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The fate of Batticaloa children hangs in the balance

by Uditha Jayasinghe in B'caloa

Batticaloa is a land of contrasts. Roads as smooth and straight as runways lead to a land steeped in potential on one hand, and poverty on the other. Colourful multi-storied buildings rise amidst blackened skeletons of brick, with the brand new Cargills and recently opened banks lining the roadside. Elsewhere are buildings demolished for road widening purposes. In the midst of all this development are signs of scars that have barely healed.

Just a few months ago travelling to Batticaloa at night would have been almost unthinkable. But the new A-11 road has changed all that. Now, one can literally fly down the road with few or no checkpoints to bar the way and arrive at Batticaloa town to find that ‘Colombo people’ are no longer an oddity. In fact many entrepreneurs have found their way to the province of opportunity motivated by government led economic incentives and untapped markets. Hotels are fully booked and the once deserted beaches of Pasekudah once again welcome weekend holidaymakers from Kegalle to Polonnaruwa.

So where are the scars? In the children. Beside all the new found affluence lies the inescapable social costs of the war. It is a well known fact that between 30,000-40,000 war widows inhabit the eastern province, but what is more startling is that in the Batticaloa District alone over 850 households have lost either both or one parent and are sustained by children as the main breadwinners. Documents detail these children doing everything from selling balloons to begging to finding money for a daily meal for themselves and their families. Reality can hardly become starker and yet it does.

Orphanages galore

Want more startling facts? Then Batticaloa can provide them in abundance. Over 60 orphanages operate in Batticaloa and Valachcheni townships with only four registered by the government. National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) officials in Batticaloa estimate that 2500-3000 children of all age groups are housed in these establishments.

Nonetheless, given the sheer numbers that the officials are up against, effective monitoring is all but impossible with each probation officer being tasked with keeping an eye on around 150 kids. Moreover there is rarely any coordination among authorities concerning kids who have been removed from the province and relocated elsewhere. Funding for orphanages is sporadic at the best of times and maintaining a consistent secure framework for these children to live in is understandably challenging.

The orphanages are an interesting mix of architecture and character. Christian orphanages sit close to Indian style ashrams in Batticaloa town. The latter is in Mylampavely, wrapped by manicured gardens with rhythmic chanting played over loudspeakers housing around 40 boys wearing dhotis. A short walk away is the “Village of Hope” which is a large orphanage built in 2005 with collective funding from countries ranging as far apart as Germany and Kazakhstan. Interestingly the BMW company of Italy were among the original donors, as a plaque at the entrance proclaims, however as corporates and countries shifted their attention elsewhere so did the money.

“Originally we had a system where each house was headed by a woman, called ‘mother’ and under her there would be around a dozen children. However, from September we will be funded by ‘Art of Living’ Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s foundation that is more focussed on universal wellbeing with communal living, compulsory breathing exercises, laughter and crying,” one of the officials told us adding reassuringly in response to our bemused glances that the children would adjust well.

Arbitrary

The arbitrary system is nothing new but the government officials are pragmatic and understand that closing orphanages would only exacerbate the situation. “Where will the children go? Some of them are not orphans but come from extremely poor families that have no way of supporting these children, and so they have been sent to nearby orphanages. Most of them maintain ties with their families. However, most orphanages are run by men which increases the chance of abuse and emotional nurturing of these children might be overlooked,” Human Rights Commission (HRC) Regional Coordinator R. Manoharan explained.

October 29, 2007 is a date that Sharmini (16) will never forget. Her mother was abducted on this fateful day by an unknown gang leaving her and her younger brother to be taken care of at the Village of Hope orphanage. “My father died when I was only eight years old,” she shyly began her story after much prompting, “I had an older brother who was killed when he was just 21. When my mother disappeared I was put through the courts and brought here. My mother is still missing,” she said nodding her head when asked whether she is happy here. For the most part the children looked happy and well taken care of at the orphanages but the future of even the brightest remains uncertain.

This particular orphanage is currently caretaker of 34 children but has the capacity to accommodate 100, with air-conditioned offices and a large number of cottages that are clearly expensive to maintain. Finding sustainable funding is difficult enough without having new age Indian gurus thrown into the mix.

Optimism

For Reverend S. Puvanedaran, helping orphans is a way of life. Having run an orphanage for the past 13 years he has seen the worst and best of human nature. The Arudpane Girls and Boys Home despite not being plush has the air of a real home. Regardless of its rundown appearance it is affable and approachable with bottomed out cane chairs and a simple chapel that is maintained by the kids. With 15 boys in this and 29 girls in the adjacent orphanage the Reverend is hard pushed to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads but has learned optimism since grappling with such issues is a daily task.

“I just heard that one of our donors is curtailing his funds. So that means no new clothes for the children at Christmas but we must make do as best we can,” he noted genially smiling without bitterness at yet another hurdle. The orphanage has just dodged another bullet in the form of a complicated land deal but authorities had ruled in favour of the orphanage. “We take it as it comes. After all where are the children to go?”

So should the government apply more stringent monitoring methods? “That depends,” he cautioned, “They must be practical to implement. Earlier we were told that only people who were Advanced Level qualified could be employed. But will they come for a salary of just Rs. 4,000?” This was sage advice indeed, if top down policy methods are made without proper understanding of challenges faced at grassroot level there is every possibility that the situation would just be made worse. A factor that must be strongly considered if any changes are contemplated by the government.

Life has brought an unusual amount of hardship for Thawamani (48). On April 14, 2004 while the entire family kneeled in prayer at home in Chenkaladi gunmen burst into the house showered them with bullets. Her husband and 15 year old daughter died and Thawamani was left with two children and no means of support. After doing various odd jobs she arrived at this orphanage with her two remaining children aged 6 and 12. “I work at the orphanages and keep an eye on the kids. At least I can be close to them. I don’t want to go home because I get depressed when I remember what happened. My main aim is to educate my elder son and send him abroad,” she said shrugging her shoulders when we asked her where she would get the money from.

Caught in the cracks

In the heart of the Batticaloa town down a dusty road sits a house, unexceptional but for the children inside it. It is a safe house that was established by UNICEF in 2003 to provide assistance to destitute children according to HRC Regional Coordinator R. Manoharan and currently houses 14 girls and one boy. Here we met Dharshani (18) the eldest of a family of six. Since her mother was abroad Dharshani grew up knowing a life of responsibility. While being employed as a domestic she had an affair with a man who was a member of a known paramilitary group. “At the start of this year I found out that I was pregnant. But he was already married and started threatening me not to tell anyone of our relationship or he would kill me.”

The result was that Dharshani was sent to the safe house to await the birth of her baby, now only four months away. Thankfully her mother having heard of Dharshani’s plight sends her money, which she in turn sends to her family as her ‘salary.’ “I don’t want my father to find out,” she nervously told us “it would mean that my entire family would be stigmatised and they would never want to have anything to do with me.” Her baby will be put up for adoption as Dharshani has no means of support.

Sixteen - year - old Govindan is in a similar plight. Having been abused by her uncle she put her child up for adoption in January and remains at the safe house to attend a vocational training programme that is run nearby by a group of Catholic Priests. Her mother and three siblings come to visit her but her father remains angry and Govindan hopes to somehow save enough money to purchase a sewing machine to earn her way in the world.

Possibly the most promising person that we met at the safe house was Shanthi (17). After her father died in the war five years ago she was sent to an orphanage as her mother was too poor to look after both her and brother of 14 years. “I escaped from there and was travelling to my home when I was abducted,” recalled Shanthi. Her caretaker Christina, who is one of seven staff manning the centre, takes over the painful tale. “When she came to us we were worried that she was pregnant but thankfully that was not the case. Now Shanthi goes to school and is preparing for her Ordinary Level exam. It would be more convenient for her to stay at the hostel but we simply can’t afford it.” A sad situation given that the monthly fee is only Rs.1 000. However, Shanthi is unperturbed by these challenges. “I want to get a job in an NGO and help other people,” her bright eyes sparkling with determination.

The Evaluation and Monitoring Committee comprising government medical officials, NCPA, police, HRC and GA among others, keep a vigilant eye on these children and provide them with schooling and vocational training. Nonetheless they cannot remain in the safe house continuously and sustained security remains a concern since returning them to families is not always an option.

Child soldiers –The third dimension

Sarvodaya is a well entrenched institution in the East and actively engages in rehabilitation and reintegration measures. Currently they are also involved in rehabilitation of child soldiers which brings us to the third dimension of a multi-pronged child crisis. Forty-two children under the age of 18 are being rehabilitated at the main Sarvodaya centre in Batticaloa. They are being given six months of training in several fields including motorbike repairs, electrical wiring and aluminum work.

Supplementary to this are counselling, psycho-social workshops, on the job training and even follow up programmes that provide loans and tool kits for their businesses. The children are funded by different government and non-governmental organisations but are kept as part of the same group during the training. Drawn almost exclusively from the TMVP, the children are encouraged to reestablish relationships with their families and return to their communities- easier said than done for some.

“Crippling poverty, lack of infrastructure, education and a market for the skills they are learning remain among the main challenges these kids have,” opined Sarvodaya Executive Assistant E.L.A Karim who heads the rehabilitation programme, showing us around the well maintained compound. These problems clearly were not going to vanish overnight.

A complex set of intertwined circumstances have relegated these children into a cycle of insecurity. All of them hail from poor backgrounds and most from broken homes, and families headed by single parents following the death of a father or the migration of a mother to work. Coupled with the war and low education levels these kids never had a chance to change their destinies until now. Regardless of whether they joined voluntarily or were abducted many of them face the same survival tests. Having been exposed to violence from a young age it is almost incredible to believe that they had the fortitude to come this far.

Vinayamoorthi (17) is a typical child of Batticaloa. Older than his appearance, though without even a trace of stubble, it is hard to imagine that he was once a child soldier who was part of a 75 strong platoon of fighters. Having schooled till year 9 he joined the TMVP and witnessed five of his comrades die and another four injured in the last battles to clear the East. Following the signing of a pivotal Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the TMVP, UNICEF and the government of Sri Lanka he was handed over to the Ambepussa camp where he underwent 6 months of training in plumbing. Returning home he opted for motorbike training by Sarvodaya because it was deemed more lucrative

Silver lining

If silver lining can be had in such a situation a shimmer of it can be seen in the fact that though all the children received weapons training, few actually participated in combat since they were recruited during the last stages of the war in the East. Maheswaran for example is at 15 the youngest member of the group and stands only slightly taller than the T56 he was trained to carry. “I participated in the drills,” he told us sanguinely “but I never had to fight.” His father was shot several years ago and Maheswaran was abducted along with two other cousins when he was on an errand in town. Fortunately he was released after two months. Some of the other children were used to guard prisoners, rather ironic given that they themselves were prisoners, and to do odd jobs around the camps including acting as sentries during the last phase of clearance.

Neither Maheswaran nor Ranjith (16) wanted to return to school, preferring to complete their vocational training and start a motorbike repairing garage. It is an option that Anushan (17) is keen on but not sure he can accomplish. Having been forcibly taken when he was just 15 Anushan escaped and returned to his family of two brothers and a sister in July only to be abducted again. Anushan was eventually released through the combined efforts of his family, Police and UNICEF and sent to Sarvodaya for rehabilitation. “I’m afraid that certain people in powerful positions are angry with me,” he admitted, forehead crinkling with worry.

“They still go to my house and search. My family wants me to go to another country but I don’t have the money,” expressing a common sentiment in this region where people are used to travelling overseas in search for greener pastures. A large number of people from the east regularly travel as migrant workers and this too has had its share in exacerbating social issues.

Children are often referred to as the future generation. But for these children their future hangs in the balance. Only the empathy of everyone and the availability of opportunity can ensure that they do not become the lost generation- lost to war, poverty and fate.

(Names of the children have been changed to protect their privacy.)

6 Comments

I must thank the writer for a real time insight into the orphaned and homeless children in Batti.
The article brought back memories of my visit there a long time ago when the things were normal.I still remember vividly, the dip in Pasikuda,buying mud crabs and walking on the bridge,drunk as a skunk.I am eagerly waiting to take my family there on our next visit.

In the mean time, a little monetary help from the hundreds of thousands of Srilankans living overseas in comfort , like ourselves will make a difference to these children.I hope the organizations that run the orphanages will publicize their efforts so that people like us can help out.Publications like this newsletter I am sure will help to advertise the these organizations with the contacts for receiving donations.

Posted by: Srilankan Expat | October 14, 2009 01:01 AM

I am from Batticaloa and I worked in Batticaloa as a medical doctor until I left Sri Lanka in 2003. But I returned to help with the Tsunami victims in 2004.
I have seen the difficulties and the dire plight of the children who were the most affected as a consequence of the long drawn war.

We started a programme to help the children affected by this war and Tsunami in the Batticaloa District. We have slowly widened the programme to the other districts.
The uniqueness of the organisation:
This is a well designed programme which is transparent from start to finish; it has an active and credible committee in each district formed by professional well-wishers who work on a voluntary capacity.
Please visit the web site for further details. Web address – www.aedu.info
Email address- admin@aedu.info

DR C Neethirajan - UK

Posted by: Dr C Neethirajan | October 14, 2009 02:23 PM

Uditha
Thank you.
I fully agree with Sri Lankan Expat on all what he says.

Posted by: punitham | October 14, 2009 03:22 PM

Children are bearing the brunt of the war, in Batticaloa, in the South and now in the IDP camps. They are helplesss fledglings in this cruel world where the adults fight and kill each other for race, religon and country.

Yet there is no mechanism in place by the state to look after them and give them their lost childhood. Officials will take action only if a complaint is made. In the meantime these little ones have to depend on a motley association of Religous and Social NGO's for their existence. They are an unheard voice and we thank the author for highlighting their plight.

Posted by: SriLankan | October 15, 2009 03:44 AM

where is the socalled rich SLT diaspora? Some still protesting in Toronto demanding a boycot of SL products which will worsen the poverty of these children.

Posted by: harsha | October 15, 2009 07:56 AM

Apart from the pitiful plight of the children affected/orphaned by the war, there is the worse plight of thousands of war widows who have no income or places to dwell in.

Posted by: Das | October 16, 2009 08:24 AM

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