Recruited at a tender age and subjected to violence and brutality, the Tamil Tigers' youngest conscripts now seek to regain a future that was robbed from them.
By Pradeep Seneviratne for Khabar South Asia in ColomboJuly 06, 2012
Winston Jeyakumari was only 15 years old when she was plucked from school by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2007 and forced into conscription. The teenage girl was taken to a camp in the northern hinterlands of Sri Lanka, to be trained as a child soldier to fight against the advancing Sri Lankan government troops.
"They bundled me into a vehicle and took me away. My family members knew about my whereabouts only after four days," she told Khabar South Asia. "On and off, I participated in battles against the military."
What happened later altered the course of her life.
"I was employed by the LTTE in their bomb manufacturing plant. One day, a bomb which I examined exploded," she said. "My hands were severed from the elbows. I lost the sight of one eye. I underwent treatment at a hospital in the uncleared areas of the north at that time."
"[Now] I cannot do any productive work. I spend all day reading story books, listening to music or watching TV," Jeyakumari told Khabar.
Along with many others, she surrendered in the waning days of the war in 2009. Following her interrogation, she was transferred to a rehabilitation programme in Poontottam. There, she received psychological counseling by experts.
Today, she lives with her mother and relatives in her hometown of Nayaru in the north. She holds the LTTE responsible for her present plight.
It is experiences like her that put Sri Lanka onto the UN's "List of Shame" of countries where children are recruited, killed, maimed, or subjected to sexual violence in conflict zones.
With its civil war now over, Sri Lanka was removed from that list earlier this year, having successfully completed Security Council-mandated programmes to end the recruitment and use of children, the world body said. "No new cases of recruitment of children by armed groups have been reported since October 2009," it said.
Activists, policy makers and ordinary people welcomed Sri Lanka's removal from the list.
"This is a move entirely to be welcomed. But what is more important is to maintain it and advance on it," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based civil society organisation, Centre for Policy Alternatives.
According to the UN, the LTTE recruited a total of 6,905 children. The whereabouts of 1,373 remain unknown.
Of those who have been located and rehabilitated, some attend schools, whereas others are engaged in different kinds of work for living, according to Commissioner General of Rehabilitations Chandana Rajaguru.
"For rehabilitation of child soldiers and others, we provided educational programmes and cultural activities in addition to psychological counseling. Besides, we did religious programmes," he told Khabar.
Of the rehabilitated child soldiers, some have been enrolled in the school called Hindu College in Ratmalana, a southern suburb of Colombo.
Former principal Udaya Kumara said that 20 child soldiers were sent there in January.
"They are keen to study along with other students. But they look traumatised. All of them had been forcibly recruited. They need more and more counseling," Kumar, who was recently promoted to become an education official in the western province, told Khabar.
One-time LTTE commander for the eastern province Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, who defected from the organisation in 2004 over an internal issue and joined the government, said that he regretted the use of child soldiers.
"When I was with the LTTE, I remember, a large number of child soldiers were recruited. The LTTE leadership should be held responsible," he told Khabar.
"A large number died in battles with the military. We cannot blame the military for that. In a war zone, one cannot distinguish child soldiers from the others," said Muralitharan, who is now the government's deputy minister of resettlement.