|Born to be a Tamil Tiger: A child soldier's tale|
|Wednesday, 18 February 2009|
Thayalan's mother and father were members of the Tamil Tiger terrorist group. They assured him that, one day, he would become a so-called Black Tiger, one of the Tigers' suicide bombers.
As much as he dreamed of going to university and seeing the world, Thayalan was an obedient son. So in December 2007, long after his parents had been killed in an air raid, the then-16-year-old joined the Tamil Tigers.
For six months, he trained alongside 600 other cadres, was given a black thread with a cyanide capsule to wear around his neck in case he was captured and prepared for his mission. Thayalan was told he would drive a motorcycle laden with explosives into a military bus filled with soldiers.
A year on, Thayalan, who was captured in November by Sri Lankan soldiers and decided not to ingest the cyanide, is one of 24 former child soldiers living in uncertain peace in a rehabilitation camp run by the Sri Lankan government and the aid agency UNICEF.
"I wanted a future," Thayalan said when asked why he didn't bite his cyanide capsule. "I had intelligence training and training for (planting) claymore bombs. But I didn't want to die."
Thayalan showed off his area in the corner of the large dorm. A study schedule, a few math texts and a copy of National Geographic magazine were on his desk.
"I like it here," he said.
To reach this camp, which opened in mid-2008, you drive through a small town in Sri Lanka's Kegalle district, turn down a side street, advance through rice paddies and past a Buddhist shrine, and finally edge up a steep hill past a few dozen ramshackle homes, most of which fly tattered Sri Lankan flags.
The view is breathtaking. Standing on the camp's playground, where girls play badminton and boys chortle over games of cricket, forests of coconut, jackfruit and cherry trees stretch to the horizon.
It's a sharp contrast to how many of these former child soldiers have lived in recent years.
Interviews with the one-time Tamil Tiger cadres provide a glimpse at how the terrorist group pressures young recruits to join and how it moulds them into killers, before most are old enough to drive a car or vote.
Other countries like Chad, Sierra Leone and Somalia have drawn more international scrutiny for their use of child soldiers. But in Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers in the north and a group called the Tamil Makkal Vidulthalai Pulikal (TMVP) in the east that broke away from the Tigers in 2004 to align with the government have both used child soldiers. UNICEF has documented close to 7,000 cases of child conscripts since 2006.
"Kids are easier to train," explained Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne, a consultant with the ministry of justice who helped create the rehabilitation camp here.
TMVP, which UNICEF said is responsible for 600 child conscripts, recently promised to release all of its soldiers who are under 18. It remains uncertain whether the group will comply with its promise.
Tucking her black hair behind her ears as she sat in a blue plastic chair outside the camp's dormitory for girls, Kugatharshiny explained how she joined the Tigers.
On Jan. 24, 2007, she was at home in Paranthan, a town near Sri Lanka's Elephant Pass, when four Tiger recruiters showed up and demanded her father contribute one family member to the Tigers.
It was 3:30 p.m. and Kugatharshiny's brother and sister hadn't returned home from school. Kugatharshiny's father looked at her.
"My parents didn't say anything, they just cried," she said. "I was crying, too, but I said `don't cry, we can't do anything about this.'"
For an hour, Kugatharshiny rode in the back of a three-wheeled rickshaw to a training camp in Mankulam, where young boys and girls were groomed into killers.
The cadres woke at 4:30 a.m. each day for exercises. An hour later, they assembled to hoist the rebel flag. At 7:30, after rifle practice, they had a breakfast of lentils.
"At 8:30 we ran with ammunition packs on; at 11, we were taught about freedom fighters in Vietnam, Taiwan, Chechnya and Georgia," Kugatharshiny said.
In the afternoon, they played volleyball and later, would watch American war movies. Escape was impossible. "We were in the middle of a forest with snakes and bugs," Kugatharshiny grimaced.
The Tamil Tigers "wanted the child soldiers' first kill to be with machetes because it would make murdering more personal," said Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona. "Once you've killed once, it's easier the next time."
In November, Kugatharshiny was sent to the front lines. Wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt and sandals, she was given a machine gun, several grenades, and assigned to a bunker.
"I don't know if I killed anyone or not," she said. "I shot out of the bunker. The Sri Lankan army soldiers were maybe 100 metres away. You could see them. And they could see us."
Sri Lankan soldiers sneaked around the bunker's back side, and caught the Tamil Tiger fighters by surprise. "They came in and took our weapons," Kugatharshiny said.
Laughing, she nudged the girl sitting next to her, who wore a pink dress and, also laughing, covered her face. "I was standing up," Kugatharshiny said. "She was on the ground next to me crying."
The justice ministry's Wijemanne said Sri Lanka's government believes it can deprogram child soldiers, give them work training, and help them return to their families – those who still have families. She expects the camp's numbers to grow in coming weeks as the government edges closer to a battlefield victory over the Tigers.
"These children are innocents," Wijemanne said. "They have been exploited. It's as simple as that. They've been here for a few weeks now. They've asked me for movies like Batman and the boys want Fair and Lovely (a skin lightening cream). They're learning to be regular people again."
Life for many children growing up in Sri Lanka's ravaged north and east is traumatizing even without joining the Tamil Tigers.
In places like Jaffna, the northern Sri Lankan city used as a headquarters by the Tigers, buildings have been destroyed by years of close combat and shelling. Streets are marked by bomb-blast holes and many homes have been ransacked.
Many everyday household items have been difficult to find. Some soaps have been banned from being brought north because they can be used as a land-mine sealant; some shampoos have also been forbidden because their ingredients can be extracted and made into cyanide.
Many child soldiers have spent years in the jungle in camps with no sanitation or electricity. "Some of them were living like wild men, with their hair matted and with lice," Wijemanne said. She said she still hasn't spoken with all the children staying at this camp.
"You don't have to bring everything out in the open to have good therapy," she said. "Some of these children want to forget what's happened to them. Maybe that's nature's way."Courtesy: thestar.com
|Last Updated ( Friday, 09 October 2009 )|
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