Sri Lanka

A Former Child Soldier Speaks Out

Child soldiers of the LTTE
Child soldiers of the Sri Lankan separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Photo: Amnesty International/AFP-Getty Images).

In 2003, Sri Lanka’s rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) continued to recruit child soldiers in contravention of international law. UNICEF reports indicate that the LTTE recruited 709 children in 2003 and continues to hold about 1,300 children despite promises to release all children within its ranks. Only about 300 children have been released so far.

In an eastern town in Sri Lanka, World Press Review spoke to a teenage girl who was in hiding after running away from the LTTE. The local LTTE office was not far away, and the interview consisted of brisk answers, nervous glances, and constant scanning of the surroundings. Although joining the rebels was her decision, the girl said, leaving was not an option. As a runaway, she now lives in fear for her life and has no education, no job, and no prospects for the future.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am 16 years old. Before joining the LTTE, did you go to school?
No, I wasn’t going to school before joining.

Are you going now?

Why did you join the LTTE?
It was a Saturday [in 2002]. I went and joined out of curiosity. I didn’t know they would give us such a hard training. I stayed for about nine months and came back last year.

Were you forced or asked to join?
No. We went and joined on our own.

What kinds of things did you have to do?
They gave us seven months of basic training. We learned to somersault, tiger crawl, side crawl, and do physical exercises.

Can you take us through your day-to-day activities?
We did parades. Like when you do left, right in schools—we did it really fast.

What else?
We would get up at 3:30 a.m. By 4 a.m., we would have washed ourselves and drunk tea. Then we’d march until 10 a.m. After breakfast, from around 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. we’d have training. Around 2 or 2:30, we’d have lunch. After that, we had training again. After 4 p.m. they let us play. Then we’d study and then go and stand guard.

Why did you leave the LTTE?
It was difficult.

What was difficult?
We didn’t have any leave. We couldn’t sleep properly at night. We would stand guard until early in the morning. It was difficult to get water. So I decided to run away.

Were there other children like you?
Yes. Three hundred of us were training. After that, they transferred us to a different place and there were 1,200 of us in our battalion.

When you joined, did you know it was illegal for children to join the forces?
No, I didn’t know that.

Would it have changed your mind about joining if you’d known that then?

Did they treat you well?
No. Even if we had a fever, they wouldn’t let us rest. If we didn’t get up, they would hit us.

Do you know if the other children with you joined voluntarily or if they were forced to join?
There were some kids who came voluntarily, and there were also kids who were forced to join.

Since you ran away, has anyone from the LTTE tried to track you down?
Yes. Because they could not find me, they came and yelled at my parents and got a signature from them saying that I wasn’t home, and they left.

What are your future plans? Would you like to go to school?
I don’t want to go to school because kids would tease me since I ran away from the LTTE. I would like to do some kind of job because, financially, it’s very difficult for us at home.

What do you think about the war?
I don’t like war.