Blatant, relentless child recruitment
by Namini Wijedasa
Under the shade of a leafy tree, four alert young men are keeping watch – LTTE cadres, by their clothing. A sharp knife glints in the hand of one man. Another holds a heavy pole. Two motorbikes stand ready.
The dry, dusty ground is blistering hot. Glaring sunshine blinds the eye. A morose breeze occasionally disturbs the sullen atmosphere but Vakarai gets little respite.
An old, sarong-clad man on a rickety bicycle slowly pedals towards the four men. He must bypass them to access the main road. One of them casts a menacing remark at him. Incensed, the man shouts: “You’re here to take our children. Go on, take them. Why harass me?”
A cadre darts forward and tries to wrench the bicycle from the sun-burnt villager. He resists. The man holding the pole strikes him hard – and repeatedly – on the legs. The villager struggles onto his bicycle and pedals a short distance, before toppling off. He limps towards a hut, dragging the bicycle alongside.
Two of his assailants leap onto a motorbike, stop near the hovel and follow him inside. Two others join them, swinging more heavy poles. They exit a little later, laughing and bragging that they had “hammered the old man good”.
The four men take up their original positions, waiting… watching. On their right is the village school. Nearby, the Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) has a field office. Foreign NGO-workers in fancy SUVs coast past, occasionally peering at the flag-decked Tiger memorial that’s opposite. A monument to martyrs.
Not far away, the sun beats down angrily on rows of white tombstones. More Tiger heroes. An illustration, done in black paint, catches the eye. It depicts an armed LTTE cadre leading two young children by each hand.
Symbolic, chilling, accurate.
“They take children all the time,” says an impoverished, desolate woman living in a tsunami-camp at Kandalady, Vakarai (under LTTE control). “Even yesterday…. they took away a fifteen-year-old boy.”
From where? “From there,” she says, pointing in the general direction. “Near the school.”
For many villagers, this particular junction in Vakarai – near the school, the TRO office and the Tiger memorial – is the abduction intersection. But children are also vulnerable in every other corner of the Batticaloa district. Any unaccompanied child risks being kidnapped. And many, many have been done so during the past few months. Blatantly, fearlessly, repeatedly.
Relentless increase in conscription
“Basically, the situation is really, really bad,” says an NGO coordinator in Batticaloa, opting to remain anonymous. (No names can be cited because those interviewed risk being assassinated). “Just this morning I spoke to a friend of mine who’s missing a relative, a fifteen-year-old boy. Nobody knows where he is.”
The issue of child abductions comes up regularly at NGO meetings, he revealed. But they don’t even minute these discussions for fear of reprisal.
Father Harry Miller is an outspoken Jesuit missionary and former rector of St Michael’s College, Batticaloa. When he was apprised that the Tigers had abducted a boy in Vakarai the day before, he replied: “I would be surprised if they only took one. They had a recent temple festival in Batticaloa and they took a dozen. All these festivals are under the control of the LTTE now.”
“The Tigers are recruiting large numbers of children,” he maintained.
Father Miller said he had even confronted LTTE political wing leader, S P Tamilselvan, with reports of child recruitment. “He told me they’re not doing it anymore,” he related. “I told him not to tell me that because I knew they were continuing conscription. He replied that they were only taking children at the age of 17. I told him that he must have the consent of parents.”
What was Tamilselvan’s response? “He changed the subject,” Father Miller said.
There are also “believable reports” that the Karuna faction has recommenced child recruitment but these were not being documented.
UNICEF has statistics of conscription but warns that these are only reported cases. There are countless others. The last two months have seen an unrelenting increase. June recorded fifty-nine cases of underage recruitment; in July, 111 (one hundred and eleven) children were taken. Fifty-six were from Batticaloa.
“Any time, it can happen,” said a man at a transitional tsunami camp, also at Kandalady. “They pull children off bicycles, on the way to school or anywhere. We are scared to send our children outside, even to the roadside to buy something from the boutique.”
“Mothers don’t like to leave their children at home,” said another woman, whose 25-year-old son-in-law had also been forcibly taken by the LTTE. “Parents don’t like to go out to work.”
Why don’t they try to get their children back? The woman snorted, incredulous at the question. “We can’t approach the LTTE,” she said. “We don’t know where the abducted children are. They won’t tell us. We can’t get them back.”
These parents don’t have two coins to rub together. Most cannot afford the journey to government-controlled areas, where they can at least lodge a complaint with reporting agencies like UNICEF or the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). Still others donknow that these avenues are available to them.
Despite obvious peril to their lives, these men and women were willing to have their names published. Trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea – grimy, appallingly poor and thin – they were desperate enough to throw caution to the wind. Upon reflection, however, this writer opted not to identify them.
A peek into their stifling temporary shelters proves that the villagers have little or no possessions. If they were poverty-stricken before the tsunami, they’re worse off now. But none of them wanted their children recruited as fighters. It was evident both from their words – and from the helpless, anxious look in their eyes – that they would rather keep their kids than lose them to the LTTE.
Back in Batticaloa town, at the Sinhala Maha Vidyalaya, a group of government soldiers stand guard over displaced persons. Most are Burgher families from Dutch Bar, Kallady, but members of the Tamil community also live at the school. They expect to be resettled shortly at Thiraimadu.
“We were deployed here because the LTTE are abducting children from camps,” explained the senior-most soldier, after initially refusing to speak. “People wanted protection. The LTTE have taken children from several places. Everyone knows. But we are usually informed too late so we can’t do anything.”
“We can catch them if we are told in time,” he continued. “On the other hand, we are in a difficult position. If we try to stop the LTTE and a dispute starts, we will be punished for threatening the cease-fire.”
A stone’s throw away, a naked toddler sat in a water-filled basin, cheerfully bathing herself. Two others returned from school, holding hands and grinning cheekily. Another munched on a bun. An older child read a book, legs folded Buddha-style. Some others played catch, threw around a ball and harassed their mothers. Though displaced, these kids were unquestionably luckier than their counterparts in Vakarai.
Meanwhile, concerned parties in Batticaloa complain about inadequate reporting of child conscription. “We are worried that the pathways to getting information are no longer working very well,” said an NGO worker, who predictably opted to remain unidentified. “The problem is quite acute but only isolated incidents are recorded.”
“You will find a drop in the number of reports,” he continued. “That’s a major issue right now. The perpetrators are aware that child recruitment is a public relations faux pas and are intimidating the public to prevent reporting.
“The official numbers absolutely do not reflect reality. The reporting agencies must be proactive.”
Vilja Kutvonen is SLMM spokesperson. “Of course, it’s always so that many of the underage recruitments are never reported to us or no complaints are made,” she averred, emphasising that it was important to inform civilians about SLMM’s role in recording incidents. “The public must be educated,” she reiterated.
Even then, the SLMM can only document information. They do make inquiries but are prevented from going any further as they do not have police powers. And if threat or intimidation is preventing the public from reporting abduction, there’s nothing the SLMM can do.
As for UNICEF, its spokesman Geoff Keele said the agency was “in discussions at district level with the LTTE”. “We have name lists of children and are trying to get them released,” he explained. “This is happening in all districts.”
Asked whether UNICEF has had any success, Geoff said they had reports of eleven children being released to their parents. “But we have no confirmation of that yet,” he added.
Batticaloa is a mess. It is a tangled web of fear, suppressed speech, assassinations, lawlessness and, of course, child conscription. Everyone, except those parents, is scared to speak the truth. The silence is complete. One of the NGO workers earlier quoted said there had been 200 assassinations during the first two months after the tsunami. “Every other day, there is a killing,” said a Muslim trader from Eravur. “They take a man, ask a few questions and finished.” Pointing two fingers to his head, he said: “They kill him.”
The fact that nobody – except those desperate parents in Kandalady – wished to be named is a story in itself. Even members of foreign NGOs opted to keep their identities secret.
As Father Miller put it: “Everybody knows it but nobody will tell you.”
How much impact are these anonymous voices having on the LTTE? Evidently none. Child conscription is glaring, obvious and undeniable.
The international community has had no effect either. Whatever statements the four co-chairs of the Tokyo donor conference – the European Union, Japan, Norway and the United States – have issued are watered down, half-hearted pronouncements that reveal a lack of genuine interest in child or human rights. There have been few or no statements isolating and condemning exclusively child recruitment. The issue has always been smuggled in with a host of other subjects.
It’s unclear why the international community will not slam the LTTE on such a clear-cut case of abuse. They must know that silence amounts to collusion. A single threat to withhold aid dollars from the LTTE could result in compliance but the co-chairs and other donors have balked at stating fact, demanding answers and issuing sanctions. As a result, the LTTE is confidently continuing to breach global child and human rights laws — committing the type of offence that makes them eligible for prosecution before the International Criminal Court.
And what of international NGOs? Batticaloa is teeming with expensive vehicles and do-gooders of all hues. They, like everyone else, know the truth. But even outside the confines of the terrified town that is Batticaloa, they remain silent. Why? Has the Tiger killed democracy?
Where is freedom if speech is stifled? What is the peace process? Just a couple of ‘p’ words that have given the LTTE a licence to deny children their parents, their childhood and their innocence.