President Premadasa’s move to get the Indian Army out while appeasing the LTTE led to the expected catastrophe. Weakened by the Indian Army, the LTTE widely used child soldiers to fight its war. The Sri Lankan government’s callous disregard for the Tamil civilian population enabled the LTTE to cajole and dragoon a flood of children into its ranks. Children were used in the massed attack on Jaffna Fort, a mere prestige symbol. Large formations of children were also used in the failed attack on Elephant Pass camp in July 1991.
And LTTE spokesperson Yogi’s sarcastic attack on a group of university students who had queued up to donate blood for the injured is indicative of the Tamil society’s general lack of involvement. He said, "It is you who should be fighting in the battlefield, while the children donate blood. We are seeing the reverse." The adults played obligingly safe with the LTTE, having completely lost faith in its politics, trying various ruses to beat its draconian pass system and escape from its grip. Meanwhile community leaders and professors made speeches goading other people’s children into LTTE ranks, while their own children, with the LTTE’s blessings, were safely sent abroad.
Two university students, Chelvy and Manoharan, had been close to Rajani. Among the last scenes they witnessed were the excruciating suffering of hundreds of injured children in Jaffna Hospital, after the Elephant Pass attack, where more than 500 children were killed. They reported with anguish the sight of children without limbs, screaming, cursing and asking for their mothers, not comprehending what had happened to them. Shortly afterwards, Chelvy and Manoharan were arrested by the LTTE. They were documenting what the LTTE did not want the world to know. Like thousands of others, they disappeared into the LTTE’s notorious complex of torture and extermination camps.
The LTTE was subjecting the community to a dual tragedy. The two components inevitably complemented one another. On the one hand, children sent out on suicidal attacks were dying by the hundreds and thousands in the battlefield. At the same time, dissidents incarcerated in a network of prisons were secretly being driven in trucks into the deep jungle. An LTTE man later confessed, "Throughout the day prisoners were brought to us by the truckloads. Our orders were to massacre them. It was exhausting work!"
The LTTE regularly raided schools and refugee camps targeting children through intense propaganda, or accosted them individually on the streets. Those showing the slightest weakness were spirited away. Children who cried or yearned for their mothers were beaten in front of other children to set an example. Parents who traced their child after an exhaustive search would sometimes be confronted with the child, and when asked whether he or she wanted to go back to the parents, the child invariably said ‘no’.
The militants turn these children into killers. In the LTTE’s unprovoked attacks on Muslim villages in the East, even 12-year-old children were employed in mangling Muslim women and infants as part of a deliberate policy of brutalisation. Such children are frequently handpicked and used secretively by leaders, as internal assassins of troublesome elements within the LTTE. Many such children broke down in due course. In a case I am familiar with, a boy who was a ‘lamb’ at home became a trusted assassin who, on orders, treacherously killed several of his comrades. Shortly before his death, he confessed all this to his aunt. "Every time I see my father," he said, "I feel like plugging a bullet into his brain, just to see him suffer."
Suicide as a means of escape came naturally to this society, battered as it was from within. While it destroyed itself, those around it and all that it had achieved, it became prolific in producing suicide bombers, who were frequently those inducted into the group at a very young age. Cyanide capsules, which these children wore around their necks, aptly symbolised this horrific trend.
Meanwhile, the numerical decline of Tamil society, poverty, exhaustion and total disillusionment made it increasingly difficult for the LTTE to recruit. In August 2001, the LTTE ruled that each family in Batticaloa must provide them with at least one child and began a process of forced abduction of children. Children from ten upwards were forced into the trailers of tractors and driven away with their screaming mothers running after them. The parents who resisted were beaten. Widows and lone mothers were confronted with the abduction of the child they relied on most, making them and the remaining children more vulnerable to the predatory impulses of the LTTE. Young girls were forcibly dragged along the street. Sometimes, distraught parents committed suicide on account of the conscription of their children. When the LTTE conscripts children, it knows nothing of the buried history of the family. Many children have escaped or shown deep-seated reactions to their conscription by a group that had killed a loved one. Several children who reacted unfavourably were tortured, beaten and killed, as the UTHR(J) reports have detailed.
Any humanity the leaders may have possessed had atrophied over the years. They looked upon these children abducted from the poorest sections of society as mere human bombs. Just before Sri Lanka’s December 2001 elections, LTTE spokesperson Anton Balasingam told the cheering expatriate audience in a London rally: "Our fellows have been hovering about to garland [rival group leader] Douglas Devananda, but his security detail has prevented them getting close enough." Balasingam’s allusion is drawn from the slaying of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a suicide bomber who had just garlanded him. These human bombs have become so cheap and expendable!
The Tamil people know that this is terribly wrong. But their acceptance of enforced silence has also diminished their indignation when it happens to other people’s children. The mass conscription of children and Balasingam’s words appeared in the context of an imminent change of government. The LTTE had opened all stops to usher the United National Party (UNP) to power, having already reached an understanding on the ‘peace process’. Ominously, the LTTE intensified child conscription after the UNP victory.
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