BY AANYA WIPULASENA (Sunday Observer)
In the last months of the war, LTTE recruiters came for the teenagers. Families would secrete them away in bunkers and behind trapdoors. But sometimes, their luck would run out. There were still others, who went willingly
MULLAITIVU: Selvaratna Subitha will never forget the day the Tigers took her 16 year old sister.
It was all over in 15 minutes.
Women combatants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) came disguised as civilians to their home and dragged Marisalin Sukhandha away.
After that, Sukundha became just a memory.
A bright student, with a special interest in mathematics, her sister remembers her as a dutiful teen, helping their mother to clean the house or fetch water.
A decade after her sister was conscripted in those last brutal months of battle, Subitha remembers that Sukhanda liked to eat stringhoppers and short-eats. The youngest of four siblings, she was the family pet.
Subitha, her elder sister now 30-years and a mother remembers the day Sukundha was taken away like it was yesterday.
It was March 2009. The family was engaged in a desperate battle to stay alive as shells rained down on their village Keppapilavu, deep inside the Mullativu District, the final theatre of battle between Government forces and the LTTE. Subitha was in their neighbour’s house when the Tigers came for her sister. Amidst her mother’s pleas, the combatants dragged her out of the house saying ‘we are taking her’.
“Sukundha repeatedly cried out ‘Amma! Akka!” Subitha recalled. But there was nothing either of the women could do. “They took away children like they took away goats and cattle,” she said.
As the war neared its bloody finish, the LTTE was getting increasingly desperate for fighters. The Tigers aggressively recruited child soldiers in those final months, coming for one child from each family in order to fight off the military.
According to a report published by the Human Rights Watch in 2004 ‘Living in Fear: Child Soldiers the LTTE had recruited over 3,500 children from the start of the February 2002 ceasefire with Sri Lankan government. After pressure from international forces, such as the United Nations, the LTTE pledged to release child combatants but failed to commit to the promise.
Following the end of the war, nearly 12,000 former LTTE combatants surrendered to the Sri Lankan Government. This included 594 children- 364 males and 230 females.
The Tamil Tigers used force and intimidation to force families to turn in their sons and daughters to fight the military. Terrified families dug pits in their gardens or installed trapdoors in their homes to protect their children from the LTTE recruiters.
Sukhanda’s family had taken similar precautions. But on that fateful day 10 years ago, the young girl’s luck ran out. “We had a bunker in the middle of our house. My brothers made it to hide Sukundha,” Subitha explained. The bunker was small but big enough for Sukundha to lie low. Whenever the family got the wind that the recruiters were coming for children, the young girl was made to climb down into the bunker, wooden planks were used to cover hole. A carpet was laid on top to cover traces of the hidey-hole.
Every family knew that it was the girl or boy in their teens that the LTTE was looking for in the heat of battle. Literal cannon fodder for the frontlines. The Tigers were well prepared, villagers recalled. Male cadres would first surround a village in which teenagers lived. If the teenager was female, the LTTE female cadres would go into the village, grab the girl and take her away. Walking up to the main road with the conscripted child, the LTTE cadres would then put her in a vehicle and drive away.
Subitha saw her sister being driven away. “She told us that she would go to campus one day, and help our family. Now she is gone.”
The family has not heard of Sukundha since. They have looked everywhere for her. Their 62-year-old mother is still convinced Sukundha will come back home one day. So, is Subitha.
“She was old enough to remember where our home is. She could have been unconscious and forgotten where we are. One day maybe she will remember, and come back,” she says.
In the family home, they don’t even have a picture of the girl who was snatched away.
Not all child combatants were forced to join the Tigers. Some joined because they thought it was the right thing to do at the time.
Thirty-nine-year-old Ganeshwaran Mayuran, from Thondamannagar East, Kilinochchi, joined the LTTE in 1995. He was 15-years-old. Mayuran and his mother lived in constant fear. He heard stories of how the Sri Lanka Army attacked and killed villagers. The only contact with a Sinhala person he had was with his neighbour whom they had nicknamed ‘Lanka Akka’.
Lanka Akka was married to a Tamil in the area. Mayuran remembers how she cooked leftover boiled rice from the night before with chillie powder and ate in the morning. He has no idea where she is now.
Teenage Mayuran was driven with fear and anger. For him, the Sri Lanka Army was the enemy. He can still remember an encounter with a group of soldiers: Mayuran and his mother were hungry. They made kanji as usual, most villagers had a small stock of rice from paddy cultivation. Kanji was a staple, and in those dark days they would have it without salt. As they sat around the pot watching the kanji boil, the soldiers came.
“One soldier kicked the pot with his boot and it fell on the ground. We ran into the forest,” Mayuran explains. They hid in the forest that night – still hungry. Afterwards, one day Mayuran left the house telling his mother he was going for a movie screening at school. He joined the LTTE that day.
“They gave us swords and a t-shirt. We had a basic training of three-months on how to use weapons, and then we were deployed in different areas,” he says. He had worked as a spy for the LTTE.
Four years later he was wounded in a battle at Elephant Pass. His hip was injured and he still finds it hard to walk. Today, Mayuran sits in the front yard of his partially built home. His crutch is balanced against the front wall, the only area that was painted. It is green. A kettle boils in the front veranda. Mayuran, now a father of three, is fighting against all odds to make ends meet. He drives a rented three-wheeler. “We get by without having to beg,” he says.
He underwent a three-year rehabilitation program in Boossa, Galle. When he was released, Mayuran struggled to secure a job. With no money and educational qualifications, he had to do what he can till he found his footing. He was given Rs. 50,000 from an NGO, and land to build a house. He was never given the deed for this land.
Former LTTE combatants, especially the women, face huge social ostracisation, said human rights campaigner Shreen Abdul Saroor. It was, and a decade later still is, a huge challenge to reintegrate former LTTE combatants into the community.
Addressing the issue of female cardres she said they are the most affected. Seen as violent, to have done what is unthinkable to the community structure, they are shunned from the community.
“It is very hard for them to marry. Most often they are married off to very old men, or a person who has lost his wife, or a physically challenged person,” she explained.
Even after the ex-combatants returned after rehabilitation they were still under surveillance.
“Even the families were reluctant to take them back,” Saroor said.
Most former LTTE combatants are physically challenged, and have limited livelihood options. Even though the LTTE had its own education system, it is not saleable in the job market.
“So, most are below poverty, and does meager jobs such as tea making, cleaning or carrying out small businesses,” she said. But there are extraordinary stories that stand out.
Ganesh Sivarajah (name changed upon request) also joined the LTTE when he was 14 years old because he thought he would be fighting for his people. When he went to a camp and wanted to enrol as a combatant, along with another classmate, he had never seen a Sri Lanka Army soldier. All he knew was that they were apparently a “problem”. His family was unaware that he had enrolled. His mother was working abroad.
“The LTTE was not a very big organisation when I joined in 1990. They first refused to take us, but when we stayed at the camp for days they finally gave in,” Ganesh says.
He also underwent a three-month training where he was taught how to take apart and then fix weapons.
Two years later, he lost both his hands when he tried to transfer mines from a camp in Elephant Pass. He was not well-trained in land-mining. On the first day of the lesson his master has lost his leg in a mine explosion while teaching the future LTTE combatants.
“When I woke up after six days I found out that my hands were amputated. My father had also come to see me in the hospital. When he saw a big wound in my stomach he has fainted,” he said. He was unconscious when his father visited.
Ganesh, still did not want to go home. The LTTE taught him radar and GPS communication, and soon he was spying for the LTTE about the whereabouts of Navy ships to enable them to navigate and smuggle in supplies from Tamil Nadu via the Indian ocean.
Later, the LTTE did not allow him to leave as he knew too much about the organisation. But during the ceasefire time he came home, and never went back. He is doing well today. Ganesh runs a poultry farm and a fancy item shop.
Twenty-nine years later he refuses to talk about his time with the LTTE with his kids. “I try to give my children everything they want. I work hard like other fathers who have their hands work. That way they will never ask me why I can’t do for them what other fathers do.”
Years may have passed but the deep scars from the trauma former child combatants underwent are still deeply etched into thei bodies and minds.
Consultant Psychiatrist Acting, District General Hospital of Mannar, Dr Amila Isuru, explains that child soldiers, especially after the age of ten, are often drawn to fighting when they see their communities being harassed. Radicalisation, or the feeding of biased information by combatant groups or terrorists, gives meaning to their fight. In the field they see and are made to do gruesome acts.
Dr. Isuru explains that these are traumatic experiences. They could affect their psychological, emotional and cognitive development leading to development of mental disorders later in life.
“If we hope to move positively forward the solution is to create a secure environment for them, with trust among communities,” the Dr. said.