Monday, May 20, 2024

Post-conflict Sri Lanka: Blessed are the children, for they will not be snatched

By Malinda Seneviratne

These are days of self-righteous chest-beating and bleeding-heart humanitarianism about the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka and allegations about wrongs done to them by Sri Lankan security forces.  These are days of selectivity and myopia, days of doubled-tongued rhetoric of those who never suffered but indeed funded, hurrahed, armed and in other ways were accessories after the facts of death, destruction, displacement and dismemberment.  These are therefore days to flip the proverbial coin.  ‘The other side’, so to speak, looks like this…..

Someone once proposed that when the first child smiled for the very first time, the smile would have broken into a thousand pieces, gone skipping along in a thousand different directions and that this was the beginning of fairies. I am thinking today of a different ‘first child,’ a child whose first smile brought tears to the eyes of fond parents; happy tears and terrified ones too. That was a smile, which in their eyes, would soon break into a thousand pieces that would never be put together again, a smile whose owner would be forced to carry gun and grenade, ordered to maim and kill and open him/herself to the real possibility of violent death.

There are all kinds of children. I know of 22 lucky children and two lucky teachers. On December 18, 2006, LTTE cadres stormed into a tuition class in Thirukkovil and took these lucky people away. They were lucky because unlike the 23rd child, they were all released because the child-snatchers had slipped up.

One of the teachers described the incident thus: ‘I was preparing these children for the O/L examination, which they had to sit the following day. Three LTTE cadres forced themselves into the class and said they came for the children. When I objected, they slapped me in the face, put a grenade in my mouth and assaulted me like an animal with a club. My fellow teacher was similarly assaulted. We were all bundled into a vehicle, the LTTE cadres beating the children, both boys and girls.’

They were tied in pairs and forced to march into the Kanjikaidichi Aru jungle. They were lucky, because they were released. Except that unfortunate Student No 23, to this day just a number with no name, like thousands of other children that the LTTE forcibly conscripted.

That same day, though, the LTTE had accosted some 300 students in Kawanchikudi and Kaludewala, who were returning home after the exam. It was a ‘join us’ demand. They were warned that refusal would result in reprisals. Many of the students had fled their homes in fear. They were the lucky ones.

Thousands upon thousands were unlucky. They were snatched from their adoring parents, trained to kill and expected to be killed. Some lived long enough to reach 18 and official adulthood, many died without a childhood. Even in the last stages of the battle, the LTTE strapped explosives to a child’s body and asked him to mingle with those who were fleeing LTTE-controlled areas. He was tasked to explode himself when he reached the Sri Lankan troops helping the fleeing civilians.

Exams didn’t stop the LTTE. Christmas was good for recruitment. Pongal too. Children were kidnapped on the 1st of June every year, and it does not matter whether or not the kidnappers knew it was ‘International Children’s Day’. They were abducted on the 20th of November every year. Yes, it doesn’t matter whether or not the abductors knew it was ‘Universal Children’s Day’, as proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1954.

Every day was ‘children’s day’ as far as the LTTE’s child-snatching units were concerned. Every day was hell for both child and parent. As of January 31, 2006, the UNICEF recorded a total of 5368 known cases of under-age recruitment. In the first five years in which the Ceasefire Agreement was ‘in operation’ alone there were over 5000 such cases reported, some even as young as 7 years of age! It is known that LTTE offices as well as the offices of the notorious TRO (Tamil Rehabilitation Organization) were used as recruitment centres; the TRO received a whopping US $ 6,850,000 to ‘rehabilitate child soldiers’. . It is known that only a fraction of the cases actually got reported. It is known that refugee camps for the tsunami displaced were the happy hunting grounds as far as the child-snatchers were concerned. When 300 LTTE combatants were found dead after the security forces overran the LTTE in Weli Oya, the vast majority were found to be children, mostly girls.

Today children in the North and East of this country go to school. They know they’ll go home after school and that their parents will be there to welcome them. Their parents know that their sons and daughters will be home for lunch. It’s ‘Universal Children’s Day’ in the formerly LTTE-controlled areas. Every day.

Two years have passed since the LTTE was vanquished. Had the outcome been different what kind of expression would we find in child and parent in these areas, have you wondered? What kind of tear or smile would grace the countenance of a mother who has just given birth and upon a man who has just become a father? Would smile and tear break into a thousand pieces and if they do would they turn into fairies or gargoyles, be lifted by angels or by thugs? What kind of cut-paste would follow, have you asked yourself?

A child then was a potential gun-toting killer, a cog in a military wheel, cannon fodder, and factored in the mindless equations of the ‘liberator’ as disposable. A child today once epitomizes innocence, vulnerability, hope and the future.

On February 22, 2007, the fifth anniversary of the CFA, I wrote, ‘[This] horror story demands closure; the monster that delivers nightmares to innocent children has to be laid to rest’.

There are thousands of children who would not be going to school or indeed going anywhere had a different outcome materialized. They would be dead, most likely. Thousands more would be on virtual death row, courtesy the LTTE. Some were unlucky.

Some are blessed and that’s cause for relief if not celebration.

Back then smiles broke into nightmares. Today, they can break into thousands and thousands of flowers. Back then, smiles were not associated with hope. Today they reflect a future.

I know that thousands of parents in the North and East sleep better these days. I do too.

Latest news

Related news