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Second chance for Tamil former child soldiers

[BBC, Wednesday, 23 December 2009 18:17 No Comment]

Sri Lanka's government says it has more than 500 child soldiers in its custody Hundreds of former Tamil Tiger (LTTE) child soldiers are being educated in Sri Lanka as part of government rehabilitation efforts following the rebels’ defeat in May. The BBC Tamil service’s Swaminathan Natarajan spoke to some of them.

Sri Lanka’s government says it has 550 ex-child soldiers in its custody – and about half of them are being given the chance of education.

"I am from Trincomalee. I was studying in [the] ninth year when I was forcefully taken away by the Tigers," says Murugan, one of the former combatants studying in Colombo.

"My mother rescued me from the Tigers with the help of Unicef and the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC)," he says.

"After my release I went to a school in the LTTE-controlled area. But the situation was not conducive to pursue education. Here we have good facilities. I know I will not get these kinds of opportunities again. I want to be a judge," adds Murugan.

Officials say 273 former child combatants are currently attending the Ratmalana Hindu College near Colombo.

"Others are given vocational or technical training because their education has been interrupted for a long period," the commissioner general of rehabilitation, Maj Gen Daya Ratnayake (Retd), told the BBC.

Forcibly recruited

Most of the former child combatants studying in Colombo said they were forcibly taken by the Tigers.

Before coming here, these former soldiers were kept in rehabilitation centres in Vavuniya, in northern Sri Lanka, and Ambepussa in the south.

Students were given vocational training in these centres but were taught in Sinhala – a language they could not understand.

But in the new school, students are taught in Tamil. They are learning the school curriculum and after a gap of many months, they also get a chance to interact with members of the Tamil community on a daily basis.

"These students are very keen to learn. They don’t want to talk about their past. They want to forget it. We understand that. We are trying to create a good atmosphere in the classroom and motivate them," one teacher said.

Students are provided with hostel accommodation. But these children are not allowed to mingle with other students and are taught in separate classrooms. The military keeps a constant watch over them. Their movements are restricted.

"In due course we will merge them into our regular classes. They are very keen to continue their education. Now we are assessing each and every individual to see where they will fit in," says Nadaraja Manmadaraja, principal of Ratmalana Hindu College.

These boys and girls are also encouraged to participate in extra-curricular activities like yoga and literary events.

Most of these students are aged between 14 and 18. Their families are scattered across the north and the east of the country.

Some say their relatives are living in camps for internally displaced people in Vavuniya.

"I lost my father. I saw my mother after six months. I met her after coming to Colombo. I will not be able to meet her whenever I want," says Kavitha.

"I am always thinking about my home. I would be happier if I am allowed to stay with my family," said another boy.

Officials say they are organising special buses from Vavuniya to bring their parents to the school on a regular basis.

Propaganda move?

However, the rehabilitation programme has also raised concerns.

"Some of the parents whose children are studying in the college were apprehensive about this move, because they feared the media spotlight on this school would make it a vulnerable target during a communal clash," a source well connected with the school management told the BBC.

But the school principal says he has not received any complaints from the parents. "Generally they are very supportive," he says.

Most of the students are aged between 14 and 18 The biggest Tamil political group in Sri Lanka’s parliament – the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which was seen as a pro-Tiger grouping during the conflict – is also not impressed with the government’s action.

They see this as a propaganda move.

"The government wants to showcase this to the international community and to the media. It wants to create an impression that other camps are run on the same lines. Sri Lanka’s government is keeping over 10,000 suspected LTTE members in various camps. International organisations are not given any access to these camps," says MK Sivajilingam, an MP who recently met the children.

But Gen Ratnayake says the government has nothing to hide.

"We will provide financial, educational and vocational assistance to help them become independent, responsible citizens," he says.

There is no word yet, however, on when the children will be allowed to join their families and be able to lead a normal life, away from the control of the army.

A senior United Nations envoy recently called for Sri Lanka to reunite all former child soldiers in its custody with their families.

"Military administration at the rehabilitation centre, though appearing gentle with the inmates until now, may not bring a desirable change in the children who witnessed a horrible war in the Wanni region," warns one person with access to the children – and who preferred to remain anonymous.

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