Under violent and oppressive social conditions, children are traumatised and mentally crippled in a variety of ways. In most cases, however, there is an invaluable asset that cushions the fall — the community. A child who sees its helpless father or mother suffer abuse, violence or even death at the hands of a powerful group, on account of caste, ethnicity or religion, could become fatally scarred. However, the solidarity and refuge the child finds within its own community makes a crucial difference. It could save the child from a life of destructive engagement. Spontaneous communal solidarity among persons of diverse persuasions and political attitudes has been the feature of the healthier liberation struggles. The home, the village, and often, like in Latin America, the church, have been places of solace and hope — especially in the face of such horrendous violence as, for example, the Palestinians continue to suffer.
But if you take away that community, literally booby trap every nook of it with spies and informers who could make a man, woman or child pay the ultimate price for saying the wrong thing, there is no refuge, no hope. This internal or fascist repression wrecks the child completely. The childhood of an entire community is stolen. It takes place in a context where the moral sense of an entire community has been battered to the point where people fear each other and no prospect of solidarity exists.
The fallout has been appallingly tragic among the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) raid homes at night to take away the father — usually someone regarded as a just man — who is never to be seen again. The victim may simply have expressed his feelings about what was going on around him. Or maybe he helped a fugitive escape a harrowing fate. The last thing the child remembers of the father is the eerie roar of motorcycles in the dead of night, the tap on the door and armed men, whose power appears limitless, saying they want the father for questioning. Then the dreadful days and nights when the mother tries in vain to assure the child that the father will soon return.
Such personal histories of agony and despair have been numerous in this country, resulting from the actions of state forces as well as rebel groups like the LTTE and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). But as this becomes a permanent feature of Sri Lankan Tamil society, for the affected families, especially the children, this loss of a parent has an additional dimension of pain. When one’s father disappears at the hands of the LTTE, there is no community to condemn the action, no neighbour, schoolteacher or priest to tell the child, "Son, your father was a great and upright man who stood up for values of decency and humanity. One day justice will be done and those responsible will be punished." Instead, the child is surrounded by a cacophony denigrating his father and everything he stood for. Newspapers, platform speakers and university professors declare that the LTTE is the only force of national liberation and those who are a hindrance to their cause are traitors. Even bishops and swamis say the same thing, though with calculated ambivalence.
For poorer families with no connections to build a life elsewhere, the LTTE, the very force that blighted them with death, also controls all government resources and relief agencies. The only meaningful thing children see in that society is the LTTE and the power it wields to kill and torture. Placed in a vacuum with no community, desperate and broken in mind and cut off from all healthier influences, grasping for that power to kill and hurt could become an obsession — more so after seeing the father’s helplessness and the mother’s distress and humiliation. A child who keeps faith with the dead father’s memory, faces a life of torture and terrible distress.
This is the thin end of the wedge that encapsulates the workings of a whole society mangled and maimed by fascist control. In the course of our work for the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) [UTHR (J)], we have encountered several instances of such pathologies, which destroy all sense of right and wrong and intimately govern the fate of children. An LTTE man who was in charge of the government stores in Point Pedro used to send some rations to the home of his fiancée — a perfectly human thing to do. Someone reported this to the LTTE, which had the man executed. The young woman mourned her lover’s death, crying bitterly by his corpse for two days. Marked by the tragedy and isolated from all sources of comfort, she joined the women’s wing of the LTTE in a desperate surrender to meaninglessness.
In the case of another woman, her husband was killed by the LTTE because he was accused of being friendly with Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) soldiers who were camping nearby, during 1988-90. Lacking the means to look after her children, the widow was desperate. The LTTE came forward with an offer in return for her soul. They arranged for money from abroad to be sent to her. She, as instructed, moved with her children and rented a house in Colombo. One room was kept for the use of clandestine LTTE operatives who moved in and out.
The LTTE abducted thousands of children in the former Eastern Province for military service. One was a girl of about 14 from Kalkuda, whose father had been in a Left-oriented group that was banned by the LTTE and violently decimated. Though in no sense politically mature, the girl conscript felt an inner repulsion and was slack during training. Her women trainers tortured her severely and, weeks later, ill and in utter agony, she was dumped back home. These are mere symptoms of a deeply traumatised society where everyone is sick.
The birth of the child soldier
The armed Tamil liberation struggle gathered momentum in the late 1970s, under the impact of the State resorting to licensed lawlessness and communal pogroms, while refusing to address political grievances. There was death and suffering, but these had meaning as sacrifices in the cause of liberation. These deaths were regarded with collective grief and reverence. Humanity was preserved. Differences of opinion were accepted. Those like myself, who held that violence was degrading, immoral and ultimately destructive, could function in that environment. There was internecine violence but there were also independent voices, such as among university students in Jaffna, trying to counter this trend.
In May 1986, the LTTE in a bid for totalitarian control attacked and massacred hundreds of members of the fellow militant group Tamil Eelam Liberation Org anisation (TELO). Dead and dying members of the latter were burnt at street junctions. The people said among themselves, "We have produced our own Hitlers." The LTTE quickly went around making loudspeaker announcements: "No one must talk about or analyse what has happened." The liberation struggle died.
The younger generation made a last effort in November 1986, when students of the University of Jaffna organised a mass protest led by the dynamic student leader Vimaleswaran, and the LTTE negotiated a settlement. But as soon as the protest dispersed, LTTE hunted down the leaders and Vimaleswaran was assassinated subsequently.
Most news reports on the Sri Lankan conflict end on the note, "The LTTE have been fighting for a separate state for the Tamils for 20 years." That is a total misrepresentation. The people were not involved in the struggle after 1986. While it lasted, several groups fought side by side against the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE was not the most distinguished of them. The other groups lost several hundreds of their cadres in battle, sometimes rescuing the LTTE from tight corners. After the LTTE had decimated them, the total militant strength dropped by 75 per cent. This was when the LTTE started relying on children and women to make up the numbers.
The first half of 1987 was a year of steady advances for the Sri Lankan forces. The LTTE was saved from catastrophe by the Indian intervention and the Indo-Lanka Accord. Then, in October 1987, the LTTE leader went to war with the Indian Army. His ideological pretensions, which justified the mass murder of political opponents, had acquired religious overtones. No political compromise on a separate state, no hint of power-sharing or acknowledging others’ contributions to the Tamil struggle was acceptable to him. Mature people stayed away from this militant group. The era of the child soldier had arrived.
The LTTE’s strategy was simple. As the Indian Army converged on Jaffna Town, LTTE troops, frequently children, fired at its soldiers from civilian concentrations or schools and places of worship that were refugee camps, and withdrew. The harsh responses of Indian soldiers resulted in significant civilian deaths, including those of women and children. At the Jaffna Hospital, four young LTTE members fired at the advancing Indian Army column from the hospital balcony and escaped. In retaliation, the Indian Army killed seventy in the hospital — patients, medical staff and civilians. The LTTE, whose political bankruptcy had been exposed by the Indo-Lanka Accord, used the devastation and civilian casualties to advance the claim that India had betrayed the Tamils.
Many well-known LTTE leaders had been killed in the initial battle with the Indian Army. Thereafter, the LTTE often used ten-year-olds with pistols to shoot local community leaders who worked at restoring civilian life to normal. The community had come to be controlled by internal terror and was gripped by a moral emptiness. Life and death had lost their meaning. ‘Patriot’ and ‘traitor’ became empty words in the mouths of hollow demagogues.
However, the Indian Army’s presence spurred a revival of activism in the University of Jaffna. This period also saw the origin of the UTHR (J). Just after the entry of the Indian Army, when the community was paralysed, a group of staff members, among whom the anatomist Rajani Thiranagama (for her poetry on the war in Jaffna, see The Little Magazine, Vol. IV/2, Via Media) was prominent, took the lead in dealing with the Indian Army and reopening the University. It was an act of defiance against the LTTE, which claimed to be the sole voice of the people. The UTHR(J) raised its voice against violations by the Indian Army, the LTTE and the Tamil groups that had been cornered into operating alongside the Indian Army. The LTTE regarded us with extreme displeasure and the Indian Army with suspicion.
That was when the university became the community’s voice against the use of children in violence and combat. From the beginning, reports of the UTHR (J) detailed through case studies the individual and social tragedy of children being drawn into violence. Rajani’s work extended beyond this. A firm opponent of the recruitment of children into militant groups like the LTTE, she went beyond the university to establish networks of solidarity among women whose families had been affected by the violence. On September 21, 1989, the day after the Indian government announced the pull back of the Indian Army, Rajani was murdered in the street by an LTTE assassin.
Rajan Hoole is an active member of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna). Author of ‘Sri Lanka, The Arrogance of Power: Myths, Decadence and Murder’, and co-author of ‘The Broken Palmyra’, which details the Tamil community’s experience of the armed forces and the LTTE, he lives in Jaffna. The reports of the UTHR(J) are at http://www.uthr.org