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  Sri Lankan Youngsters See Death

By Dilshika Jayamaha
Associated Press Writer
Saturday, Sept. 9, 2000; 12:12 p.m. EDT

BANDARAWELA, Sri Lanka –– Overlooking vast tea gardens and flower farms, a tin-roofed building on a small hill echoes with the laughter of boys playing an unusual game of charades.

One gestures as if plowing a rice field.

Another playmate hazards a guess: "He is digging a mass grave."

"No," says another. "He is bayoneting a half-dead soldier,"

The boys are former Tamil Tiger child soldiers who have either surrendered or been captured in the civil war that has savaged parts of Sri Lanka for 17 years.

To an Associated Press reporter and photographer who were allowed by the Sri Lankan military to visit the rehabilitation camp, the youngsters tell of being lured into action by videos depicting Tamil heroism, of planting mines and of going on reconnaissance missions. One boy speaks of missing his mother's cooking.

Once freed from detention, they are caught in a limbo. They can try to live in the Sinhalese-dominated south as Tamil outsiders under constant suspicion, or move back to the Tamil north and risk punishment for abandoning the fight for a Tamil homeland on the island.

According to the United Nations, more than 300,000 girls and boys aged under 18 are involved in fighting in more than 30 countries, and their plight will be highlighted at a weeklong conference beginning Sunday in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Canadian government agencies are playing host to the International Conference on War-Affected Children. Of the 50 children coming to the conference, 25 are from countries involved in wars: Sierra Leone, Angola, Rwanda, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Israel and Burma.

In Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have admitted only once to using child fighters. During a 1998 visit by Olara Otunnu, U.N. representative for Children in Armed Conflict, they said they would stop recruiting fighters aged under 16.

But the independent University Teachers for Human Rights, a group of Tamil intellectuals, accused the rebels in July of forcing boys and girls as young as 10 to serve as fighters and of torturing those who refuse.

Why children? Because children make good soldiers, says Henrik Haggstrom of the Swedish chapter of Save the Children, who has worked for more than 10 years with militias that use children.

Modern lightweight weapons enable kids as young as 10 to be efficient killers. They can carry bombs and infiltrate enemy lines. Adult soldiers are reluctant to shoot children.

There is no credible estimate of how many child fighters are with the Tamil rebels. But the Sri Lankan military says it often finds one or two bodies of children among 10 to 15 rebel corpses after a battle.

The Tamil Tigers are outlawed in Sri Lanka. Their office in London asked that questions be faxed but did not reply to them.

In the rehabilitation center, among tea and farms growing marigolds and roses, are 34 former child fighters, now aged 14 to 20.

"Smile. Sad faces are only good for begging," says a poster hanging on a wall at the center.

The charades were organized by James Thompson, a British drama lecturer who runs trauma counseling workshops in Sri Lanka. He didn't mention war, just asked the boys to act out whatever they pleased.

The Sri Lankan military gave the AP access to all the boys, but only two would talk, and they would give only a first name.

Jeyashanthan, a slim young man in a T-shirt, pants and slippers, stood under a mango tree and spoke haltingly of his recruitment, occasionally trying to change the subject.

He said he was 14 in 1994 when "annas," or big brothers, as he called the rebel recruiters, came to his village in Achchuveli in the northern Jaffna peninsula. They put on a video show of modern-day battlefield exploits and epics about the invasion of Sri Lanka by India's Tamil kings centuries ago.

"I made up my mind and told my mother," said Jeyashanthan. "I was picked up by another group of 'big brothers' and taken to a training camp where I found 300 others like me."

He said he saw his parents and 10 brothers and sisters only once more over the following six years.

"I missed the tasty rice and curry my mother cooked," he said.

"At the camp, we had to wake up at 4:30 a.m.," he said. "At daybreak we had to assemble and pledge allegiance to Vellupillai Prabhakaran, honesty and the cause of Tamil Eelam." Prabhakaran is the Tamil Tigers' leader. Eelam means homeland.

"The first few weeks were terrible. Many of us could not stand the physical training. But the 'big brothers' told us pain will bring liberation," he said.

"There is no freedom in the movement. No music, no commercial films, no swearing or smoking," said Jeyashanthan. Drugs and sex were also banned, he said.

"Later they gave us training with weapons and use of land mines," he said. "The commander- 'big brother' would stand in front of a blackboard and write down the do's and don'ts. They made dummies using straw and would tell us to use them as targets."

After three months of training, Jeyashanthan said, he got his first assignment, to join half a dozen other kids reconnoitering military camps.

In late August 1998, Jeyashanthan said, he reconnoitered the town of Kilinochchi. A month later the rebels attacked it. About 900 soldiers and guerrillas died during the two-day battle.

Jeyashanthan insisted he never shot or killed anyone. "I wasn't involved in direct shootouts," he said. But he would not say whether the mines he planted killed anyone.

In November 1999, Sri Lankan troops raided a rebel camp near Kilinochchi and captured him.

He was brought to the rehabilitation center in Bandarawela, a town of 60,000 people 120 miles east of Colombo, the capital.

"No one knows I am here," said Jeyashanthan. The rebels, he said, "will shoot me, kill me, if I go back."

Bhavan, slim and tall and looking older than his 19 years, said he was one of three brothers and was given to the guerrillas by his family at age 16. "The rebels asked each family to give one child toward the cause. So I joined."

He said he was captured by the army last December as he tried to get his family out of rebel territory. They were separated and he does not know their fate.

"I was never bothered by the hard life or fear of death when I was with the 'big brothers.' But what I missed was my lonely mother," Bhavan said. His father, a farmer, died when he was 10.

Last year he received a letter from his mother asking him to come home to help the family financially, as the rice crop had failed.

"I debated whether to tell the 'big brothers' about this, or just flee. I was worried they might not believe me, so I escaped during an operation," Bhavan said. He hid in a thicket and when his group advanced to attack, he turned back and ran.

The army caught him. "I was questioned and occasionally beaten for 2 1/2 months, when I was in army custody," he said.

"I don't know why, but one day the questioning stopped and they brought me here."

Bhavan said he has studied carpentry. The boys stay up to one year at the center and leave with papers explaining their background, said an officer, Capt. K. Abeyratne.

Still, they are sometimes arrested at military checkpoints by soldiers who believe the documents are fake.

Bhavan said he has no idea where he will go when he leaves the camp.

"There will be no end to the whole thing until both sides talk peace and come to a settlement," he said.

Then he added: "What's the point in living?"

© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press

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