinghe, a rehabilitation officer, Ragu still has childish ways.
“He dressed as a Vedda at the fancy dress competition we organised for the Sinhala and Hindu New Year in April. The child in him sometimes comes out all of a sudden and then it feels as if he is trying to relive the childhood that he never had,” he said.
“His girl friend came to visit him once. Now he is looking forward to settling down after returning from Malaysia,” Captain Weerasinghe added.
The rehabilitation officers accompany those who go abroad for jobs to the airport. According to statistics from the Rehabilitation Commissioner’s Bureau over 50 rehabilitated persons have been facilitated with finding jobs abroad.
Catch up Education
While many are encouraged to find jobs after rehabilitation, steps will be taken to provide ‘catch up education facilities’ for younger children, who are keen to pursue formal studies.
“There is one promising child who was trained as a Black tiger. He was an orphan living in the Senchollai orphanage. He was allowed to continue with his education but was given weapons training intermittently during school holidays. He was captured by intelligence officers when he was sent to Vavuniya on a suicide mission. He had just sat for his Ordinary Level exams. He had learnt that his exam results had just come out, while on his way to the suicide mission,” Captain Weerasinghe said.
Now the Bureau of the Rehabilitation Commissioner General is taking steps to help this bright spark, restart his advance level studies.
“He had succeeded in scoring a B for mathematics in his OL’s despite being shifted from place to place and his education being interrupted by intermittent training periods. The Commissioner General is keen on getting him into a good school in Colombo, where he will be given all the facilities to proceed with his ALs,” Captain Weerasinghe added.
The “three day” cadre
Not all the children at the centre had experienced active combat. Some children had been with the LTTE for a few days, some for a few months. Forcible abductions had sky rocketed in the past two-three months of the battle as the Tigers made a desperate attempt at replenishing their dwindling cadre base.
Karthik is chided by his friends as the “three day LTTEier.” He was abducted from his temporary hut in Puthukudirrpu.
We met Ganesh, the youngest son in a Mahaveera family at the netball court. The children are encouraged to engage in group games like cricket and netball after the regular classes finish.
“In the final days people were dying of hunger. The LTTE killed one of my brothers and dumped his body on a cross road because he broke into an LTTE flour store, where they stockpiled food relief sent for civilians. It was meant as a lesson for other civilians who were demanding the LTTE to release the food rations that were coming,” he said describing the agony of the civilians stuck in the thin strip of land designated as the no-fire zone in Puthukudirruppu.
“My father was a trader in Settikulam. One of my elder brothers was a martyr. The LTTE forcibly took me and my sister. I escaped after nine days in captivity. My sister also managed to run away after 15 days,” he said.
“But they came after me again and dragged me to their fighting line in Putumattalan. Five of us decided to run away after realizing that the LTTE refused to treat children injured in battle if they had once attempted to run away before. The LTTE fired at us as we tried to escape. I surrendered to the army in Valayanmadam,” he said.
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the children.
Life after rehabilitation
According to Unicef Child Protection Officer Andi Brookes, Sri Lanka has made real progress in the area of rehabilitating child-soldiers by taking a series of constructive steps.
“Firstly, the push to rehabilitate children, separately from adults as per the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict was realized by setting up of the centre in Ambepussa, that mainly focuses on children” he said.
“Furthermore, there was a memorandum of understanding signed between the government, the TMVP and the Unicef, to release all child combatants recruited by this breakaway faction of the LTTE. This was then translated into an action plan from December,” he said.
He also noted that the Emergency regulation issued by the Presidential Secretariat on December 15, was a progressive step that translates Sri Lanka’s global commitment as one of the first signatories of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict into national law.
Unicef is also engaged in monitoring and doing a follow-up on children once they are reunited with their families.
“Probation officers continue to report on the child after an year of being released from rehabilitation. The key to ensuring their smooth reintegration is ensuring access to healthcare, education and other opportunities. A community based rehabilitation effort also runs in parallel to ensure smooth reintegration,” he said.
According to Brookes, the children who return may have a higher security risk than normal children.
“There is a threat that they might be victims of acts of revenge or remobilization. However, it is being viewd through a child safety lens and not a military lens,” he added.
As a key stakeholder in the rehabilitation process Unicef made a significant investment in the entire rehabilitation process by funding road repairs to improve access and covering certain running expenses. They had also helped organise several trips for the children including a visit to the zoo in Colombo, the botanical gardens, and the elephant orphanage in Pinnawale.