Children of war wait for better lives
May 21st, 2008
Report by United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs-Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN):
The election of the former child soldier Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan as first chief minister of Sri Lanka’s eastern provincial administration has been welcomed as a sign that stability and the rule of law might be returning to the region after more than two decades of conflict.
Chandrakanthan, alias Pillayan, the 33-year-old head of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), a breakaway faction of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was sworn in on 16 May by President Mahinda Rajapakse.
Chandrakanthan joined the Tamil Tigers at 15 in 1990. The transition from child soldier to a normal life has not been as easy for most other former child soldiers. And specialists on children’s rights and children in conflict in the eastern province are not convinced the threat of child recruitment has been removed.
[Children who have been separated from their parents in Batticaloa District due to the long-running conflict between the TamilTigers and government forces]
“There are still so many incidents occurring and a large military presence remains in some areas of the east,” Kadirgamarpillai Ariyarathnam, a consultant with the Professional Psychological Counseling Center (PPCC) in the eastern city of Batticaloa, 300km east of the capital, Colombo, told IRIN.
“Normalcy not only has to return but remain for some time for these kids to even think of a normal life,” Ariyarathnam said.
The PPCC cares for 207 children affected by the war in seven centres in the east. The children include former recruits and those separated from their parents or guardians.
Threat of re-recruitment
Ariyarathnam told IRIN that experience had taught the PPCC not to rush children back to their homes, despite extended lulls in the fighting. In April 2004, the PPCC had to take care of a large number of former combatants when Chandrakanthan, along with his then leader, Vinyagamourthi Muralitharan, alias Karuna, broke ranks with the Tigers and disbanded cadres.
[Many former child recruits and separated children face deep psychological wounds. The return to normalcy takes time and a politically and socially conducive environment-pics: Amantha Perera]
“Several months after that, the same kids were facing the threat of re-recruitment when the two sides [the TMVP and the Tamil Tigers] started clashing,” he said. “When a number of children returned to Muttur and Sampoor towns in Trincomalee District, Eastern Province, in 2007 [as part of a government-sponsored resettlement programme after the Tigers had been ousted from the areas in early 2007], some expressed fear of remaining in their villages,” Ariyarathnam said.
They were afraid they would be harassed for having earlier been with the Tamil Tigers. Other agencies that counsel traumatised children told IRIN that a complete overhaul of the political and social climate was necessary if the children were to return to normal lives.
“These are buried wounds, we cannot open these,” Getsi Shanmugam, a counsellor with the Eastern Self-reliant Community Organization (ESCO), which helps children in Trincomalee and Batticaloa Districts, told IRIN. “We have to wake up to the inner problems of these kids and a network of agencies working with children is necessary to make sure they are not left alone once they return home.”
PPCC’s Ariyarathnam said that despite the massive 2007 return programme, most resettlement communities continue to lack basic facilities. “What are these kids to return to? The roads are a mess, the schools are damaged and there are no jobs,” Ariyarathnam said.
Chandrakanthan now has the opportunity to ensure a brighter future for a younger generation of child recruits who shared his experience. “Let’s hope he does just that,” said Ariyarathnam.
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