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 Post subject: Former Child Soldiers Face Uncertain Future
 Post Posted: Fri Aug 26, 2005 12:14 pm 
Former Child Soldiers Face Uncertain Future

Kumudini Hettiarachchi

KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka, Oct 6, 2003 (IPS) - The 15-year-old child soldier joined Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after her father was shot dead by government troops, but is unsure about her future after leaving the rebel group.

Another 16-year-old boy joined the rebels eight months ago after being beaten up by soldiers at an army checkpoint. ”I was returning from school when this happened,” he said without any emotion.

His face was carefully shielded by a cap like the others, while speaking to a group of journalists at the first of three transit centres run by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) for former child soldiers and the government-registered Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO).

The first of these centres was opened Friday in the rebel-controlled town of Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka in the presence of government officials, TRO, LTTE and UNICEF.

Its 49 occupants were not allowed to be freely interviewed by journalists. Only four youngsters released by the LTTE to the transit centre on Thursday were presented to visiting journalists for 10 to 15 minutes.

At the centre, children's laughter emanated from across a neat cadjan fence just beyond the hall where the welcome ceremonies took place. One or two heads popped up from behind it, with faces peering curiously at the goings on, only to disappear in a few seconds, most probably at the reprimands of adults. The centre has newly constructed dormitories, spanking new furniture and clean bathrooms.

Occupancy is evident, even if only for a night, with sarongs carelessly thrown over a bunk bed, enamel cups close to a jug of water, slippers lying around and a clothesline bent low with trousers, shirts and sarongs on the boys' side and dresses and skirts on the girls' side.

Photographers are warned by TRO officials not to take photographs. At the playground outside the centre a majority of the girls -- with close-cropped hair -- and boys are engaged in games. Most of the children seem to be in the 13-to-15 year range while one looks like he is as young as nine or 10 years old.

A few casual questions about what sports they liked, to which they reply in unison that they enjoyed netball, basketball, carom and chess, were cut off and journalists hurried to two structured interviews.

UNICEF says it has reports up to September 2003 of 1,683 children being recruited by the LTTE for its two-decade-old war for a homeland for minority Tamils -- and of these, 385 have been released so far. Unofficial figures put the number of child soldiers in the LTTE at 3,000 to 4,000.

The centres are being set up under a two to three-year Government-LTTE 'Action Plan for Children Affected by War', an initiative costing over 14 million U.S. dollars to be implemented by UNICEF, TRO, Save the Children, the U.N. Development Programme and the International Labour Organisation.

A main part of the Action Plan is the establishment of a mechanism for the release and reintegration of LTTE child soldiers through temporary transit centres in Kilinochchi and Batticaloa in the north-east, and Trincomalee in the eastern province.

”This is a significant day, a first step out of a military environment on their way home for child soldiers. But there are still cases of recruitment and it has to be understood that, if the reintegration of child soldiers is to be successful, then new recruitment of children has to stop,” UNICEF Sri Lanka Representative Ted Chaiban said.

The children are to be assessed at the transit centres for background information and also to gauge the impact of psychological damage after being in a military environment while with the rebels.

Then they are to be reunited with their families after a rehabilitation process for both youngsters and relatives monitored by Save the Children social workers.

But the plan has drawn fire from the state-owned National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) and unnamed non-government groups, which have raised doubts about the credibility of these centres that they called virtually run by the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

The TRO is a social services organisation based in Kilinochchi, one widely believed to be run by the rebels. It has repeatedly denied allegations that it has links with the LTTE.

A ceasefire is currently in place, although the Tiger rebels in April suspended participation in the peace talks that began in September 2002.

Local media has quoted NCPA chairman Harendra de Silva as saying that the very purpose of rehabilitating the children would be lost the moment TRO members are given access. ”UNICEF has so far failed to get an undertaking from the LTTE to halt its child recruitment drive,” he said.

The NCPA comes directly under President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who has been having a running battle with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe over the handling of the peace process. Both come from opposition parties.

During the journalists' visit Friday, UNICEF officials were at pains to explain that the transit centres are a delicate experiment that they hoped would get the children out of a military environment.

”It's a risk. But it is the only opportunity we have to get the children from a military camp to their parents after overcoming whatever sent them to the LTTE,” said Chaiban.

Despite the doubts raised about the transit centres, he said, ”Without the TRO, we will not have a crucial mechanism to work with the LTTE.”

TRO head Regi, who uses one name, said this was not the first time the group was looking after children affected by the war. ”We have been doing it for 17 years by running children's homes and we focus single-mindedly on the welfare of each and every child affected by the war without any financial or political rewards.”

The plan for transit centres came after UNICEF chief Carol Bellamy met the rebels in Kilinochchi in February this year during a visit to Sri Lanka. Bellamy said the rebels could show their sincerity in putting a stop to recruitment of child soldiers by developing a concrete action plan to return child combatants to their families.

The transit centres are ”child-neutral zones” with neither the government nor the LTTE are allowed access. (END/2003)

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