The missing boys of Batticaloa

Print edition : November 07, 2003
recently in Batticaloa

BATTICALOA, also known as the `Land of the Singing Fish', has for long remained important for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The taking of the Elephant Pass military garrison in April 2000 was a signal contribution to the organisation by the `boys from Batticaloa' led by Karuna a.k.a V. Muralitharan, the LTTE's military commander for Batticaloa and Amparai. In its own way, Batticaloa has defied the Sri Lankan military.

This September, in a rare show of defiance, 22 schoolchildren staged a two-day protest against the LTTE and stayed away from classes demanding the release of three of their friends who had been reportedly abducted by the Tigers. But in early October catastrophe hit several families in Valaichchenai, a Tamil-majority village on the outskirts of Batticaloa. At least 11 young persons went missing after the LTTE allegedly swooped down on the village. Wailing mothers, protesting students, angry village elders and an outraged United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) could do little to remedy the situation. Unconfirmed reports suggested that at least 20 youngsters had gone missing. They had apparently been taken by the Tigers to swell the ranks of their fighting force.

"The east has been pillaged," said Harry Miller, 78, a Jesuit priest and former rector of Batticaloa's premier school St. Michael's College. Informed local sources in Valaichchenai, from where the largest numbers were taken away, said usually a van would come to a halt and one person would ask the young people nearby to "help them push it". Then, according to parents, the children were "taken away".

For the parents, the loss of the children has been a shattering experience. "Peace means freedom. Freedom for our sons to walk about and play," Thangamalar Mahoharan told Frontline, tears welling up in her eyes as she held the photograph of her missing 18-year-old son Piratheepan. With an excellent academic record - an "outstanding" grade in Political Science in the school-leaving examination - he had filled in her the hope that he would move to Colombo for higher studies and then get a "bank job''. His sister, a student of the Valaichchenai Hindu College, stayed away from school after her brother's disappearance, but Thangamalar was hopeful that her son would be released.

"We raised him up for 18 years. We want him with us. The LTTE has said he will be sent back. I am hopeful," she said. Her hopes rested on the fact that her son had applied to universities for higher education and hence would be released by the Tigers.

Piratheepan's friend in school, currently in the final year, reasons that the Tigers "want those who are educated" and hence target schoolboys. At the Valaichchenai Hindu College, from where Piratheepan completed his studies last year, 22 students, including nine girls, from the commerce stream stayed away from classes for two days, protesting against the abduction of their classmates Arputharajah Prasad and Roshan Michael. "We want our friends back. We are not going back till then," the students said.

The hopes of the mother and the anger of the schoolchildren vapourised hours later when, at a press conference organised by the LTTE in the rebel-held territory of Batticaloa, 11 youngsters, including seven taken away from Valaichchenai, said they had "volunteered" to join the Tigers.

A few yards away from where the press conference was held, LTTE functionaries feigned ignorance of the developments. "We don't know. You must ask the political headquarters," a rebel functionary told Frontline.

The parents, perhaps anticipating the "voluntary" response of their sons "joining the Tigers", emphasise that the children are "unfit for military service" and should be sent back. "It is like an ogre that descends from the hills once in a while and takes children away," said Harry Miller, an American who has made Batticaloa his home since 1948. "Each time everybody hopes it is not their child. But some time or the other it would be the turn of their child... . There is no one to stop the LTTE."

In a poor seaside village off Batticaloa, truancy persists. "I don't want to go to school. I cannot buy a mathematics notebook. The teacher scolded me and I dropped out two months ago," said an 11-year-old boy who lost his parents during the war. As he roams about on his bicycle, he adds to the ranks of the youngsters from Batticaloa who would be "easy picking" for the LTTE. In tragic and farcical contrast, at a school playground outside Batticaloa town the LTTE's sports wing hoisted the Tiger-insignia flag and conducted a netball competition for schoolchildren.

Denying the charges of abduction, the LTTE said the youngsters joined it "voluntarily". Asked specifically about instances of under-aged children, a local LTTE functionary said: "Those below 18 will be sent back to their parents through UNICEF's transit camps.'' The continued recruitment was explained away as a "process" triggered by the "uncertainty" over the progress of the peace process.

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