January 30, 2013
VAVUNIYA, SRI LANKA – A bubbly boy runs around the office of Poonthottam Protective, Accommodation and Rehabilitation Center in Vavuniya, a town in Sri Lanka’s Northern province, disrupting the uniformed women from their duties.
“Akka, akka,” says 3-year-old Anjulan, which means “sister” in Tamil.
He tries to attract the attention of a female officer at the government rehabilitation center for women who fought for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a terrorist group, during Sri Lanka’s civil war. The war between the group and the Sri Lankan government lasted from 1983 until 2009, when the LTTE fighters surrendered.
Anjulan lives at the center with his mother, Malathi Selvaraja, 24, while she completes a one-year rehabilitation program after five years of fighting for the Tamil Tigers.
Anjulan jumps from a table and creeps onto his mother’s lap as she recalls her journey through blood, bombs and misery. She reveals the battle scars on her right hand and legs.
From the group’s inception in 1976, it force-conscripted thousands of children younger than 18 without their parents’ consent, known as the “baby brigades.” Selvaraja says she decided to join as a ninth-grader before they came to her doorstep in Batticaloa, a city in eastern Sri Lanka, to drag her.
Without her parents knowing, Selvaraja walked into the nearest LTTE camp in 2004 to become a Tamil Tiger. The next day, a van trucked her and other children to a training center in the thick jungles of northern Sri Lanka, which was under LTTE control.
“We were given six months [of] hard-core weapon training,” Selvaraja says, “and at last, all were deployed in the battlefields.”
She says that she and the other children spent the first few days of combat crying. They hid when the government soldiers retaliated.
“But we didn’t have any other option,” she says. “There is no comeback, and you have to fight until you win or die.”
At age 17, she met her husband, who was also a child soldier. He fought as a Sea Tiger in the LTTE’s naval wing.
“He was very handsome, and most of the girls tried to win his heart,” she says. “But he wanted to marry me. I still wonder why he loved me so much.”
As the final battle neared its end in May 2009, the Sri Lankan army cornered the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who were holding more than 280,000 civilians hostage at gunpoint. Selvaraja and her husband dropped their weapons and tried to flee to the government-controlled area.
“The LTTE police identified us, and they shot at us,” Selvaraja says, crying. “He got injured and breathed his last on my lap. I was lucky I was able to tell him I was pregnant before he closed his eyes. He was happy and requested me to run.”
With her husband’s family and thousands of other hostages, she fled and surrendered to the government army two days before the final battle on May 19, 2009.
She gave birth to Anjulan in Welikada Prison, a maximum-security prison in Colombo, the country’s commercial capital on Sri Lanka’s western coast. In Sri Lanka, children younger than 5 stay under the care of their mothers, even in prisons.
After a two-year legal process, the Colombo Magistrate’s Court enrolled Selvaraja in a one-year rehabilitation program at Poonthottam Protective, Accommodation and Rehabilitation Center.
To the surprise of former Tamil Tigers expecting revenge, the government is rehabilitating them in yearlong programs at several centers. They recover from post-traumatic stress after the 26-year war and learn about the Sinhalese, formerly their enemy. The rehabilitation program then provides vocational training and education to them, many who were abducted to LTTE ranks as schoolchildren. At the women’s center, rehabilitees look forward to reuniting with their families and supporting them using their new skills.
The Tamil Tigers battled government forces in pursuit of a separate homeland called Eelam in northern and eastern Sri Lanka for the Tamil, the country’s largest minority group.
Nearly 75 percent of Sri Lanka’s population is Sinhalese, who live in the southwest and central parts of the country, according to Sri Lanka’s 2012 census. Tamils live predominantly in the northeast and constitute more than 10 percent of the population.
The Sri Lankan army defeated the Tigers in May 2009. More than 11,600 fighters – including men, women and children – surrendered to the military, according to Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence and Urban Development.
The government decided to rehabilitate the ex-Tamil Tigers. Last year, it spent 109 million rupees ($862,000) on the program.
There are two rehabilitation centers for ex-Tamil Tigers in Vavuniya, one for men and one for women. Two more centers for men operate in the Polonnaruwa district in Sri Lanka’s North Central province.
The government sent ex-Tamil Tigers with little connection to those fighters, such as youths who fought for only a few months, directly to rehabilitation. Fighters with stronger ties to the group went into custody first, with jail time varying depending on how strong their involvement was.
The government prioritized the rehabilitation of more than 500 children soldiers who surrendered to the military, says Brig. Darshana Hettiarachchi, the commissioner general of rehabilitation who leads the program from Colombo.
The LTTE recruited more than 6,900 children under 18 from 2002 until 2007, when they pledged to rid their ranks of all children, according to UNICEF. But ex-Tamil Tigers say the group continued to recruit children through the end of the war.
The government has reintegrated more than 2,250 female ex-Tamil Tigers into society after the yearlong rehabilitation program at Poonthottam Protective, Accommodation and Rehabilitation Center, Hettiarachchi says. Nineteen women, who were previously in prison, are currently undergoing rehabilitation at the center.
The LTTE forced Nirmala Sriniwasan to join their ranks when she was in grade eight. She says that when she surrendered to the Sri Lankan army, she expected torture and pain – not rehabilitation.
“I was shocked when [I] heard that I was directed to undergo rehabilitation,” Sriniwasan says. “I thought I would be tortured and humiliated at the hand of soldiers. The LTTE gave us cyanide to commit suicide if we were caught by the army. The LTTE said the army would rape and kill us after obtaining information.”
But Sriniwasan says that the female officers at the rehabilitation center don’t treat the ex-Tamil Tiger women as former terrorists.
“I had sleepless nights for a few days when I came to the center,” she says. “But we found uniformed friends who motivate us to forget our past and protect us. We share everything from food to happiness to sorrow with them.”
Ex-Tamil Tigers start with a healing process when they arrive at the female rehabilitation center, Hettiarachchi says. This includes mediation and religious programs to calm them and alleviate any anger, hatred and frustration.
“We help them to become normal before they follow the courses, as many were suffering from post-traumatic experiences as they lived with blood and bombs,” Hettiarachchi says. “While educating them on theoretical aspects, they will be motivated to mingle with society, to be kind to people and to respect and accommodate ideas of other people.”
Former fighters learn the value of love, respect and peace over revenge through special counseling programs at the center, Hettiarachchi says.
“They barely knew about human values, to respect, love and live peacefully with their families and neighbors,” he says. “Most of them were hiding in jungles and subjected to a deadly war environment. They only know about weapons, bombs and killing.
He says he’s happy with the progress that the former fighters make.
“We had a tough time at the initial stages to calm down their minds,” he says. “We used religious therapies to heal their minds.”
Other steps in the rehabilitation process include introducing the girls and women to other parts of the country so they can learn for themselves about the country’s majority group, the Sinhalese. Hettiarachchi and former Tigers say that the group used to brainwash them against the Sinhalese.
Such trips include visiting the Parliament of Sri Lanka, once a bomb target for the Tamil Tigers. Former Tigers also exchange words with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who once topped their hit list.
After this healing, the rehabilitation process focuses on jobs and education, offering various vocational trainings, Hettiarachchi says. The majority of former fighters have little education, as they had to drop out of school when the LTTE forcefully conscripted them. They have few special skills other than handling weapons and bombs.
The rehabilitation authorities hold competitions to identify the former fighters’ skills for various sports, such as cricket, swimming and rifle shooting, Hettiarachchi says. They then enlist the rehabilitees in training programs.
Authorities selected Mahswaran Sangeetha, who is undergoing rehabilitation at Poonthottam Protective, Accommodation and Rehabilitation Center, to enroll in swimming training.
A former Black Sea Tiger, a suicide-bombing division of the LTTE naval force, she timidly says she could swim for hours in the rough seas. She could swim eight nautical miles per hour and handle many weapon single-handedly, including AK-47s and other assault riffles, rocket-propelled grenades and rocket launchers.
Ten years ago, Sangeetha was returning from school at age 14 when LTTE members dragged her into a van packed with schoolchildren, victims of forced conscription.
“We all cried, but there was no sympathy for any,” says Sangeetha, who is now in her mid-20s. “There was no room to escape, and those who tried to flee were shot dead as punishments.”
She says they had no choice but to join the LTTE.
“As there was no other option, we fought,” she says. “We always thought of death.”
Now undergoing swimming training at the center, Sangeetha says she dreams of representing Sri Lanka at international swimming competitions.
The female cadres also receive training in various vocational opportunities at the rehabilitation centers according to their professions, skills and preferences, Hettiarachchi says.
Many women select the beauty culture course. There is a growing demand for fashion, skin care, hair styling and beauty products in northern Sri Lanka in the absence of the group, which discouraged women from being fashionable. Some plan to open small beauty parlors when they return home.
Parvathi Dharmaraja, who worked as a cook for the Tamil Tigers, says she was scared about her future.
The Tamil Tigers snatched Dharmaraja when she was in grade five. She escaped battlefield deployments because she is asthmatic. Instead, she worked as a kitchen helper for the fighters and learned to cook many traditional dishes.
Without an education, she says she was afraid she would not be able to find a job after the war.
But now, she is taking a home gardening course at the rehabilitation center. She plans to continue organic gardening on her family’s small land plot in Kilinochchi, a town in northern Sri Lanka that served as the Tigers’ administrative capital. She dreams of opening a small food kiosk there.
“I hope to obtain a bank loan to start my business,” she says.
Many rehabilitated ex-Tamil Tigers say they want to put their vocational training into practice by starting their own businesses. But the majority do not have the capital to do so after three decades of war in which they were not able to save money.
Hettiarachchi says these youths are talented and need help to start their own livelihoods and to continue their education.
The government allocated 500 million rupees ($4 million) to grant loans to the former fighters. Each person can take out a loan of up to 250,000 rupees ($1,980) to start income-generation projects, Hettiarachchi says. The interest rate is 4 percent, and they also receive a special payback period of one to 1.5 years to repay the first installment depending on their self-employment project.
Many rehabilitated ex-Tamil Tigers have also obtained employment across the country with companies ranging from apparel factories to the Civil Security Division under the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, Hettiarachchi says.
They may also attend a free government school. More than 200 ex-cadres study in the Hindu College Colombo, one of the most prestigious Tamil secondary schools in Colombo, he says.
In addition to pursuing employment, ex-Tamil Tigers say that they look forward to reconnecting with their families once they complete their rehabilitation programs.
Subramaniam Shivathai, also known as Thamilini, was the former political wing leader of the Tigers’ women’s force. Police took her into custody the day before the end of the final battle.
After a one-year jail term, authorities sent her to the Poonthottam Protective, Accommodation and Rehabilitation Center for a year. She is taking a course on bridal dressing and looks forward to making up for lost time with her mother.
“I want to look after my 80-year-old mother before she breathes her last,” she says. “I want to sleep near her, to enjoy her warmth, which I lost for many years since I joined the LTTE.”
The ex-Tamil Tigers undergoing rehabilitation at the center say they now simply want to be good wives, mothers and productive citizens.
For Selvaraja, she wants to return to her parents. She also wants to find a job so she can look after her son, Anjulan, and give him a good education.
Hettiarachchi says that the rehabilitees’ journey from terrorists to humble women, prepares them to face challenges and makes them confident to stand on their own feet once they step into the society after the program.
“They are no longer fighters or terrorists,” Hettiarachchi says. “They are courageous youth who are brimming with lots of plans to stand on their own. The government always helps to empower them by offering various facilities, like loans, financial grants to start a livelihood of their own. Now, they are messengers of peace of our country.”
Interviews were translated from Tamil.