War is only job available in Sri Lankan village
Tue July 15, 2008 03:32 EDT .
RAVI NESSMAN - Associated Press Writer - IYATHIGEWEWA, Sri Lanka - (AP) Iyathigewewa is a classic company town. But the youth don't head off to work in the local mine or factory they go to war. After a quarter century of civil war between government forces and ethnic Tamil rebels, fighting is so entrenched in this Indian Ocean island it has become a career for tens of thousands seeking a path out of rural Sri Lanka - 's brutal poverty.
For their part, the Tamil Tiger rebels have been accused of filling their ranks by forcibly recruiting at least one member of each family in their de facto state in the north.
With the military promising to crush the rebels in the coming months, its appetite for more recruits is huge. Two weeks ago, the defense ministry sent a nationwide text message calling on ``Young Patriots come join with our armed forces (army navy or air force) and be a part of a winning team.''
Kadirage Leelawathi's entire family had already answered the call.
Her husband joined the army 20 years ago after failing to scrape a living from his tiny farm. The family lived in a clay hut with a floor made of cow dung and used kerosene lamps for light, she said. They could only afford to eat meat once a week.
``We couldn't make ends meet with three children,'' she said. ``With the little money he earned from farming, we had a hard time even sending the kids to school.''
With his army salary, they built a two bedroom concrete house with electricity, running water, a telephone, a 21-inch color TV and a 20-foot antenna piercing the sky.
Her oldest son dreamed of becoming a Buddhist monk, but grew disillusioned with the clergy and joined the navy five years ago. Her next son, seeing his father and brother serving, enlisted in the army two years ago. Seven months ago, her youngest son joined the paramilitary home guard, which protects villages in the north from rebel infiltration.
With the fighting escalating, Leelawathi said she is worried about her family: ``But there's no option. What can we do?''
``If there were any other job opportunities, they wouldn't go,'' said her sister-in-law, Kiriyage Kamalawatee.
The economic situation was not always so bad.
In 1952, Iyathigewewa's 430 acres of farmland were enough for its 30 to 40 families. But many parents had 10 or more children, and the population explosion soon overwhelmed the village.
Parents divided their modest farms among their offspring, who subdivided them among their own children. Many of the 375 families living here now are left with slivers of land far too small to support a family.
Without the option of pushing plowshares, the youth of Iyathigewewa picked up swords.
The village's first recruit joined the army in the late 1970s. A trickle of youth followed, eventually becoming a flood.
Now, 175 of Iyathigewewa's 1,161 residents are in the security forces, where many earn a solid living of $230 to $280 a month. That money has brought relative prosperity to the village.
Its small shacks have been replaced by modest cement houses filled with kitchen appliances. Motorcycles and shiny, red three-wheeled vehicles purchased with army salaries shoot down the only paved road.
``The way the village is now, economically, that is because of the military,'' said Susil Premaratne, a village councilman.
But the fighting has taken its toll as well, robbing the village of 16 of its men.
Kalu Hamy's son Premasiri was killed in a land mine explosion in the eastern town of Trincomalee in 1991. Another son, Piyadesa, disappeared several years later after a battle near the rebel-held town of Kilinochchi. Her grandson was shot and killed in a 1998 ambush in the town of Vavuniya.
They joined the army in search of money and meaning for their lives, but the sacrifice wasn't worth it, the 72-year-old woman said, her voice cracking with grief.
``I would never let my children or grandchildren join the military again,'' she said.
Nishan Keerthiratne, 35, disagrees. With no job prospects, he joined the infantry in 1990. Two years ago, a mine hanging from a palmyrah tree exploded over his vehicle, damaging his spinal cord and paralyzing him from the chest down.
Now, he spends his days fighting bedsores as he lays on a rattan bed in his kitchen, the only room with sunlight and a breeze in his small home.
``I looked after my family, I served my country and I was able to raise our standard of living,'' he said. ``I have no regrets.''Discuss this story
Published: Tue Jul 15 06:49:50 EDT 2008