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IV. LTTE Recruitment of Children During the Cease-Fire

The February 2002 cease-fire agreement signed by the LTTE and the government explicitly prohibited abduction, harassment, and intimidation against civilians.13 However, since the cease-fire the LTTE has continued to recruit children, often by force, and to pressure and threaten families that resist. Between the signing of the cease-fire agreement and November 2004, UNICEF documented 3,516 cases of child recruitment by the LTTE, with the largest number taking place in Batticaloa district in the East. The actual number of children recruited by the LTTE may be significantly higher.14 Sri Lankan government officials and local human rights organizations believe several thousand new recruits, including many children, were added to the LTTE ranks following the start of the cease-fire, though this cannot be confirmed.

A UNICEF representative in Trincomalee told Human Rights Watch, “An enormous recruitment drive began with the cease-fire. Reporting increased, and we received SOS calls from schools. The LTTE had access to government controlled areas like never before.”  She reported that in Trincomalee district, recruitment was so intense in 2002 that less than 50 percent of students were going to school. Many parents kept their children at home out of fear that they would be recruited while walking to and from school.15

Under the cease-fire agreement, the LTTE was allowed to open political offices in government-controlled areas, effectively providing it with access to new recruits.16 While the LTTE claims that these offices are used to educate people about the LTTE, local human rights activists believe that the offices are used for recruitment purposes, including forced recruitment of children. The senior superintendent of police in Trincomalee told Human Rights Watch that in July 2004 the LTTE had opened four or five such offices in Trincomalee that are used for recruitment.17

Many Tamil families felt that with an end to hostilities between the LTTE and government forces, there was no longer a need to offer their children for service. Instead, since the cease-fire agreement, the LTTE has sought to increase the size of its forces. The LTTE may be trying to strengthen its hand during the peace talks, prepare for its control of the North and East in the event of a final peace agreement, or be militarily prepared in the event the peace talks collapse—or for all these reasons.

Recruitment through threats, coercion, and abduction have been commonplace. Harendra de Silva, chair of the National Child Protection Authority, told us that since the cease-fire, children are more likely to be forcibly recruited into the LTTE:

People see no reason to give their children to the LTTE if they don’t perceive themselves at risk by the government. So the LTTE resorts to abduction. In 1994, I found that one in nineteen child recruits was abducted. Now in 2004, the reverse is true and only one in nineteen is a volunteer.18

In Batticaloa district, Human Rights Watch received numerous reports of the LTTE seeking to secure one child from each Tamil household. The LTTE communicates this “quota” through letters, house to house visits, radio announcements, and community meetings. Families that refuse to hand over a child are often subjected to more coercive measures, including threats against the child’s parents, burning of houses, and abduction. 

One girl, recruited in 2002 at age fifteen, told Human Rights Watch:

After school, I went to extra class in the evening with about fifteen students. We were abducted the same day while walking to extra class. All of us were fifteen years old. Each house had been told to hand over one child. The LTTE had already issued the order, but the parents had ignored it. First, they sent letters, then they started to visit homes. They came to my house and said, “You know about our announcement. Each house has to turn over one child. If you don’t agree, we will take a child anyway.”

One day they came. The tuition class is held near the LTTE camp, so it was easy to take us. They took me to a girls’ training center. On the first day, we were told, “We already announced that each home has to give one child. Your family didn’t agree. We have already taken girls from your village, except for you fifteen. After training, you can work in your village like us.”19

Another girl, Sakuntala, told us that after receiving a letter from the LTTE requesting one child from the family, the family decided to leave the area. After the family’s departure, the LTTE burned the family’s house, along with the houses of about fifteen other families who had left for similar reasons. The family returned after five months. Within a week of their return in 2002, the LTTE returned, looking for Sakuntala, then fifteen. She said, “This time they insisted. My parents said ‘We can’t give you,’ but I was afraid they would take my sister, so I agreed to go. They took five others from the village. All were girls about my age.”20

Malar described how she traded herself in for her father’s release from LTTE detention after the LTTE demanded that she join them when she was fourteen:

The LTTE were having a recruitment drive at that time, and they came to my village and announced that I and my sister had to join them.  My sister was very scared and so was my mother.  My father had been taken away by them a few days before.  My father is fifty years old and has arthritis.  I thought that to make it safer for them, I would volunteer myself.  I told my mother that I would join.

So my mother and I went to the LTTE political office, and I told them that if they released my father, I would join them.  They agreed and let my father go.  We were all hugging and kissing and crying after he was released.  I stayed at the political office.  From there they took us (about seventy new recruits) to a training camp at Pullumanai.  Of the group of seventy new recruits, I think about ten or so were young kids.21

Another witness, Rangini, described the physical force used against her and her family when they resisted recruitment in June 2003 when she was sixteen:

The LTTE had a recruitment process going on in my village where they went around asking for us to join.  My parents refused to give me to the LTTE so about fifteen of them came to my house—it was both men and women, in uniforms, with rifles, and guns in holsters…. I was fast asleep when they came to get me at 1:00 in the morning.  First they knocked on my door, and my mother opened the door thinking it was my aunt.... These people dragged me out of the house.  My father shouted at them, saying, “What is going on?”, but some of the LTTE soldiers took my father away towards the woods and beat him…. They also pushed my mother onto the ground when she tried to stop them.22 

Children are often targeted for recruitment when about fifteen years of age. One former child soldier told us she was assigned to recruit others into the LTTE. She said:

I was told I had to capture two children or I wouldn’t be given food. I thought, “I was captured, so why should I do that to another child?” Usually we would try to capture people around age fifteen, with a little larger size. They said, “We send you to the temple festival, and each has to get two.” They said to get people about fifteen years old, but with a build of a certain amount of strength. They said, “Don’t bring people who are married.”23

Younger children are also frequently recruited. Human Rights Watch interviewed several children who were taken by the LTTE at age twelve or thirteen. Saraswathy, abducted at age twelve, told us, “The LTTE came to our home at midnight. At the time, my family said no, but they tried to beat my parents, so I agreed.”24   One witness described how, when she was thirteen, she joined the LTTE because she wanted to be like the older teenage girls who had joined and who would come through the villages talking to younger girls about joining.25  All the children we interviewed reported that the LTTE recorded their names and dates of birth at the time of recruitment.

A man from outside Vallechenai in Batticaloa district reported witnessing the attempted recruitment of an eleven-year-old girl in early August 2004.

It was about 5 p.m. I was walking along a road and saw people from the LTTE come on a tractor. There was a child going to tuition classes. I saw the LTTE speak with the child and understood that the LTTE was forcing the girl to join with them. I got near the group and the LTTE stopped talking. But then I asked the girl what had happened to her and the LTTE took the girl. But I grabbed her. They had a gun and they hit me with the butt of the gun so that I released her. But I grabbed her again and put her in my house. The girl was eleven years old. She wanted to study.26

Many children of twelve or thirteen are taken directly for training, although some younger children are put into a special unit—referred to as the “chicken” unit—and spend significant parts of their days in classes.  One sixteen-year-old who had been forcibly recruited at age fourteen, told us that life in her unit was similar to school, with classes every day and female teachers similar in age to those in her regular school.27  Other young children, particularly those from very poor families, who seek to join the LTTE may be first sent to LTTE-run orphanages.  At the orphanages, they attend school, but then spend holidays at LTTE camps until they are older and become full-time cadres.28

The LTTE demand for one child from each Tamil family does not in practice mean that they only take one child. Some children have found that having another sibling serving in the LTTE does not always offer protection against recruitment. Indra, then fifteen, was approached by the LTTE when she went to a local shop. She said, “They told me ‘You have to join with us.’” Indra had an older brother who joined the LTTE at age eighteen and spent nine years with the movement. She said:

I told them, “My brother is already in the LTTE,” but they didn’t listen to me. They took me by force in a van.  I was crying. My parents heard I was taken and ran to the camp. The LTTE said, “We did not take any girls today.” I was already in the camp. They kept me in a closed room. I kept crying continuously, saying “I want to go home; I want to go home.”29

Another girl said that her brother, who is only now seventeen years old, was abducted in 2001; she was forced to join two years later, at age thirteen.30 

Hindu temple festivals are frequent sites for LTTE recruitment because they draw large numbers of people, including children, who can be easily approached by the LTTE. On July 31, 2004, just a few days before Human Rights Watch’s visit to Batticaloa, the LTTE recruited an estimated twenty-six people, mostly children, from the festival at the Thandamalay Murugan temple.  Local human rights groups had warned UNICEF and other international groups that temple festivals were traditional recruitment sites for the LTTE, but no extra monitoring was in place when the festivals started.31  The next morning, a group of parents went to the LTTE political office, demanding the release of their children.  The parents were told that they should go to the LTTE’s Meenagam camp the next day where they would be allowed to see their children.  The parents informed UNICEF and local human rights groups about the abductions as well. 

The next morning, the parents together with local human rights groups went to Meenagam camp.  After they waited several hours, Col. Kaushalyan, the LTTE local area commander, arrived on his motorbike.  Initially, he refused to speak with the parents, and addressed only the joint local and international human rights groups’ representatives.  They described Kaushalyan as aggressive and uncooperative, offering no explanations nor answers to their questions.32  Kaushalyan also talked briefly to a UNICEF protection officer.33  After that, the human rights representatives were told to leave, and the parents were invited into the camp by Kaushalyan.  The children were released later that same afternoon.

The release of the children did not put an end to the families’ fears. We learned that the families had been instructed not to repeat either what they had been told by Kaushalyan at the camp nor what the children had been through during the days they were held by the LTTE.  The intimidation and fear generated by the LTTE in these families was palpable. 

While the release of this particular group of children was welcome, human rights activists pointed out that this case was anomalous, and perhaps was the result of the presence of UNICEF and the international human rights groups. Following this incident, UNICEF and several international human rights groups agreed to physically monitor the temple festivals on-site and around the clock for the duration of the festival.

Some children decide on their own to join the LTTE. Many are from very poor families and believe they have few other prospects. It is the responsibility of the LTTE to reject such children. Vanmathi, who joined in 2003 when she was sixteen, explained that:

I went to school to grade 5. I dropped out because my mother and father died. No one cared for me, I had no parents, so I was willing to join. I lived with my aunt after my parents died. I cooked for her family. I had frustration in my life, so I was willing to join the LTTE. I wanted to live in this world without anyone’s help.  When I joined the LTTE, I went to the political office, and told the LTTE I wanted to join. They agreed. I told them I was sixteen, but they didn’t care.34

A mother whose daughter joined the LTTE without her knowledge explained:

My daughter was fourteen when she joined the LTTE. My husband died. We had no income. No food. Other neighbors encouraged the children to join the LTTE. She went with a neighbor. I was in the paddy field. I came back and searched everywhere and then someone told me that she went with the LTTE.35

Another girl mentioned that she joined the LTTE because her best friend was going to join.  She said she herself knew nothing about the LTTE when she joined but her friend, who came from a physically abusive home, had been convinced that the LTTE was the only option for a better life.36 

One boy who joined in 2002 at age fourteen explained that he felt “astrology said I should go. I said I was going to school, but instead I went to the LTTE without telling my mother.” He volunteered together with other friends from school, he said.37

Some children are motivated by political beliefs or by government abuses against their families or communities. One boy, from Jaffna in the North, left school at age fifteen to join the LTTE because, he said, “I wanted a separate Eelam.”38 Another boy from Jaffna said he was motivated to join the LTTE in July of 2004 at age sixteen because, “In 1991, the army burnt my house and raped women in my neighborhood. They tortured us.”39  One witness, who joined voluntarily when she was sixteen years old explained her decision poignantly:

When I was eight years old, my father and all four of my uncles were killed by the Sri Lankan Army (SLA).  None of them had any links with the LTTE.  They were normal simple Tamil men.  From that day to now, we don’t know what happened to them. I had a lot of anger at the SLA because of that.  Now, I am not so angry but I still want to know what happened to my father.40

So-called “voluntary” recruitment has long been supported by LTTE propaganda campaigns in the school system. LTTE cadres frequently go into schools to speak about the LTTE, sometimes showing films that show LTTE service in a positive light.41 For instance, according to the Trincomalee Senior Superintendent of Police, the LTTE in July 2004 provided area teachers and principals with exams on the history of the LTTE to give to their students. “They [LTTE] collect them afterwards. This is part of their propaganda work. The teachers and principals can’t refuse because they need to survive. They have to carry out their instructions.”42

An international worker in Trincomalee said, “The LTTE calls these history lessons. We call them propaganda campaigns. The LTTE says it’s not recruitment, and if individuals choose to join afterwards, so be it. Principals don’t have a choice. The LTTE doesn’t ask permission, they just go.”43

In August 2004, LTTE cadres went from village to village in Trincomalee district talking to every family.44  The purpose of this campaign was unclear but it caused renewed fear in the villagers that their children might be abducted.  These house-to-house visits were conducted by persons who identify themselves as members of the Vanni LTTE.  Each family was asked detailed questions similar to questions asked in census surveys.  Families who dared to say that they have no problems with the Sri Lankan Army were chastised.  A local priest said that the LTTE cadres were telling each family that they had to give up one child per family if the war should resume.45 

The LTTE combines these family visits with street plays that are used as a propaganda tool, and have a particular appeal to children.  One person who saw such a street play described the scene: 

It was a very emotional drama about the struggle, basically asking people to join the movement.  There were all ages present in the audience, but it was really a drama for children.  The story of the drama was that of a family—a father, mother, and two children.  One child gets shot and killed by the SLA.  The remaining child—in the drama, he was of school age, still a child—then decides to join the movement.  In the drama, the mother resists and begs her remaining child not to join the movement, saying she only has one child left.  The mother is hysterical.  Then the father speaks.  He is calm and rational, although also very sad.  He talks to the mother, saying that the correct thing for them to do is to give their remaining child to the LTTE.46 

Recruitment drives are cyclical. Some observers believe that they are timed to LTTE training courses, with new recruitment drives taking place before a new training is to begin, to ensure a full complement of trainees.47

[13] Agreement on a Ceasefire Between the Government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of  Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, February 22, 2002, art. 2.1.

[14] UNICEF notes that the number of cases it registers represent only a portion of the total number of children recruited, as some families may be unaware of the possibility of registering, may be afraid to do so, or may have difficulty reaching a UNICEF office. Of the children who have been released or returned from the LTTE, only about 25 percent were previously listed in the UNICEF database.

[15] Human Rights Watch  interview with UNICEF staff, Trincomalee district office, August 12, 2004.

[16] Article 1.13 of the cease-fire agreement allows unarmed LTTE members freedom of movement in the areas of the North and East dominated by the government of Sri Lanka “for the purpose of political work.”

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with Upali Hegawe, Senior Superintendent of Police, Trincomalee Division, August 11, 2004.

[18] Human Rights Watch interview with Harendra de Silva, Chair, National Child Protection Authority, Colombo, August 4, 2004.

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with “Selvamani,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with “Sakuntala,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[21]  Human Rights Watch interview with “Malar,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[22] Human Rights Watch interview with “Rangini,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[23] Human Rights Watch interview with “Manchula,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview with “Saraswathy,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[25]  Human Rights Watch interview with “Aruna,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[26] Human Rights Watch interview, August 2004.

[27]  Human Rights Watch interview with “Tamarai,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[28] Human Rights Watch interview with “Manchula,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[29] Human Rights Watch interview with “Indra,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[30] Human Rights Watch interview with “Aruna,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[31]  Human Rights Watch interview with local activist, Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[32]  Human Rights Watch interview with local activists, names withheld, Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[33] Human Rights Watch interview with Andrea James, Head of Zone Office, UNICEF, Batticaloa, August 5, 2004, Batticaloa

[34] Human Rights Watch interview with “Vanmathi,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[35] Human Rights Watch interview, Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview with “Pavai,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[37] Human Rights Watch interview with “Ganeshan,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[38] Human Rights Watch interview with “Arun,” Kilinochchi, August 2004.

[39] Human Rights Watch interview with “Marudan,” Kilinochchi, August 2004.

[40] Human Rights Watch interview with “Sivani,” Batticaloa district, August 2004. During the conflict, many Tamils disappeared and were believed killed by Sri Lanka security forces.

[41] There continues to be strong sentiment in Tamil majority areas that government-supplied text-books are Sinhala-slanted, and do not represent accurately the history of Tamil subjugation and revolt.  Many parents in these areas are not unsympathetic to LTTE supplying their children with what they themselves consider to be a more accurate version of history.  Discussions about re-writing Sri Lanka history text-books have been underway with no progress.

[42] Human Rights Watch interview with Upali Hegawe, Senior Superintendent of Police, Trincomalee Division, August 11, 2004.

[43] Human Rights Watch interview, Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[44] Human Rights Watch interviews, names withheld, Trincomalee district, August 2004.

[45] Human Rights Watch interview with local priest, Trincomalee district, August  2004.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview, Trincomalee district, August  2004.

[47] Human Rights Watch interviews, August 2004.

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