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Released Child Soldiers Rehabilitated At Church Homes

Sri Lanka

May 19 2004

A Church human development center in eastern Sri Lanka is helping former child soldiers from the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) reintegrate into society.

Father Sritharan Sylvester, Eastern Human and Economic Development director in Trincomalee-Batticaloa diocese, told UCA News that Church-run homes were taking care of 10 former child soldiers, aged 15-16, as of late April.

The 10 had left the LTTE and gone to welfare homes run by the Church, the priest said. Officials informed the parents, who visit their children on a monthly basis. Two of the teenagers are Catholics and the rest are Hindus.

All are coping well and have been accepted by others who have discovered their background, said Father Sylvester, whose organization handles the diocese´s relief, rehabilitation, and justice and peace work.

They and others like them were caught up in the war for Tamil autonomy in the north and east waged by the LTTE from 1983. A cease-fire between the rebel group and Sri Lanka´s Sinhalese-led government has been in place since January 2002. By then, up to 80,000 people had been killed in the ethnic war.

Citing the importance of rehabilitating former child soldiers toward their reintegration in society, Father Sylvester said the United Nations Children´s Fund (UNICEF) held discussions with Bishop Joseph Kingsley Swampillai of Trincomalee-Batticaloa about the Church´s involvement.

Bishop Swampillai told UCA News, "We work with UNICEF to accommodate child soldiers as soon as they are released by the LTTE."

He said the diocese, based in Trincomalee, 250 kilometers northeast of Colombo, has 20 welfare homes for orphans, destitute and handicapped children.

According to the bishop, these homes will care for the former child soldiers and provide rehabilitation services. "We are supporting the children´s reintegration into society with UNICEF as the lead agency, although it is not possible to maintain many at one time," he explained.

Father Sylvester said the homes where these children are placed provide for education up to the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level exams, but each child´s capacity for study is considered. Special counseling programs are conducted for children who have been emotionally scarred by the war. Other activities include training in arts and computer skills.

The priest clarified that the homes do not accommodate released children without the expressed request of UNICEF and the parents concerned. These children can stay at the homes until they complete their education.

Father Sylvester said his office is trying to obtain details regarding the duration of the child soldiers´ recruitment and their education level to provide the most appropriate services.

The Church also provides trauma counseling and other counseling programs for teachers and parents, he added.

UNICEF said in a press release April 13 that it had facilitated the release of former child soldiers by the LTTE in Vakarai, eastern Sri Lanka. The agency had met and registered more than 100 children at that point.

A Church source said that in other areas in the eastern region, especially LTTE-controlled areas such as Aithiyamalai, Arasadithiru and Kokkadicholai, children went home on their own after LTTE leader Karuna, who rebelled against the northern-based LTTE leadership, left the region.

The source added that many LTTE child soldiers were "recruited" by being abducted while out of their home, often while going to or from school. Others joined of their own accord.

Father Sylvester pointed out that the Catholic Church has consistently opposed forced recruitment of child soldiers by the LTTE. He said whenever they have the opportunity to meet LTTE officials, they remind them of this.

Meanwhile, Geoffrey Keele, spokesperson for UNICEF Sri Lanka, said Church groups have readily provided alternative care for children released by the LTTE who do not have homes to go to.