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A Sri Lankan re-education for Tamil child soldiers

[BBC, Sunday, 6 June 2010 07:47 No Comment]

schoolyard What happens to child soldiers when the army they are fighting for loses the war? In Sri Lanka, some teenagers who fought for the Tamil Tigers have gone back to school, to be rehabilitated by an officer from the victorious government forces.

Just before 7.30 in the morning a steady stream of teenagers heads across a courtyard in Colombo’s Hindu College.

The boys have neat haircuts and crisp white shirts. Some are sporting the sort of fluff on their upper lips that reminds me of my own 15-year-old son.

A group of half a dozen girls pass me in a cloud of pigtails and whispers.

They line up in front of a flagpole next to a temple. A stocky boy in a scout’s uniform raises the Sri Lankan flag, which hangs limp in the sticky heat.

Upon an unseen command the assembled youngsters deliver a tuneless, mumble of a song.

It is the Sri Lankan national anthem. Sung in Sinhalese. It comes to a merciful conclusion, they bow their heads and file off to the surrounding classrooms.

This is how nearly 200 former child soldiers of the Tamil Tigers start their day.

Cyanide pill

As this daily ritual unfolds in the grounds of the Hindu College my head is full of images from a different time and place… grainy footage shot in a Tamil Tiger military camp in the 1990s.

Rows of girls, in their mid-teens and even younger wearing the distinctive striped fatigues of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam (LTTE).

They too paid their respects to a flag, the flag of a Tamil homeland.

Then each girl in turn approached a commander and was handed a cyanide pill. This was how the Tigers prepared their children for war.

But the war is over, and when it ended hundreds of child fighters were found among the remnants of the defeated Tiger army.

What was to be done with them?

The answer is this rehabilitation effort at Hindu College, led by Brigadier Sudantha Ranasinghe. Resplendent in his officer’s uniform he is sitting in the school principal’s office.

"These children are victims," he insists. "We are giving them the chance to start again."

He invites me to wander round the school and talk to staff and pupils.

Coping with aggression

I begin in the English class being taught by Bernardine Anderson.

She is leading a group of 15-year-olds in a sing-a-along. "If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands…"

Her enthusiasm is not quite matched by her audience but there is an unmistakeable bond between teacher and class.

Afterwards she tells me: "These children mean everything to me.

"I’m Sinhalese, maybe I’m the first Sinhalese person many of these children have ever really talked to."

Some children, she tells me, arrived at the school angry, even aggressive.

"There was one boy," she continues. "He scared some of the teachers. But a couple of months ago it was as if he just switched. Now he’s the most caring and he wants to carry my books. In fact you saw him this morning. He’s the one who raised the flag."

I ask the brigadier if I can speak to a handful of the children.

Half a dozen of the older ones – now 16 and 17 – are brought into an empty classroom. None looks comfortable.

I hear a succession of similar stories.

‘Blood everywhere’

The Tigers demanded one child from each family. Training lasted for two months and then it was off to war. One was trained to work in a medical unit, another was a driver.

Suresh was fighting on the front line. "The shells were exploding all around us," he says quietly. I saw bodies without heads, some without limbs. "There was blood everywhere."

It is difficult talking to children about these things. Especially when the brigadier sits, listening intently, in the corner of the room.

Later I ask him whether it is appropriate that the Sri Lankan army – the victors in a brutal war – should be in charge of the rehabilitation of these vulnerable children.

He seems affronted.

"We work with civilian teachers and psychologists. The uniformed soldiers you see here are just to ensure the children’s security," he says.

Beyond the college

This summer almost all of these children will leave the Hindu College and return to their home villages in the north-east to help build a Sri Lanka freed from sectarian hatred.

But the villages and towns these students return to have barely begun to recover from the devastating war. Many will find their families living in tents and tin shacks.

Job prospects are bleak even for those who now proudly boast O-levels after their summer exams.

And of course, there is the Sri Lankan army. Tens of thousands of Sinhalese Sri Lankan soldiers are still deployed in the Tamil north. The return of former LTTE child soldiers is unlikely to go unnoticed or unmonitored.

Before I leave the Hindu College, I am persuaded to join a group of boys in a game of cricket.

There is something almost surreal about the sight of boys who used to wield guns, in their whites, doing battle with bat and ball.

They are full of energy and ambition.

They have hope in their hearts. But will it last when the Hindu College seems like a distant dream?

All next week on HARDtalk, Stephen Sackur reports from Sri Lanka and interviews the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

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