Children at war

Young soldiers are salvaging their lives, writes Nicola Brennan-Tupara .

She touches her long black hair constantly - stroking it as if it's her most prized possession.

Wrapping it around her body, it's something of a security blanket as she opens up about what the Tamil Tigers took from her and what she is still trying to get back.

Tsharsika was 14 when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) grabbed her as she walked home from school in Jaffna, Sri Lanka's northern most city.

Like many female child soldiers before her, they cut off all her hair - hair she'd been growing since she was born.

She was now no longer an individual - or female - but a soldier fighting for an independent Tamil state.

She spent four years with the Tigers, not knowing what the next day would bring, until one day she worked up the courage to escape, with the help of her family, who'd fought so hard to find out where she was.

"It was very difficult - and I was scared," she says looking down nervously, avoiding eye contact.

But her escape did not come without cost. The Tigers, who'd spent years training her, weren't going to give up without a fight.

They came looking for her at her family home, but prepared, her parents had sent her to live elsewhere for three months.

One night the Tigers stormed her house while her parents slept. They woke and screamed for help, and the rest of the village came to their aid - forcing the Tigers away.

The family went into hiding for months after that - but kept Tsharsika safe.

Tsharsika was one of many thousands of children (40 per cent girls) kidnapped by the LTTE and forced to fight. The youngest of the girls were enslaved as maids to cook and clean for the soldiers.

But as they got older, the girls were forced to act as spies and informers.

Some were also forced to marry often abusive guerrilla leaders.

Meanwhile, the young boys were armed and sent off to fight the government troops or sometimes used as suicide bombers.

The country's civil war ended in May 2009, when government forces defeated the Tigers, but a large number of these young adults continue to suffer despite re-education, rehabilitation and social integration processes.

They've been left with a spectrum of conditions: depression and post traumatic stress disorder, to more severe reactive psychosis, leaving some complete psychological and social wrecks.

One study conducted in Sri Lanka found higher rates of PTSD in children than adults who were conscripted by the Tigers.

Tsharsika found it very hard, at first, to get back to a normal way of life.

The vocational training provided by Save the Children taught her how to sew, but without any ID card at the time, she was unable to work. She remains unemployed after injuring herself when a tractor tyre fell on her arm.

While she's happy, it's clear those days still haunt her. She doesn't want to get married because she feels safer at home with her parents. So she spends her days helping her mother around the house.

These children also continue to face social isolation.

One agency, who works with former child combatants, says many children like Tsharsika still face intimidation from the armed forces. For girls, in the beginning, it was especially hard as they could be easily identified as former soldiers due to their short hair.

Many other children would avoid them, for fear of being harassed as well.

OVER in Mullaitivu, on the north-eastern coast of Sri Lanka and the last battleground during the end of the 26-year civil war, Thiruesh Kumar is also trying to rebuild his life. He's positive about the future, despite so many around him still living in makeshift huts.

The strongly built 20-year-old has a kind face, but behind his eyes lie memories that no child should ever have to endure.

First recruited by the LTTE at 15, there were many times he thought he'd never see his family again.

They were finally reunited, but again separated as they fled the final firefight in 2009. Due to Thiruesh's background in the LTTE, he was taken from his parents and sent to an army camp.

He was only reunited again with his family last year after being shifted between several army camps.

A huge smile beams across his face when he talks about the moment he saw them for the first time after the war.

Now he wants to stay with his family - where he says he's the happiest.

He's just completed a six-month electrician course, provided at a vocational training centre run by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), and is one month into a three month on-the-job training.

He is one of 50 war affected children to have graduated from the centre - 60 more are currently there studying either as tailors, beauticians, electricians or aluminium fitters.

Manager of the centre T Tharsilean says training these young adults is crucial for the future of the area, which faces the daunting task of rebuilding almost from scratch.

Despite everything he's been through, Thiruesh says he's happy - particularly for the freedom he now has. During the war he had no freedom, even after being released from the Tigers - it wasn't safe to walk the streets - but now he says he has the freedom to go anywhere. "There are no restrictions, so I'm very happy."

He says thanks to Unicef he's now got a new life. "I want to make the most of that."

His mother stands proudly as her son talks about his plans for the future and how he wants to support them.

Unicef has now put 600 former child soldiers through education, either formal or vocational. They have also provided them with psychosocial help.

Child protection officer S Ravindran says for many sitting in a classroom again was tough work, but providing that structure helped many children back to a place of normality.

Going home to a family life was also tough, says Unicef Sri Lanka communications officer Suzanne Davy.

"The dilemma is many of these children left home as young kids, boy and girls. Now they are actually returning as adults and they're suddenly faced with the dilemma of ‘What use am I going to be for my family? How am I going to contribute to their livelihood?' "

Many were sent back to families who had been left with nothing after the war - and after spending so long in centres and camps, that was quite a shock for some.

That was the case for former child combatant Thanushan, who is undertaking an aluminium fitting course through Unicef's Mullaitivu centre.

For him life is still a struggle. The 19-year-old's family of seven are still living in a temporary house after their house was destroyed during the final onslaught.

Now they're trying any which way they can to find the money to rebuild.

Thanushan once dreamed of being a teacher, but the Tigers put an end to that when they captured him at school when he was 15.

Now he just wants to make a living and this course will provide him with his best chance of employment as the town looks to rebuild. While he says life is still very hard, he's much happier now than during the war time.

Davy says the war might be over, but these young people's struggles are only just beginning. "During the emergency Sri Lanka was on the agenda and in the news. But now we are in a situation where we are trying to recover and rebuild systems. And these kids, who are so desperately in need and so woefully affected. . . Well now it's much more difficult to get the money necessary to continue and build those protection centres - to go on supporting those kids who have missed out on so much."

Donations were critical, now more than ever, to ensure these children enjoyed positive futures. "If you go to stretches up north, the last area of conflict, it's shocking.

"Basically people are going back to nothing. There's no infrastructure. We've built some schools and so forth, but there's only so much we can do without further funding."

For the sake of continued peace, these children need to be able to go back and feel they could contribute in some way, she says.

"It's great the conflict is over, but we need to make sure that those needs, gaps and vulnerabilities are addressed for these young people. If not, the cycle will continue for the next generation and the generation after that.

"It's endlessly sad that Sri Lanka is off the map. Peace is important for the Asian region and for Australasia."

Nicola Brennan-Tupara's trip to Sri Lanka was funded by the Asia New Zealand Foundation.


In a 2004 report to Human Rights Watch Sri Lankan child soldiers said they were held at a local LTTE political office or camp for two or three days before being transported to a training camp. Girls and boys were separated for basic training, which often took place in groups of 250 to 300 young adults and children. They had to rise at 4am for rigorous training, including physical exercise, weapons training, and military strategy. After about four to seven months they were assigned to units for specialised training, depending on their particular strengths. Further training included combat operations and how to set up and use landmines, bombs and heavy weapons. Children with little schooling were more likely to be assigned to combat units, while educated children were trained in medicine, intelligence, or administration. Discipline was strict and punishment for mistakes harsh. Children reported having boiling water poured on them if couldn't work or got something wrong. Others were taken into the jungle and severely beaten by older Tigers. Those who tried to escape were beaten in front of the other children as a warning. Children recruited before the 2002 ceasefire, and during the final battles of 2008-09, were sent to the frontline to fight against the Sri Lankan military.