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VI. LTTE Split and Release of Children

In March 2004, the commander of LTTE forces in the East, Col. Karuna, split off from the main LTTE forces loyal to supreme leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, based in the Vanni (North). In April 2004, the Vanni LTTE attacked and defeated Karuna’s eastern forces in short but fierce fighting at the Veragul River, which divides Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts. An unknown number of people died in the battle.  Karuna disbanded his forces, which were unprepared and outnumbered, and went into hiding.  As a result, all the children who were under Karuna’s forces either walked out and found their own way home, or in some cases, were released into the care of their families. 

Manchula explained:

I was assigned the task of recruiting people, so I went around and was allowed to see T.V. and read the papers. This was how I learned about the split. I got a message to come to the Vaharai camp and Meenagam camp. Our leaders said he would explain the problem and we should come. The public also told us of the split. We got scared and some said we should run away home out of fear. An elder sister told us to prepare ourselves and to be ready to leave. We were thinking of escaping, but there was no transport.75

Another said:

I was in a group guarding Karuna. Karuna personally addressed us and spoke about the attacks at Vaharai. He said, “We should stick together, we shouldn’t split.” But he disappeared after that, and at night people started leaving. In the early morning we started walking.... We walked from 12 noon until 7 the next morning. I arrived home on April 13.76

Some of Karuna’s commanders told their soldiers to leave. Eighteen-year-old Sakuntala said, “The commanders told us not to join the Vanni group, and to go home.” Another former soldier explained, “We were told, ‘Run away and save your lives.’ One hundred ran away together.”77 Another girl said simply, “I saw everyone going home, so I went.”

A senior military commander with the Sri Lankan army stated that they posted observers at entry and exit points to LTTE-controlled areas. He reported that at ten to fifteen such points, soldiers observed as many as 2,000 cadres entering government-controlled areas. The majority were reportedly children. “I was there at the Black Bridge, just to watch.78  On April 8, I saw 380 cadres [cross]. About 75 percent of the people who came out were children.”79

A few children interviewed by Human Rights Watch participated in the fighting between the Vanni LTTE and Karuna’s forces. Some saw other soldiers killed or wounded.  One child soldier saw about thirty soldiers from her own unit killed during the fighting; she ran away when she heard voices shouting that they should flee because they were surrounded by Vanni LTTE forces.80   Sixteen-year-old Indra reported:

I saw the fighting. I was in it. The Vanni group came at midnight, and surrounded the camp, and began to attack. When attacked, most of the children died, but some survived and decided to run. Each camp had about 350. I left the next day. I don’t know the number killed during the attack. I saw about ten killed, about the same age as me. When the attack happened, I was shocked and afraid.81

Kanchana, who was trained as a medic, was also at Verugal. She told us:

I was at the battle doing medicine for the mortar units. People were injured on their forehead, arms, legs, backside. It was my first time in battle. I was afraid. Some people were badly injured. I treated them, dressed their wounds. Then all the injured were taken by the Vanni group. I treated seven people. I don’t know their ages.82

Deaths of Children During the April Fighting

The deaths of numerous child combatants during the internecine fighting between the Vanni LTTE and Karuna’s faction highlights the willingness of the LTTE leadership not just to recruit children, but to use them in battle. Reports of the number of dead and wounded from the battle vary widely. The LTTE denied international observers access to the area and during the interim, according to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, either the LTTE or local villagers reportedly burned or buried many bodies. According to news reports, both factions reported a total of ten soldiers killed, while military officials reported the dead at thirty-three, including civilians.83 UNICEF reported that at least two child soldiers were among the dead, including a seventeen-year-old and an eighteen-year-old who had been recruited at age sixteen.

Residents of the area suggested a higher death toll, including a much larger number of children. Human Rights Watch interviewed several witnesses who saw as many as fifty bodies of slain soldiers in the days following the battle. One witness reported, “I was going to collect firewood in the jungle and I saw fifteen bodies. This was about fifteen days after the fighting had finished…. The bodies were in bad condition.”84

When asked how he knew they were Karuna’s fighters, he said:

Because we knew who the people were on that side. And they had on uniforms. They were about thirteen to twenty years old. There were three girls. I counted the bodies so that’s how I know there were fifteen. They weren’t all in one place but were scattered around.... I didn’t see any weapons but I saw empty rounds.... When I went back, the bodies weren’t there. I don’t know what happened, but when I went back, the bodies were gone.85

According to UNICEF, over 3,000 people were displaced by the fighting along the coast from Vaharai to Mankerni in Batticaloa district.86 One man from the area told Human Rights Watch that on April 10, he and residents from two other villages traveled about ten kilometers away for safety. He said that, “On the way there, I saw four or five bodies of people ages fifteen or sixteen.” The following day, the villagers returned home. “On the way back, I saw forty or fifty [bodies], also children.” He said, “Prabhakaran’s people asked some village people to bury bodies in the village, but I didn’t go. They asked me but I said, “No, you shot them, you can bury them.” There were bodies in the village.... Maybe ten. They were ages twelve, sixteen.87

Another person reported that on April 10, he saw twenty bodies near Kathiraveli, including an ambulance driver dead in his ambulance. He said:

We tried to take the ambulance driver’s body, but the LTTE didn’t allow us then. We went again on the 11th. All the bodies had a bad smell, but we took two of the bodies and buried them in our village cemetery. We went around the villages and got six more bodies. Altogether, I helped bury six boys and two girls. There was one twenty-two-year-old, and the rest were under eighteen.88

Additional persons interviewed by Human Rights Watch also reported seeing bodies, many of whom, they said, were children. One said he saw forty to fifty bodies; another said he saw twenty-six.89

Parents Demand Children’s Release

As word spread about the division between the Karuna and Vanni forces and the subsequent fighting, parents in large numbers began traveling to LTTE camps to demand the return of their children.

The mother of seventeen-year-old Nirmala told Human Rights Watch that she joined hundreds of other parents:

Two hundred and fifty to 300 parents went and made a big noise at Santhanamgam [a Karuna camp]. The LTTE [Karuna faction] hid the children and told parents to go away. The parents stayed for three days. I was shouting at Santhanamgam camp, but the children were at Vaharai camp. People in the villages started talking about the fighting at Vaharai. Some children were running away, so we went to get the children. We were arguing with the LTTE for their release. They fired shots to try to scare us. It was so loud we had to leave.90

Nanmani had just left Santhanamgam camp when she saw the parents arriving, looking for Karuna to demand the return of their children. She said there were a thousand parents, and discovered only when she returned home on her own that her own parents were among them.91

Sixteen-year-old Manchula was at the Vaharai camp when parents arrived. She said:

Mothers and fathers came to the camp and said, “Even if you kill us we are not going away.” Karuna’s people tried to scare the parents and shot around them. Karuna’s own people surrounded the children because they thought they would run away. I was in the middle. The elder ones surrounded us and told us to shoot our weapons. We said, “It’s our own parents. How can we do this?” They told the parents they had to leave, otherwise it would not be good for them. So my father came and said to me, “Let’s go, come with me. It doesn’t matter if they shoot me, then we will die on this spot.” I said, “No, father. We can’t. You have to go and if there is a problem, I will go home.” We were struggling with our parents and shouting at each other. Some of the parents had brought civilian clothes and even wigs so girls could cover their hair. They took away about one hundred children by changing their clothes. The rest went into the jungle.92

Local villagers also confronted the Vanni LTTE forces to protest the conflict. In the Veragul area, large numbers of villagers went to challenge Vanni’s forces on April 10. One person who participated in the protests said, “People were fighting with the Vanni LTTE. They said, ‘Why are you killing our children? Prabhakaran’s and Karuna’s problems are separate—why involve our children?’ The villagers blocked LTTE vehicles and threw stones.” He continued, “The LTTE came and got out of a pickup and said, ‘If you continue we will shoot you.’ We weren’t afraid. Then they shot over our heads and into the ground.”93

Another person reported that in another village:

All the people came to fight, even children.... More than 1,000 people were fighting [to demand the return of their children]. All the people came to the roadside when this happened. In every area, people were blocked and were fighting.... We spoke directly with the assistant political leader. He told us, “We came to protect you.” At the same time, our people asked them—both Prabhakaran’s and Karuna’s people, “You took our children from us and now you are shooting those children....Why are you shooting these children? You say you are Tamil leaders so why are you killing Tamil people? Please give us our children back and then you can go away.”94

By April 13, most children from Karuna’s forces had either been released by their commanders or left on their own. Senior cadres transported some by motorbike or bicycle, while others sent messages to their families asking them to come fetch them. Some walked long distances, through jungles and unknown trails, only arriving home several days later. Some children arrived home, only to discover that their parents were still looking for them at other camps.

Sixteen-year-old Indra was at the fighting at Veragul. She said, “Before I reached home, my parents were told I was killed, so my parents started the rituals. When I arrived home, I was shocked; I thought my grandmother had died. When my family saw me, everyone started crying. This was the first time I’d seen my parents since I was taken [in 2002].”95

Several hundred members of Karuna’s forces—both children and adults—were captured at Veragul by Vanni LTTE forces and taken first to Trincomalee, and then to Vaharai. On April 12 a representative from the Vanni LTTE forces informed UNICEF that they would release the children on the following day and confirmed that over one hundred children were being held.96 

Two of the children Human Rights Watch interviewed were part of this group. Kanchana said:

The Vanni group captured the Karuna group very easily.... I surrendered too.  The Vanni group took me to Trincomalee. Then the parents started to protest and ask for their children. At Trincomalee there were 140 males and 200 females. My parents came two days after the surrender. I saw my mother at Vaharai. I don’t know the number of parents that came. The Vanni group released all of us [children and adults] after two days. UNICEF was there. I didn’t get any release papers, but parents placed their signature [on a letter issued by the LTTE] when they received the children.97

According to UNICEF, more than 200 underage recruits were released on April 13. Most were released to their parents after registration by UNICEF and the LTTE. UNICEF provided transportation for many of the children and their families, and temporary shelter for seven children who could not be immediately reunified with their families.

The LTTE may have intended the release of these cadres to be temporary. Kanchana said that prior to UNICEF’s arrival, the LTTE took identification information from the parents, and told the cadres and their parents that whenever the LTTE called, the cadres would need to return. She said, “They announced this on the loudspeaker at 6:30 in the morning. UNICEF came at 10 a.m.”98

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

[76] Human Rights Watch interview with “Nanmani,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[77] Human Rights Watch interview with “Tharini,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[78] The Black Bridge separates government and LTTE-held territories, and serves as a major army checkpoint.

[79] Human Rights Watch interview with senior military official, Sri Lankan Army, August 7, 2004.

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

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

[82] Human Rights Watch interview with “Kanchana,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[83] “Refugees Return as Sri Lanka Mulls Asylum for Renegade Tiger Leader,” Agence France Press, April 13, 2004; “Sri Lanka Breakaway Rebels Retreating,” Associated Press, April 12, 2004, “Renegade Sri Lanka Tigers Flee; Main Faction Releases Child Soldiers,” BBC, April 13, 2004.

[84] Human Rights Watch interview, August 2004.

[85] Ibid.

[86] Information provided to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, September 2004.

[87] Human Rights Watch interview, August 2004.

[88] Human Rights Watch interview, August 2004.

[89] Human Rights Watch interviews, August 2004.

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

[91] Human Rights Watch interview with “Nanmani,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

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

[93] Human Rights Watch interview, August 2004.

[94] Human Rights Watch interview, August 2004.

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

[96] Information provided to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, September 2004.

[97] Human Rights Watch interview with “Kanchana,” Batticaloa district, August 2004.

[98] Ibid.

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