Fresh wave of child soldiers in Sri Lanka after tsunamis
By Amal Jayasinghe
The United Nations children’s fund Wednesday accused Tamil Tiger rebels of recruiting at least 40 child soldiers since tsunamis devastated Sri Lanka’s coastlines and killed nearly 31,000 people.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had taken three children from a relief centre for survivors in the northeastern region of Trincomalee and another from the neighbouring Batticaloa district, UNICEF said. The other children had been recruited from areas of the northeast held by the guerrillas, UNICEF spokesman Geoffrey Keele said. “We have 40 cases of confirmed child recruitment since the tsunamis,” Keele said. “We had hoped that with such a disaster the LTTE would have ended this practice. But unfortunately no.” A child as young as 13 was among the 22 boys and 18 girls recruited by the Tigers despite repeated international condemnation of the practice. Most of them were aged between 15 and 17.
Keele said UNICEF was involved in extensive post-tsunami relief operations and had hoped the Tigers would stop taking children into their ranks. The UN agency had initially raised the cases of 29 children with the Tigers but the figure later rose to 40. There was no immediate response from the rebels, he said.
Tiger guerrillas were not immediately available for comment but have in the past denied recruiting children. They have said they are providing food and shelter to poor children. The question of child recruitment was taken up with the LTTE last week by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which had also expressed serious concern about the issue.
UNHCR International Protection department director Erika Feller said officials raised claims by rights groups that the Tigers were using the catastrophe to recruit child soldiers in a meeting with LTTE political chief S.P. Thamilselvan in a meeting last week. While Thamilselvan had denied the claim and attributed it to “misreporting by journalists,” child recruitment had long been “an issue” between the UN and the LTTE, she said.
“We hope the issue is now behind us and not before us,” Feller added.
However, the UNICEF reopened the case Wednesday while answering questions on the situation of children a month after the tsunamis devastated much of the island’s coastlines.
More than 40 percent of those killed in Sri Lanka were children.
Troops and rebels have been observing a truce since February 2002 despite a breakdown in peace negotiations since April 2003.
Human Rights Watch last November accused the rebels of enlisting more than 3,500 boys and girls aged below 18 since the Oslo-brokered truce went into place.
“The ceasefire has brought an end to the fighting but not to the Tamil Tigers’ use of children as soldiers,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director for the New York-based group. “Many Tamil families who expected a ‘peace dividend’ now expect an unwelcome visit from armed Tamil Tiger recruiters.”
The LTTE used intimidation and threats to pressure Tamil families in the north and east to provide sons and daughters for military service, Human Rights Watch said.
Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists and foreign governments have also criticised the recruitment of child soldiers.Three decades of fighting in the Sinhalese-majority island claimed over 60,000 lives before the truce went into forces. afp