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
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:
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
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
"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
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
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."