Psychosocial Problems of the Sri Lankan Child Soldiers
Posted on March 28th, 2012
Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge
Using children in armed conflicts has been reported in many countries around the world. Various rebel groups in Africa, Asia and Latin America exploit children in their armed struggles against their respective regimes. Often these children are kidnaped from their parents and indoctrinated, given brief training and along with the adult rebel carders, sent to fight with the fully trained, fully equipped government forces. Many child solders get killed in the war. Those who survive suffer deep physical and psychological traumas. These traumas affect their social and cognitive development. Sri Lanka was one of the countries that was largely affected by the manse of child soldiers for nearly three decades. The LTTE (The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ) used a vast number of children in their fight against the Sri Lankan Government. According to the human rights activists, children as young as 10 -12 years of age were used in espionage and sometimes in combat by the LTTE. Most of these children were kidnaped from their parents and forced to commit various atrocities. In 2009 the Sri Lankan government militarily defeated the LTTE and released all the child soldiers that were held by the rebels. The children were reunited with the families and they were offered rehabilitation. Despite the facilitated rehabilitation and social integration process a large number of former Sri Lankan child solders still suffer from the reminiscences of the Eelam War. Many have cognitive, behavioral and social readjusting problems that affect their overall wellbeing.
Key Words : Sri Lanka , Child Soldiers , Eelam War , Reintegration , Combat Trauma
According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the UN a child soldier is defined as “any child – boy or girl – under 18 years of age, who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity, including, but not limited to: cooks, porters, messengers, and anyone accompanying such groups other than family members. (UNCRC) It is estimated that some 300,000 children – boys and girls under the age of 18 – are today involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide (UNICEF). According to the “Child Soldiers Global Report 2008”, 21 countries or territories around the globe had children engaged in conflicts between 2004 and 2007. Sri Lanka was one of the countries that faced this global problem for several decades. A large number of Sri Lankan children were recruited as child soldiers by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The actual figures are still not known. Some estimate that over 10,000 child soldiers were forced to engaged in the Eelam War. Many died in action without leaving any traces. In order to evade the international pressure The LTTE did not keep any official records of their child combatants. Therefore the casualty rates of Sri Lankan child soldiers remain unknown.
According to some of the military intelligence officers of the Sri Lanka Army, the LTTE recruited children as far back as 1984 and they were used extensively in espionage and subsequently used in attacks against the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. Some children were trained to do extremely dangerous tasks such as laying anti-personnel mines which were commonly called Jonny Batta.
The child recruitment by the Tamil Tigers was to become institutionalized after 1990. The Tigers themselves deny that they use child soldiers, but out of an estimated fighting force of 7000-10 000, as many as half may be women and 20-40% may be children (Somasundaram 2002). When the armed conflict in Sri Lanka erupted in 1983 the children of the Northern and Eastern part of Sri Lanka became significantly vulnerable. Many children became the victims of the war related collateral damage. The warfare disrupted their education and social wellbeing. The rebels needed more and more manpower to fight the government forces and they started forcibly recruiting children. Many wealthier and more educated families fled to India, Europe and North America saving their children. Underprivileged families had no options. They were compelled to surrender their children to the LTTE when the organization demanded. These children were an expandable and plentiful resource for the Tamil Tigers. Mostly the children were used as the front line fighting force that operated under the various regional rebel leaders. The LTTE called this child soldier unit “The Baby Brigade” and these child soldiers were frequently forced to commit malicious atrocities. Eventually these children became the “Lost Generation of Sri Lanka”.
The Eelam War and Sri Lankan Child Soldiers
According to the UN the Tamil Tigers had recruited thousands of children during the prolonged armed conflict in Sri Lanka depriving education, healthy social interactions and above all, violating their human rights. These children were exposed to brutal violence, torture and many had witnessed the gruesome effects of the Eelam war. Many of the survivors still live with their past traumas that affect their cognitive, moral and personality development. These children were used in various purposes. Apart from fighting the Sri Lankan armed forces, the child combatants were used to disrupt the Tamil communities that existed for hundreds of years. By turning innocent children in to child soldiers the LTTE willfully disintegrated the traditional Tamil cultural values that cherished peace and nonviolence. When the children were abducted many families parted or left the area. The members of the disrupted and crumbled communities had limited options and many had to join the LTTE for their survival.
For many Tamil intellectuals the child soldiers denoted a cultural death. Tamil community leaders, religious leaders and intellectuals opposed the LTTE for sending children to a deadly War. Those who bravely opposed were killed or labeled as traitors. Gradually the silent masses became helpless spectators of a war game that consumed children on an everyday basis. A whole generation of Tamil children has been lost, who in the normal run of things, should become the energetic developers of their society (Somasundaram, 2007).
The human cost of the Eelam war went up to huge proportions. The LTTE needed more and more manpower. Many well-known LTTE leaders had been killed in the initial battle with the Indian Army. Thereafter, the LTTE often used ten-year-olds with pistols to shoot local community leaders who worked at restoring civilian life to normal. The community had come to be controlled by internal terror and was gripped by a moral emptiness. Life and death had lost their meaning. ‘Patriot’ and ‘traitor’ became empty words in the mouths of hollow demagogues. (Hoole 2003).
The LTTE used numerous methods to recruit children for the Baby Brigade. Youth and children because of their age, immaturity, curiosity and love for adventure were susceptible to ‘Pied Piper” enticement through a variety of psychological methods. Public displays of war paraphernalia, funerals and posters of fallen heroes; speeches and videos, particularly in schools; heroic, melodious songs and stories, drawing out feelings of patriotism and creating a martyr cult all created a compelling milieu (Somasundaram 2007). According to some human right activists in the height of the conflict the LTTE recruiting members went to schools in the rebel’s held areas and kidnaped school children. The parents and teachers became defenseless. These children were indoctrinated and given weapon training. During the training many homesick children were physically and psychologically tortured and forced to commit atrocities. The children were subjected to sleep deprivation and vigorous physical training. They were given limited amount of food and during the training period (especially in jungle training) they were forced to consume food in raw formats (Raw foodism). During their captivity these children were not given any opportunity to enhance their educational or social skills. The parents were not allowed to visit the children and those who pleaded to go home and be with the parents had to face severe punishments and humiliation.
The children had to adjust to a strict time table and undergo weapon training especially to handle pistols, AK47 Rifles, Rocket Propelled Grenades, claymore mines and other tactical weapons. Constantly they were indoctrinated in racial hatred and their loyalty to the organization was highly expected. In the final initiation the children were given a cyanide capsule to commit suicide in case they were captured by the enemy.
The LTTE used child soldiers in a number of offensives against the Sri Lankan Forces. Often they were used as the front line attackers. In 1995 the LTTE attacked the Weli Oya camp with a large number of child soldiers. The attack was unsuccessful and over 500 child combatants perished. Some of the children were young as 12 years of age. According to the CSUCS, Asia Report ( July 2000) at least 60% of the dead LTTE fighters were under 18, and of these, most are girls and boys aged 10-16 years. When the child casualties mounted the LTTE intensified their child recruitment process by kidnaping more children. As of September 2007 the total number of children known to have been recruited by the LTTE since January 2002 was well over six thousand, although the real number was thought to be much higher (Child Soldiers Global Report 2008). The military use of children by the LTTE alarmed the International Agencies such as UN and UNICEF. In 1998 the Secretary General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Mr. Olara Otunnu visited Sri Lanka and urged the LTTE to free forcibly held children. Even the members of the Sri Lankan armed forces were stunned when the Tamil Tigers used innocent children to attack them. Major AX327 of the Sri Lanka Army was shattered when the LTTE brought child soldiers to attack one of the Army camps in the North. He described his heartrending experience thus…
…… a huge wave of LTTE carders came to attack our camp. There were a large number of child soldiers. Some of them were carrying RPG. The first wave mostly consisted of child soldiers. They destroyed two bunkers. We had no choice and we had to defend ourselves. The attack went for about five hours and finally we were able to resist the attack. There were hundreds of dead bodies around the outer perimeter of the camp. I saw the horror and the inhuman side of the war. The innocent children turned in to child soldiers who possessed hate and brutality. Some dead children had no pubic hair probably they were ten or eleven years old. They were in their final sleep with the AK 47 tightly held to their hands. Who could turn these innocent minds to monsters of killing machines? On that day I realized that the God does not exist…
In September 2000 Sri Lanka’s former Foreign Minister Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar, P.C. addressed the International Conference on War-Affected Children, in Winnipeg, Canada. The minister stated that Children as young as 10 years were being forcibly conscripted by the Tamil Tigers , age being no consideration as long as the child was able to carry a gun.
The Child Soldiers and Combat Trauma
Over the past few decades the Sri Lankan child solders experienced profound psychological traumas that directly affected their mental health and psychosocial wellbeing. These children are a vulnerable group and suffered devastating long-term consequences of the Eelam War. Although the military conflict in Sri Lanka ended in 2009 these children still fight their individual battles. Many still relive their past combat related traumas.
Garbarino & Kostelny, (1993) suggest that experiences related to political violence and war might constitute a serious risk for the well-functioning family. The war detached many families. Most of the child soldiers were separated from their parents for a long period and many have lost the sense of family belongingness. Their family ties are wrecked. These children are very much away from their cultural, social and moral identity, and it makes them vulnerable to psychological ailments.
War affects children in all the ways it affects adults, but also in different ways (Santa Barbara, 2006). Combat trauma could affect children in all aspects of their lives causing long term effects. Van der Kolk, et al., (1996b), described the following long-term effects of trauma:
1. Generalized hyperarousal and difficulty in modulating arousal
2. Aggression against self and others
3. Problems with social attachments – excessive dependence or isolation
4. Alterations in neurobiological processes involved in stimulus discrimination
5. Problems with attention and concentration
8. Conditioned fear responses to trauma related stimuli
9. Loss of trust, hope, and a sense of personal agency
10. Social avoidance
11. Loss of meaningful attachments
12. Lack of participation in preparing for the future
Numerous researches have shown that child soldiers are at high risk of developing PTSD. Okello, Onen, and Musisiv (2007) found that 27% – 34.9 % 0f Ugandan child soldiers suffered PTSD. Kohrt et el. ( 2011) found that 75 of the Nepali child soldiers (52.3%) met the symptom cutoff score for depression, 65 (46.1%) met the score for anxiety 78 (55.3%) met the criteria for PTSD, 55 (39%) met the criteria for general psychological difficulties, and 88 (62.4%) were functionally impaired. A study conducted in Sri Lanka by de Silva, et. al. (2001) indicates that children conscripted into the military suffer from higher rates of PTSD than adults who are conscripted.
The emotional consequences for the majority of the children interviewed included sad moods, preoccupations, suicidal thoughts and fears. Most of them experienced loss in relation to the death of members of their family and social status as a result of their actions. Some felt they had lost educational opportunity, but others felt they had gained educational opportunity, and some felt they had lost friendships while others felt they had gained friendships. This study also found that while all children in Sri Lanka grew up as a generation knowing nothing but war, and being subjected to indoctrination so they would feel hatred against their enemy, the children who were conscripted were from families living in poverty. Children from privileged families would have been able to be removed from the conflict if they were conscripted (de Silva, Hobbs, & Hanks, 2001).
As specified by the rehabilitation specialists many Sri Lankan ex-child soldiers have a wide range of post traumatic symptoms. They have intrusive memories of the war, flashbacks, emotional arousal, emotional numbing and various other anxiety related symptoms. Many avoid places and conversations related to their past experiences. Some children are reluctant to go back to their native villages may be due to shame or guilt.
Avoidance, as described by the former child soldiers, included actively identifying social situations, physical locations or activities that had triggered an emergence of post-traumatic stress symptoms in the past, and making efforts to avoid them in the future. One of the strongest traumatic re-experience triggers was physical location: some former child soldiers are now avoiding places where they witnessed or participated in violent and inhumane events (Boothby, Crawford & Halperin , 2006)
Daya Somasundaram Professor of Psychiatry at Jaffna University who has extensive field research experience on child soldiers found wide spread psychological trauma among the Sri Lankan child soldiers. Professor Somasundaram conducted epidemiological surveys in 1993 of 12 cluster schools in Vaddukoddai and of adolescents in Jaffna and Killinochchi schools and the results showed that widespread war stresses and the effect of the war on these children’s development and the resulting brutalization was to make them more likely to become child soldiers.
Death and injury apart, the recruitment of children becomes even more abhorrent when one sees the psychological consequences. In children who came to our unit for treatment, we found a whole range of conditions from neurotic conditions like somatization, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder to more severe reactive psychosis and what has been termed malignant post-traumatic stress disorder. This leaves children as complete psychological and social wrecks. Our observation has been that children are particularly vulnerable during their impressionable formative period, causing permanent scarring of their developing personality. Military leaders have expressed their preference for younger recruits as “they are less likely to question orders from adults and are more likely to be fearless, as they do not appreciate the dangers they face. Their size and agility makes them ideal for hazardous assignments. (Somasundaram 2002)
A considerable number of former Sri Lankan child soldiers fled the country and now living in Europe, Australia and North America. Canadian intelligence believes that there are 8,000 former LTTE guerrillas in Toronto (ADL -Canada and Terrorism: 2004) Many of them are living with past memories of a bloody war. A study conducted by Kanagaratnam et. al. (2005) focuses on ideological commitment and posttraumatic stress in a sample of former child soldiers from Sri Lanka living in exile in Norway. Using a sample of 20 former child soldiers the researchers tried to find a correlation between ideological commitment and developing mental health problems.
The Sri Lankan military estimated that that half of the LTTE troops were women. According to UNICEF more than 40 percent of LTTE recruited children were girls. The LTTE used numerous euphemisms such as “Birds of Freedom” to call their female carders. Usually female child soldiers face hardships in the war front. Female child soldiers in Uganda, Sierra Leone and in Congo were frequently used as sex slaves and they were repetitively raped by the adult fighters. But there were no facts and concrete evidence to prove that the LTTE used female child soldiers as sex slaves. But the LTTE used female child soldiers to commit murders when they attacked endangered villagers. There were groups of female LTTE carders which mainly consisted of underage girls called “Clearance Party”. The Clearance Party advances after the assault group; their main task was to kill the wounded civilians or soldiers by using machetes. Hence over the years, Sri Lankan female child soldiers were exposed to unspeakable horror. They are at more risk than male child soldiers developing PTSD. Gender also appears to be a risk factor; several studies suggest girls are more likely than boys to develop PTSD (Hamblen, 1999).
When the children were forcibly removed from their parents many children experienced separation anxiety. Some developed into full blown symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder. Separation Anxiety Disorder refers typically to younger children who are extremely unwilling to separate from major attachment figures (e.g., parents grandparents, older siblings) or from home (DSM-IV 1994). These children repeatedly cry, attempt to run away from the captors, they have fear of being alone, and sometimes troubled by nightmares. The senior carders use physical violence and intimidation to train the newly recruited child soldiers. Upon fear and humiliation children suppress their anxiety and willingness to go home and be with the parents. But separation anxiety could damagingly affect their mental health parameters and future adult life. Bowlby believed that attachment behaviors are instinctive and will be activated by any conditions that seem to threaten the achievement of proximity, such as separation, insecurity and fear. (Bowlby, 1969).
Children forcibly removed from their parents and subjected to prolonged stressful events such as war trauma have long term consequences. These symptoms could be seen in many demobilized child soldiers. Following the overwhelming psychological trauma many ex child combatants have apathy and poor attachment with their parents. The parents often feel that their child has changed dramatically and he is unable to express love and warmth in return. Some express that there is an invisible wall between parents and the child. The child seems to have lost the sense of trust in adults and feels that he has lost his identity as a valuable member of the society. The child becomes oppositional, defiant, and impulsive and parents feel that the child acts as if adults don’t exist in their world and does not look to adults for positive interactions. Some children had created bonds with their abductors during their stay with them and feel that they had better time with the militants than with the parents.
The Problems Associated with Moral Development
Although there is a shortage of systematic empirical research many psychologists believe that children’s moral development is seriously disrupted by their participation in armed conflicts. Psychologists have long discussed the possibility that war and political violence may negatively affect children’s moral development. Children in any society should learn to conform to a number of social rules and expectations if they are to become participants in the culture (Nucci 1987).
As children develop their general thinking skills, they’re expected to begin to conform to the rules of morality that society dictates. Research elsewhere has shown that war trauma could affect the moral development of children. Children and adolescents who had been displaced by civil war in Colombia reported expecting that they and others would steal and hurt people despite acknowledging that it would be morally wrong to do so, and many of them, especially adolescents, judged that taking revenge against some groups was justifiable (Posada & Wainryb, 2008)
The child soldiers of Sri Lanka who were systematically indoctrinated and poisoned with hate and brutality faced moral dilemmas. The traditional Tamil culture renounced violence and embraced social values like tolerance, respecting elders and taking care for the sick and dying. But these children had a different doctrine during their military training. They were told that if someone disagrees with your ideas and confronts you, he is an enemy or a traitor and it is your utmost duty is to kill or torture him. They were taught to stab or shoot and kill another human being. Tamil children in Sri Lanka have been scarred by these events and deprived of crucial aspects of their childhood in many different ways (Hoole 2003).
When the children get mixed messages from their elders, (family and rebel leaders) children become confused. Their moral thinking shifts to different directions. The Child Psychologist Jean Piaget held the view that older children are more likely to judge wrongness in terms of the motives underlying the act.
At approximately the same time–10 or 11 years–children’s moral thinking undergoes other shifts. In particular, younger children base their moral judgments more on consequences, whereas older children base their judgments on intentions. When, for example, the young child hears about one boy who broke 15 cups trying to help his mother and another boy who broke only one cup trying to steal cookies, the young child thinks that the first boy did worse. The child primarily considers the amount of damage–the consequences–whereas the older child is more likely to judge wrongness in terms of the motives underlying the act (Piaget, 1932, p. 137).
The Education and Social Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg described the moral development in children. He proposed three levels of moral reasoning. At the first level (pre-conventional), children’s decisions are based on avoiding punishment and receiving rewards. At the second level (conventional), upholding the rules of society is the highest value. At the highest level (post-conventional), individuals follow universal moral principles that may be more important than the rules of a particular country or group.
For children in the Pre-conventional Morality (age 4 – 10), moral values reside in a person’s own needs and wants. The moral judgment in a child of stage 1 Pre-conventional morality (Obedience and Punishment Orientation) is motivated to avoid punishment. Generally child soldiers at this stage obey their leaders in order to avoid harsh punishments. According to Kohlberg Children at the level 2 – Conventional Morality (age 10 – 13) moral values reside in performing good or right roles, in maintaining the convention order, and in pleasing others. The child soldiers at this stage could commit violent acts in order to gratify their leaders or peers without any guilt or remorse. They fulfill the orders of their seniors without questioning.
Social learning theorists like Albert Bandura claim that children initially learn how to behave morally through modeling. Many child soldiers had learned their social behavior through adult militants and for a number of years these senior figures were their role models. They had learned that aggression and violence were acceptable behaviors and killing the enemy was a correct. They were constantly taught that kindness, compassion and forgiveness were signs of weakness. Tamil children in Sri Lanka have been scarred by these events and deprived of crucial aspects of their childhood in many different ways (Hoole 2003). Over the years Sri Lankan child soldiers were systematically exposed to atrocious environment where they had lost most of their innocence and moral senses.
The exercise of self-sanction plays a central role in the regulation of inhumane conduct. In the course of socialization, moral standards are adopted that serve as guides and deterrents for conduct. Once internalized control has developed, people regulate their actions by the sanctions they apply to themselves (Bandura , 1990). Bandura’s famous Bobo doll experiment coincides that behavior such as aggression is learned through observing and imitating others. The children frequently observed the aggressive and violent behavior of their senior members. The senior members of the Tamil Tigers did killings and torture in front of the children for them to observe and learn. The children were traumatized following the vicarious learning as well. According to Bandura’s postulation, individuals acquire aggressive responses using the same mechanism that they do for other complex forms of social behavior: direct experience or the observation-modeling of others (Kritsonis & Hart 2006).
The military use of children by the LTTE had caused detrimental effects on children and their moral development. For a number of years violence had become a way of life for these children. For years they believed that violence was a legitimate means of achieving one’s aims and it was an accepted form of behavior. They find it difficult to disengage from violent thoughts and have a transition to a non-violent lifestyle. After the elongated traumatic exposure to violence and war trauma, children obviously have obstacles making good ethical decisions. Past experiences of combat negatively affect their moral qualities and judgment. These destructive features contribute to vicious cycles of violence and children become less willing to consider reconciliation and value peace and harmony.
Participation in war and indoctrination into the ideologies of hatred and violence leaves children’s moral sensibilities distorted. Children may hand over their guns, but they cannot so easily abandon the violent ways of thinking in which they have been trained. Part of demobilization is enabling the child to move away from violence and into a more inclusive and constructive way of life. The inclusion of peace education in curricula facilitates this process (Menon 2007).
Problems Associated with Cognitive Development
Jean Piaget believed that children’s cognitive development enabled by social transmission or learning from others. According to Piaget, children in the Concrete Operational Stage (7 to 12 years of age) develop the ability to think in a more logical manner, and they begin to overcome some of the ego-centrism characteristic of the preoperational period. The Formal Operational Stage (12 Years to Adulthood) produces a new kind of thinking that is abstract, formal, and logical. They develop concerns about social issues. They are capable of hypothetico- deductive reasoning i.e. ability to identify all the factors that might affect a problem and then deduce and systematically evaluate specific solutions. (Woolfolk , Winne , & Perry , 2011)
Recruiting children for military purposes and exposing them to combat lead to problems in their cognitive development. When children are indoctrinated and forced to perform acts like killings, destructions and torture their cognitive schemas take a pathological shift. Their problem solving skills are diminished and logical thinking is suppressed by the ideology. They were taught to react instead of thinking. They just obey orders from the senior militants and act like perfect killing machines. The time they spend in training and hiding in jungles, doing bunker duty and participating in various attacks, seriously limit them for fruitful learning opportunities.
Lev Vagotsky’s sociocultural theory emphasizes the role in development of cooperative dialogues between children and more knowledgeable members of the society (Woolfolk , Winne , & Perry , 2011). The LTTE recruitments and military usage of children acutely limited them from associating with knowledgeable members of the society like teachers, clergy and other community leaders. There were no educational or intellectual stimulations for the child soldiers. Vagotsky expressed that children learn the culture of their community through these interactions. For the Sri Lankan child soldiers these interactions became prohibited and their universe was limited to combat and violence. These children were deprived of cultural tools. The child soldiers had extremely limited time to read or write. Their vocabulary mostly consisted of war and violence based terms. As their teachers indicate these demobilized children have limited vocabulary and language skills. Children who enter with limited vocabulary knowledge grow much more discrepant over time from their peers who have rich vocabulary knowledge (Baker, Simmons, & Kame’enui, 1997). Their cognitive development was significantly stunted as a result of the exploitation. It has been reported that many young child soldiers were unable to perform cognitive tasks like reading comprehension or to solve mathematical word problems during their stay with the rebels. Although many child soldiers wore wristwatches pompously, they were unable to read time.
Learning Difficulties at School
Sri Lanka’s former child soldiers are going back to school once again. They were away from the school environment for many years. Their cognitive and leaning skills were wrecked by the war at a significant level. Despite all these odds the children are struggling to study and learn new social skills. The Sri Lankan Government took numerous measures to enhance the education of the former child soldiers. The Education Department provides necessary educational facilities to these children. In 2010 a group of 168 former child soldiers who underwent rehabilitation at the Punthottam Child Protection and Rehabilitation Centre in Vavuniya were given an opportunity to study in Colombo Hindu College.
Although the ex-child combatants at their best to re adapt to school education there are many obstacles that prevent them perusing educational goals. The memories of war have not left them completely. Children proved most susceptible to anxiety and emotional problems. Some of the children are facing learning difficulties at school. The teachers have observed a wide range of learning problems in former child soldiers. They had missed a vast amount of teachable moments by the mentors and unfortunately had spent crucial time with rebels. Instead of reading, writing and doing math they were taught how to shoot and kill.
Some children have attention problems, memory issues may be due to psychological distress that they experience. They continue to struggle with learning in the classrooms. In some schools peer rejection was recorded following their past history of war experience. The communities have not fully accepted the former child combatants. Many traumatized communities still recall the reminiscences of the 30 year war that killed their loved ones and destroyed their property. When facing social rejection former child soldiers experience embarrassment, confusion, and humiliation and it could go hand in hand with falling behind their peers in school. Some are poorly motivated and show anger and frustration at school. The affected children are becoming withdrawn, shy, anxious, and helpless with a devalued sense of personal worth and lower personal expectations.
Experts believe that education is a form of powerful social integration and rehabilitative apparatus. Therefore education is the way out for most of these war victims. However, further research has found that although the majority of children greatly benefit from access to education, some former child soldiers are not interested in continuing their education (Boothby, Neil, et al., 2006).
Appropriate help, including coaching in learning strategies or treatment should be offered to the ex-child combatants with learning difficulties. Educational bridging programs work well in these settings, as they enable returning children to achieve some basic literacy and primary level competencies in a relatively short time. Bridge programs effectively create a base from which the child can move to other learning options. In most cases, children proceed to vocational education. Vocational training exists to help children gain skills in agriculture, animal husbandry, baking, carpentry, crafting, masonry, mechanics, tailoring and a variety of other trades (Menon 2007).
Child Soldiers and their Behavioral Problems
Former child soldiers exposed to brutal episodes of war-related violence face a range of behavioral problems. In addition, post-conflict factors may contribute to varying degrees of vulnerability to adverse behavioral outcomes. According to Lev Vygotsky, the child’s culture and community that he lives in largely affects his development. Vygotsky believed that important learning by the child occurs through social interaction. (Vygotsky 1978).
For a number of years the Sri Lankan child soldiers spent time with adult militants under strict rules and regulations. The children were constantly exposed to hostile situations that had negative impact on their psychosocial wellbeing. The children’s thinking pattern and cognitive schemas changed in to more aggressive and violent direction. The children were indoctrinated to perform atrocities without asking questions. They witnessed the gloomy realties of war that made drastic changes in their behavior. The evidence concurs that Sri Lankan child soldiers were used to perform massacres in Sinhala and Muslim villages in the Northern and Eastern part of Sri Lanka. The Human Rights activist and the author of “Sri Lanka: The Arrogance of Power Myths, Decadence and Murder” Professor Rajan Hoole, points out that the LTTE did a number of massacres using child soldiers. In one incident (described by Professor Hoole) a child soldier killed a two year old toddler by smashing his head against a wall when they attacked a Muslim village. After killing the baby the child soldier stabbed the mother to death.
The child soldiers who committed these types of horrific slaughters still relive with their past traumatic memories. Children’s psychological and social adjustment could change over time when exposed to combat trauma. Psychological ailments such as PTSD, Depression, Somatization etc could affect their behavior pattern. The children who had committed atrocities in the past have high risk of developing conduct disorders or anti-social personality disorder, addiction problems etc. if their mental health issues are not appropriately addressed.
In Nepal, Kohrt et al. (2008) concluded that post-conflict factors such as stigma might contribute to adverse mental health outcomes. Former child soldiers in his sample showed significantly higher symptoms of depression and PTSD compared to matched controls even after adjusting for exposure to traumatic events. Betancourt et al. (2010) did a prospective study to investigate psychosocial adjustment in male and female former child soldiers in Sierra Leone using 156 male and female child soldiers. Over the 2-year period of follow-up, youth who had wounded or killed others during the war demonstrated increases in hostility. It has been reported that former child soldiers in Uganda had various behavioral problems and some of them were charged with anti-social activity after their demobilization. Over 70% of prisoners in the juvenile crime unit in the Gulu District, Uganda are former child soldiers, incarcerated on charges of rape, assault and theft ( Akello, Richters & Reis , 2006 ).
Social relationships play a key role in child’s behavior. Nested interacting spheres of social relationships that determine individual behavior and well-being are the fundamental components of analysis in social ecology (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). When these children were abducted and kept in camps, they had no way of having healthy social relationships. On the 14th October 1998, 26 child soldiers deserted the LTTE and surrendered to the Sri Lankan Security Forces. After this incident there were various instances child soldiers leaving the LTTE and surrendering to the Sri Lankan authorities. These children were sent to rehabilitation under the guidance of the CPA (Child Protection Authority). They revealed the hardships that they faced under the captivity.
SE was 11 years old when he was forcibly abducted from his parents and recruited as a child soldier by the LTTE. During the training period, he was beaten and threatened to be killed if he did not obey the orders. He never had the opportunity of going to school after he became a child soldier. Instead of books, he carried AK 47 and grenades. SE and other children underwent physical training and political indoctrination. Little SE witnessed a number of horrific events which changed his psychological makeup drastically. He was forced to observe torture, then forced to induce it on victims. At the initiation ceremony, he received a vial of cyanide on a string necklace and instructed to bite down upon in the event of capture.
SE witnessed dreadful acts over these years. Once he saw a killing of a rival member by his senior members. Along with other children, he had to take part in a number of attacks against the Sri Lankan Army. They were a support team for the adult fighters. SE -the child soldier saw the deaths of some of his mates following mortar fire. Today SE is in a rehabilitation center but his horrendous psychological scars have not left him completely. He has temper tantrums, alienation and other behavioral problems. He once dreamed of becoming a doctor before he became a child soldier. But today his ambitions have changed. He is not interested in his education. He has behavioral problems, especially frequent tantrums. He is emotionally detached from his parents. Once he was a bright and innocent student but today he has become another child victim of the Eelam War.
Child Soldiers and Problems of Reintegration in to Society
By the end of the Sri Lankan armed conflict in 2009 the child soldiers were released from the captivity and many were sent to one year rehabilitation process following a court order. In May 2010 the rehabilitated child soldiers were released and they were facilitated to follow education or vocational training. The National Child Protection Authority of Sri Lanka conducted various psychosocial rehabilitation programs for the ex-child combatants.
Reintegration of the ex-child soldiers could be challenging. Some children have no families; either they have fled the country or killed in the war. Many Sri Lankan ex-child combatants have various problems associated with reintegrating to their own communities. Child soldiers often face psychological and social problems. It has been reported that sometimes their community members outcast these children fearing their war time activities. Some of these children had killed or tortured their relatives. These factors hinder the child soldiers reintegrating back into society and living meaningful and productive lives.
A number of researches done in Asian, African and Latin American countries coincide that reintegration of ex-child soldiers had similar issues or sometimes the conditions were harsher than Sri Lanka. In some countries the conflicts still prevail and liberated child solders still have impending threats such as recapture by the rebels, persecution by the authorities, attempts to harm them by the members of their community for past atrocities. The Coordinators of Save the Children, Gulu Uganda, found that three months after the rescue of 300 ex-child soldiers in 2004-2005, none were found residing in the community in which they were supposed to have been reintegrated. (Akello, Richters & Reis , 2006) . Compared to these circumstances the condition in Sri Lanka is more favourable. The LTTE does not operate as a military organization in Sri Lanka since 2009, therefore the Sri Lankan ex child soldiers have no threats of recapturing. The Sri Lankan authorities consider ex-child solders as victims of war not as perpetrators of any crime. Reintegration of former child soldiers into the society is a prime responsibility of the government and other international agencies. Successful reintegration of child soldiers into society had been reported in many countries around the world.
Angola’s demobilization exercise, which lasted from 1995 to 1997, was one of the most extensive in the history of the United Nations. It was perhaps the first time that children were specifically included in a peace process. While not explicit in the 1994 Lusaka Protocol, their demobilization and reintegration was declared a priority in the first resolution adopted by the commission set up to implement the peace agreement. Partnerships among local civil society networks made it possible for many children to return to their homes (Verhey 2001).
One longitudinal study documented that post-conflict experiences such as family support and economic opportunity played a role in the mental health of 39 Mozambican males re-interviewed 16 years after reintegration. (Boothby, Crawford, & Halperin , 2006)
Post conflict rehabilitation is crucial to the ex- child combatants. The society should be empathetic and create a healthy environment to these traumatized children to recuperate and reintegrate into society as productive members. Betancourt et al. (2010) is of the view that former child soldiers’ acute war experiences have long-term consequences, but the nature and extent of these consequences are influenced by post-conflict risk and protective factors.
Verhey (2001) highlights that reintegration of child soldiers should emphasize three components: family reunification, psychosocial support and education, and economic opportunity.
The conflict between the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka had lasted for almost thirty years and many children became the direct victims of the war. The LTTE had recruited a large number of children violating their rights and used them in active combat. Military use of children represents the worst form of child labour. Most of these children had been the victims of repeated abuse. Many child victims died in the war and survivors live with physical and psychological ailments. They signify the Sri Lanka’s lost generation.
The Sri Lankan Armed Forces defeated the LTTE in 2009 and liberated all the child soldiers that were held by the rebels. They were reunited with the families and facilitated with rehabilitation programs. Today most of the child solders attain school or receive vocational training. Although it was remarkable success achieved by the Sri Lankan Government to end the menace of child soldiers, effective and long-term psycho social care would be needed for the victims.
Many researches have concurred that exposure to war-related traumatic events contributes to subsequent mental health distress. The past traumas that they experienced can deleteriously affect children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development and pose significant problems into adulthood if left untreated. They are at a high risk of developing numerous psychological ailments especially Depression, Somatization, PTSD etc. Their past traumas have created a series of cognitive and behavioral problems that have to be addressed effectively. Many Sri Lankan child soldiers have attachment problems and behavioral issues. Some have learning difficulties at school. The violent environment that they grew up in for years could affect their adult lives in the future. Therefore to end the vicious cycle of violence the victims need prolonged care, welfare, psychotherapy, appropriate monitoring and social support.
Education plays a key role in successful reintegration into society. The inclusion of peace education in curricula facilitates the child move away from violence and into a more inclusive and constructive way of life. Children need to acquire new skills and learn teamwork and partnership. The society must be empathetic and help them to reintegrate into their communities as self-sufficient – productive individuals.
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1. General Gerry de Silva – Former Commander of the Sri Lanka Army
2. Major Thuvan Meeden -Military Intelligence Corps of the Sri Lanka Army (2004)
3. Rev Fr. Athputharaj – Volunteer at the Anbagam Orphanage Mulankavil Kilinochchi District (2002)
4. Dr. Thilokasundari Kariyawasam - Educational Psychologist
5. Mr.SXXX – Former LTTE Child Soldier
6 Mr PXXX - Former member of the LTTE
Professor Heather Jordan –Department of Psychology York University Canada
Professor Harendra de Silva- Department of Pediatrics, University of Kelaniya and the former Chairman of the Child Protection Authority
Professor Daya Somasundaram Department of Psychiatry, Jaffna University, Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Adelaide, Australia
Prof. Rajan Hoole, University of Jaffna
The author wishes extend his thanks to the teachers of the SLED, Rehabilitation officers of the SLSSD who are doing a praiseworthy work with the Sri Lanka’s former child soldiers