August 11, 2013
KILINOCHCHI, SRI LANKA – Isseiwani Selvakumar, 5, weeps and murmurs, “Father, father, I want you.” She slowly raises her head to see whether she will get his attention at an orphanage in Kilinochchi, a town in northern Sri Lanka.
The man speaks softly to the girl, an orphan of Sri Lanka’s civil war, and takes her onto his lap.
He is Kumaran “K.P.” Pathmanathan, 58, an alleged arms smuggler and former international fugitive who ascended to the upper ranks of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The separatist group, also known as the Tamil Tigers, waged a nearly 30-year war against government forces.
But now Pathmanathan runs this orphanage for girls, Senchcholai Children Care Home. He opened it a few months ago in Kilinochchi, the former administrative capital of the Tamil Tigers. One of three orphanages he has founded, it shelters 68 war-affected girls.
Unaware of the man’s past, which made him one of the most notorious arms and explosive smugglers in the world, the girls in the orphanage clamor for his love and kind words.
The Tamil Tigers fought for a separate homeland for the Tamil people for nearly 30 years, but the Sri Lankan military defeated them in May 2009. In the same year, Sri Lankan military intelligence officers arrested Pathmanathan, then the chief of the Tamil Tigers and allegedly the head arms smuggler.
After the former leader, Velupillai Pirapaharan, died in the final battle of the civil war on May 18, 2009, they appointed Pathmanathan as the Tamil Tigers chief until the government disbanded the group at the end of the war.
The Indian government charged Pathmanathan with arms smuggling and conspiring to assassinate former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Interpol put him on its most wanted list in July 2009 for criminal conspiracy and violation of the Indian Explosive Act.
But now, Pathmanathan says he values education above all.
“Thousands of children lost the opportunity to study due to the war,” he says. “My mission is to send them all to school.”
Pathmanathan is wearing a cotton shirt, light gray pants and simple slippers. His features are bold, and his voice is soft. His outpouring of emotion for the children in his orphanage sharply contrasts his reputation as a ruthless military leader.
He is under protective custody, though his cases have not yet gone to trial. During this time, he is free to look after more than 250 girls and boys in three orphanages – one in Kilinochchi and two in Mullativu in the Northern province of Sri Lanka.
Pathmanathan says he now enjoys promoting books instead of guns. After 30 years of fighting, he believes that only education can solve most of the country’s social issues.
In 2010, Pathmanathan formed an organization called the North-East Rehabilitation and Development Organization to provide educational facilities for children whose parents and relatives died during the war. The orphanages are currently its main program.
Despite allegedly having traveled to more than 40 countries on secret missions to buy weapons and explosives for the Tamil Tigers, Pathmanathan became emotional when explaining how children survived a deadly battle that erupted near the end of the war in 2009.
“I cry when I listen to their stories,” Pathmanathan says, wiping tears from his eyes. “Most of them have no parents, as they died in the war. I regret thinking why we caused such a damage to them.”
In advance of the Northern Provincial Council election, Pathmanathan says local media call him frequently for comment, but he refuses to talk politics. He will talk only about education.
“When children are educated, it is difficult for the politicians to mislead them,” he says as little Vanuja Sivakumar, 3, the youngest girl in the orphanage, sits comfortably on his lap.
He says Vanuja and her sister, Amudasuravi Sivakumar, 4, stay in the home because their father died in the war and their mother began living with another man. She left them with their grandmother, but she is too fragile to look after them. Finally, the grandmother handed them over to the Department of Probation and Child Care Services.
Some of these girls in the orphanage witnessed the civil war firsthand, says Pradeepa Murugaiya, 21, assistant director of the home. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to receiving meals and medicine here at the orphanage, they get counseling and a weekly visit from a doctor.
The orphanage also provides school supplies and transportation to the three main girls’ schools in Kilinochchi, Murugaiya says. Volunteer teachers help children in the orphanage to catch up on missed education.
One girl who lives in the orphanage, Anushiya Raja, 17, is taking her advanced level examination this year.
“My mother died during the war,” she says. “The LTTE came to take me to fight, but my father cried and didn’t [allow] them to take me. [He] got injuries as they hit him hard and threatened to take me [the] next day. From the next day, I was hiding in a bunker until the soldiers saved us.”
Her father brought her to the home because he thought keeping her at their small house alone while he was out working as a mason was unsafe, she says. She excels in all subjects and wants to become a doctor.
“I feel safe here, and I am happy as I can continue my studies,” Raja says.
Pathmanathan says he is now living a happy life caring for the children in the orphanages that his organization operates.
“My dream is to send all children to school,” he says. “Now, I feel my life has a meaning and need to live long to take care of them.”
But not everyone has faith in Pathmanathan’s new role as a children’s rights advocate.
Vijitha Herath, a member of Parliament representing the Gampaha district, says society cannot trust Pathmanathan to genuinely become a social worker. This is just Pathmanathan’s way of avoiding the legal process, he says.
“Why now?” Herath asks. “He should be responsible for the fate of all those children who lost their parents, education, eyes and limbs. He was the main weapons and explosive supplier for the terrorist outfit. He is the culprit for destroying those innocent lives and their futures. How can we see he is in a genuine mission after 20 years? I have my serious doubts.”
Among the reasons people such as Herath question Pathmanathan’s motives is the fact that his orphanages receive much of their funding from Tamils living abroad.
Pathmanathan acknowledges that many of his supporters also used to believe in violence and supported the Tamil Tigers’ cause. But he has influenced them to shift their support to children, he says.
“I was able to convince many of them,” he says. “But we need more to give more facilities for these innocent children who have not seen a piece of chocolate until they come here.”
Thiruchittampalam Vishwarupan, commissioner of the Department of Probation and Child Care Services in the Northern province, confirms that much of the funding for Pathmanathan’s orphanages does come from abroad. The department also spends 500 rupees ($3.80) per child per month in each home, he says.
The funds coming in from abroad are legal, as they come through Pathmanathan’s nongovernmental organization, which is registered under the Department of Social Services.
Pathmanathan says he ignores his critics. He rather focuses on what he calls the most difficult task of his life: educating these children.
“It is not easy to look after these girls,” he says. “They need lots of love, protection and care. I know how difficult it was to look after my daughter when she was small. I am now handling the most difficult task in my life.”
His dream is to upgrade the orphanage facilities to make room for as many as 500 children in the north, he says.
“I love them all just like my own daughter, and I have big dreams for them to educate them well,” he says as he hugs Vanuja and Isseiwani.
Interviews were conducted in Tamil and English.