Tamil Tigers get claws into young refugees
From Nick Meo in Batticaloa,
Sri Lanka

 Sunday Herald - The boys playing cricket with a home-made bat and an old tennis ball in Thiramadu refugee camp pack up promptly at dusk these days. The scrawny 13 and 14-year-olds, many of whom look much younger, all know what happened to their playmate Detson a few weeks ago. Armed men from a renegade Tamil Tigers faction came for him at night. The children haven’t seen him since.

The youngster is probably not too far away from the sprawling tin-hut camp for tsunami survivors on the outskirts of Batticaloa. As the boys squabble and laugh over their nightly game, Detson is probably standing guard in the jungle a few miles away, holding an AK-47 almost as big as he is.

As Sri Lanka slides into a new phase of civil war, the press gangs from the Tamil Tigers are energetically seeking out new recruits. They look for teenagers attracted by the glamour of the cause. But if there are not enough of them, any boys – or girls –will do. Child soldiers are among the most ferocious fighters for the Tigers. Some go on to become Black Tiger suicide bombers.

In the past few months, hundreds of youngsters have been abducted, at night or on their way to school. Aid agencies in the country’s east are besieged by tearful mothers pleading for help. In Batticaloa parents try to hide their children at night from the illicit draft. It has a nickname: round-up.

Young boys in Thiramadu, Sri Lanka’s biggest resettlement camp for tsunami survivors, are haunted by the fear of abduction. "Our teachers tell us to be careful and our mothers tell us to come indoors after dark," says a youngster called Thenesh.

Fear returned to the east of the country as the hopes of the 2002 ceasefire slowly died during the course of this year. Tortured bodies turn up around Batticaloa most mornings. Gunfights sometimes break out after dark between loyalists from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the breakaway faction belonging to Colonel Karuna which has sided with the government. Tamil families who can afford to leave are migrating to India, but most have to take their chances.

"We don’t know why this war has started again," says one old man with a nervous glance to see if any spies or informers are listening. "You must ask the LTTE and the government why they are fighting again. Nobody here wants anything to do with armed groups or the army. But when they come for children, what can we do?"

Batticaloa, a languid fishing town of mosques and temples with an ancient Dutch fort, has the misfortune of lying at the centre of a three-way split in eastern Sri Lanka. Government soldiers hold the town, fighting LTTE rebels across a stinking muddy lagoon. The turncoat Karuna runs an adjoining fiefdom. Both the LTTE and Karuna are furiously recruiting children .

A few miles up the coast road is the scruffy market town of Valachchenai. A nun from one of the churches there says one of her pupils was abducted a few days ago.

"The girl’s mother was foolish," the nun says. "She knew they wanted that girl and she did nothing to send her away. Now nobody knows where she is."

The 16-year-old abductee cannot be named as the gunmen could return to her family looking for revenge.

Hundreds of mothers complain about abductions to the United Nations children’s organisation Unicef, which then contacts the LTTE or the Karuna faction to ask them to return the children to their families. According to Unicef’s Junko Mitani: "Sometimes they release the child, sometimes they don’t."

Unicef’s figures show that 5666 children were abducted between the ceasefire in 2002, when many child soldiers were released, and July this year. But officials believe only around a third of cases are reported to them.

Mothers do not talk openly about the abductions for fear of revenge attacks. One admits that she fears complaining to the police because her family could then be tortured as LTTE sympathisers.

The Tigers have allowed her one brief reunion with her 17-year-old son at a jungle training camp since his abduction last year. "When I hear bombing or shelling I really worry for him," she says. "His father is ill and the family depends on him. Our only hope is that there will be peace again, and the Tigers will release him."


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