SURRENDERED CHILD SOLDIERS TELL OF FORCED ENLISTMENT
November 17 1998
The 16 teenagers filed in before the waiting cameras, boys and then girls, some with downcast eyes and others with a stoic gaze or blank stare. Their necks, once adorned with a deadly cyanide capsule, now were bare.
The Sri Lankan armed forces introduced the 12 boys and four girls aged 13-17 at a recent news conference here as former members of the child brigades of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE is fighting a 15-year-old war for autonomy for ethnic Tamils in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.
"This is the first time such a large batch of LTTE members has surrendered en bloc," said Brigadier Sunil Tennakoon. Ten others who surrendered during fighting Sept. 29 in Mankulum in northern Sri Lanka remained hospitalized.
The children described how they were conscripted to fight in the ethnic war pitting Tamils against Sinhalese, a war they said they did not understand.
The 13-year-old, a boy from Mulliavallevu, said that he was living with his grandmother when he was kidnapped by the LTTE while on his way to school.
"When they came to our schools they lectured us, telling us that we had to sacrifice our lives for Eelam, but we never wanted to listen to them. We did not know what they were talking about or why they wanted to fight," he said.
"I cried, not when they took me by force but when I was all alone," the boy added. Never having carried a gun, he was trained to use mortars.
A 17-year-old girl from Pallai said that she was going to buy books when she met LTTE members distributing propaganda.
"I came home without listening to them," she said. "The following day they came to my home, and when I refused to go with them they took me by force." She said that there were 150 girls in her camp.
The children said that although they were trained to use weapons, they never killed anyone. They also said that they had not seen Sinhalese before.
"We have never seen a group of Sinhalese people ever before; we are seeing them here for the first time," said one. "We were told that the Sinhalese are our enemies and it was our duty to kill them."
In the end, though, the children said their desire for survival prevailed.
"We saw members of our group going ahead of us, falling with the firing of the guns," said one child. "We were manning the defense line. When we saw others succumb to death, our desire to live was great."
"We shouted to say that we wanted to surrender, but due to the continuous fighting our voices could not be heard," the child continued. "We went down into the bunkers, and at dawn we went to the army with our hands raised."
The surrendered children said they wanted to live in peace and to continue their studies. A 17-year-old said she hoped to become a doctor.
Military spokesman Tennakoon promised that the children would be rehabilitated. However, personal and family concerns will remain.
"We can never go back to our villages," said one child. "There is a threat to our lives, as we have defied LTTE orders to take cyanide rather than surrender to the armed forces."
"If I did not join (the LTTE), my family members would have had to face the consequences," added a 17-year-old girl. "But now things could turn worse when the LTTE knows that we have voluntarily surrendered."
"I fear to think what could happen to people at home."
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