Sri Lanka: Tamil Tigers Forcibly Recruit Child Soldiers
Human Rights Watch,
New York, November 11, 2004) – By abducting children or threatening their families, the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have recruited thousands of child soldiers in Sri Lanka since active fighting ended in 2002, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers) use intimidation and threats to pressure Tamil families in the north and east of Sri Lanka to provide sons and daughters for military service. When families refuse, their children are sometimes abducted from their homes at night or forcibly recruited while walking to school. Parents who resist the recruitment of their children face retribution from the Tamil Tigers, including violence or detention.
“The ceasefire has brought an end to the fighting, but not to the Tamil Tigers’ use of children as soldiers,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, and a co-author of the report. “Many Tamil families who expected a ‘peace dividend’ now expect an unwelcome visit from armed Tamil Tiger recruiters.”
The 80-page report, “Living in Fear: Child Soldiers and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka,” includes firsthand testimonies from dozens of children from northeastern Sri Lanka who have been recruited by the Tamil Tigers since the ceasefire came into effect. Children described rigorous and sometimes brutal military training, including training with heavy weapons, bombs and landmines. Children who try to escape are typically beaten in front of their entire unit as a warning to others.
The Tamil Tigers have recruited at least 3,516 children since the start of the February 2002 ceasefire with the government, according to cases documented by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The agency states that this figure represents only a portion of the total number of children recruited.
Human Rights Watch also documented targeted re-recruitment drives of children released from a breakaway LTTE faction earlier this year. In March, the LTTE’s Eastern commander, Colonel Karuna, broke away from the main LTTE forces loyal to Vellupillai Prabhakaran, based in the northern region known as the Vanni. In April, Prabhakaran’s forces, known as the Vanni LTTE, attacked and defeated Karuna’s Eastern forces, which quickly disbanded. About 2,000 child soldiers fled Karuna’s forces or were encouraged by their commanders to leave. Some died in the fighting.
The Vanni LTTE quickly began an intensive campaign to re-recruit Karuna’s former forces, including children. The Vanni forces have gone from house to house, organized village meetings, sent children letters and made announcements from motorized vehicles to demand that the former child soldiers return. They have taken many children by force.
“They took away my younger brother the other day. He was coming home from the market and he was taken away,” said Vanji, who was recruited by the LTTE in 1997 at age 16. “They didn’t release him, and they threatened to shoot if I reported his abduction. They also told me at the same time that I had to re-join.”
International law prohibits the recruitment of children under the age of 18 by non-state armed groups, and all participation of children in active hostilities. The recruitment of children under the age of 15 is now considered a war crime.
The LTTE denies recruiting children and claims that any children in its forces have joined because of poverty, lack of educational opportunities, or the loss of their parents and lack of alternative care. Although some children do join because of socioeconomic factors or because they want to fight for an independent Tamil state, such “voluntary” recruitment is also a violation of international law.
In June 2003, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government agreed to a formal Action Plan on Children Affected by War. Under the Action Plan, the Tamil Tigers agreed to end their recruitment of children and to release children from their forces, either directly to the children’s families or to new transit centers that were constructed specifically for this purpose.
Since the Action Plan was signed, UNICEF figures show that the LTTE has recruited more than twice as many children as it has released. A transit center opened in October 2003 received a total of only 172 children in its first year of operation. Although the center has capacity for 100 children, it has never held more than 49, and for a six-week period in mid-2004, was completely empty. The other two centers never opened because of the low number of children released.
“Time and again, the Tamil Tigers have pledged to end their use of child soldiers, but each time they’ve broken those promises,” said Becker. “It’s time for the Tamil Tigers to live up to their legal responsibilities and stop recruiting children.”
Personal accounts from “Living in Fear: Child Soldiers and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka:”
Note: the names used are not the children’s real names.
My parents refused to give me to the LTTE so about 15 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 one in the morning.… 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.
—Rangini, a girl recruited by the LTTE in 2003 at age 16
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.
—Vanmathi, a girl who joined the LTTE in 2003 at age 16
The training was very difficult. They don’t care if it’s a rainy or sunny day. If you get too tired and can’t continue, they will beat you. Once when I first joined, I was dizzy. I couldn’t continue and asked for a rest. They said, “This is the LTTE. You have to face problems. You can’t take a rest.” They hit me four or five times with their hands.
—Selvamani, a girl recruited in 2002 at age 15
After four months I was sent to a landmines unit. I learned to handle landmines, to place them. I did this for four months. I couldn’t concentrate. Sometime a landmine would explode and children would be injured. Their fingers, hands, face. One time we were working in a line, and the last girl made a mistake when removing a landmine. It exploded and she lost a finger. She was 17. I was scared to handle them.
—Vimala, a girl recruited in 2003 at age 17
Lots of people tried to escape. But if you get caught, they take you back and beat you. Some children die. If you do it twice, they shoot you. In my wing, if someone escaped, the whole group was lined up to watch them get beaten. I saw it happen, and know of cases from other groups. If the person dies, they don’t tell you, but we know it happens.
—Nirmala, a girl recruited in 2001 at age 14
Published: Thu Nov 11 14:34:37 EST 2004