By Shanika Sriyananda
‘No matter how much time you have wasted in the past, you still have an entire tomorrow’ – the thought of the week is written on the green notice board at the Rehabilitation Commissioner General’s Head Office at Nawala.
The officials of this office have been able to seal off the past of over 12,000 former fighters of the LTTE who had wasted their time in the past and rehabilitate them to be peaceful souls who are now aspiring for a better tomorrow.
But back at home after undergoing a year-long rehabilitation which helped them to brush up their hidden talents and skills, for many the road of life is still bumpy with many socio- economic hardships.
With a high unemployment rate, social stigma, disabilities due to battle field injuries, poor educational qualifications and poor mental stability, they struggle to earn a decent living six years after the end of the 30-year-long war on terrorism. Finding a job has become their main problem.
Gopika Raviraj (not her real name), 22, is unemployed and depressed as she and her two young children have to depend on the earnings of her disabled husband, who works as a casual labourer.
Gopika, a former child soldier married to a former combatant whom she met at the rehabilitation centre, has two young children aged three and five. Conscripted at the age of 15, she was dropped on the battlefield after a few weeks of weapon training. She says she fought not to kill anyone but for her own defence in fear of death.
“I have no proper education. I didn’t want to sit for my Ordinary Level exam at the rehabilitation centre. I followed a beauty culture course and like to start a small salon but have no money to invest. I applied for a bank loan but it was rejected,” she says.
Gopika is grateful to her husband for marrying her without a dowry. “Some of my friends who were with me at the rehabilitation centre are still single as their parents don’t have money or property to give as dowries. My husband didn’t ask for a cent. He feeds us and looks after us well, but I can’t be a burden to him any more as he is disabled due to a gunshot injury on the battlefield,” Gopika says.
According to a recent survey by the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation (BCGR), out of the total ex-combatants who have been reintegrated, over 22% are unemployed due to various reasons.
Over 11,000 ex-combatants were forcibly conscripted by the LTTE. Most of them were in their teens and had missed formal education. During the one-year rehabilitation, they were given vocational training and psychological rehabilitation.
T. Malathi (name changed) is a well-trained suicide cadre of the LTTE’s Black Tiger Unit. Trained for years and having carried out two spy missions in Colombo, today she is a mother of two cute little girls.
“I failed in both attempts as security was too tight in Colombo those days. I was in Kotahena. When the two missions were failed, the regional leader of the Black Tigers called me to Vavuniya. It was during the final months of the fighting in the north. While I was in Vavuniya I met my husband who is a three-wheeler driver,” she recalled.
After the war ended in 2009, she voluntarily surrendered to the authorities. As she had identified herself as a Black Tiger, she had to spend two years in Boosa prison before entering the rehabilitation process.
“I didn’t know the whereabouts of my parents, the only one I knew was that three-wheeler driver, so I told the rehabilitation officers that I wanted to talk to him. They found him and he started coming to the rehabilitation centre. We fell in love and he married me after I was released from the centre. I leant sewing when I was in rehabilitation, now I earn a small income by undertaking some orders to support my husband,” says Malathi, adding that she hopes to have a house of her own one day.
Her husband’s parents opposed him marrying Malathi as they came to know that she was a suicide cadre. “They asked me how a woman committed to die would become a good housewife and a mother, but the rehabilitation officials had convinced them, inviting them to some public awareness programs, to accept us when we are released. I realised the value of a human life and started loving myself and people around me when I was taking part in leadership programs,” Malathi said, embracing her two girls.
“The LTTE taught me to hate people but during rehabilitation I learnt to love people. This gave me hope for future,” Malathi added.
The ex-combatants were given vocational skills training – mechanical skills, information technology, agriculture, animal husbandry, food processing, handicrafts, carpentry and construction under the rehabilitation program while they are psychosocially supported through counselling and mentorship system to improve emotional resilience.
Ravi Kumar (54) got an appointment as a sworn translator in Kilinochchi on January this year. He served as a Sinhala teacher at the Sinhala Maha Vidyalaya Kilinochchi, the former administrative capital of the LTTE, and now teaches Sinhala at a private education institute.
“I was not directly involved with the LTTE but I was compelled to do Sinhala translations for them. When the war was over I volunteered to get rehabilitated to clear my name. At the rehabilitation centre, I worked as a clerk and also taught Sinhala to ex-combatants,” Kumar, who is a father of three sons, says.
He said as a teacher he has lots of connections with the rehabilitated ex-combatants and none of them want to get involved in politics or support any of the politicians but they need jobs to live peacefully. “They only look for jobs. Whoever offers them jobs anywhere in the country, they are ready to work to earn a living,” he said, adding that some who have battle scars still face problems as they could be easily identified as ex-combatants.
“Some Sinhalese and Tamil people who still have fears about the LTTE are reluctant to offer them jobs. Earlier the female ex-combatants faced a problem of getting married as people had a perception that girls who were LTTE cadres were tough and couldn’t be controlled when they were married. But now how people look at them has changed a lot and most of the female ex-combatants are married, having children and leading a good family life. Time will heal all wounds,” he said.
Counselling to cure
Working as a school counsellor for over 10-years, S. Pavanitharan has two years of experience as counsellor at the rehabilitation centre at Poonthottam, Vavuniya.
He said counselling coupled with religious activities in the rehabilitation helped immensely to develop positive mentality among ex-combatants. “They have seen death from tender ages. Once they were taken into the LTTE, they had been constantly taught about the value of dying for the LTTE’s cause. They have not seen and heard stories of living,” he said.
Pavanitharan said at the beginning it was a difficult task for the counsellors to tap their minds as they were not speaking due to shock. “These young girls and boys never thought that they would get a chance to live when fighting in fierce battle fields. We talked to them daily to help them develop positive thinking. We talked about family, values, ethics and their rights, but we never talked about their past. We did individual and group counselling throughout the year,” he said.
According to Pavanitharan, the counsellors faced challenges as most of them were ignorant about the world outside the north. “They were taught forcefully to think within the LTTE framework for nearly 30 years. They have seen only the LTTE, war and blood. But during counselling we taught them how to love their lives and dreaming for better future. We help them to set their own targets,” he said.
Citing the story of one of the ex-combatants, he said allowing them to talk during counselling sessions helped to cure their inner wounds.
“I met an ex-combatant from Batticaloa who is married and having a son. He is partly paralysed due to a mortar attack during the battle and had no hopes for future. During the first session he unfolded his story from A to Z and started crying loud. He told me that it was the first time he had a chance to come out with his story and he felt there was someone to listen to his story. He said he didn’t have hope for the future as he always knew that he would die in a battlefield soon,” Pavanitharan said, adding that the ex-combatants with PTSD were exposed more to religious programs to heal their inner wounds.
“We also taught them, in group counselling, how it is important to live facing challenges rather than dying in a war,” he said.
He said it was difficult to banish negative thoughts among the suicide cadres who were heavily brainwashed to take their own lives. “But continued counselling based on positive approaches helped to change their minds. Today, they never think about death. They want to live for themselves, their families and their children,” Pavanitharan said.
Nimal Weerasekara, the Rehabilitation Officer of the Economic, Social and Welfare Coordinating Centre, Kilinochchi, said there were more than 3,000 rehabilitated ex-combatants in Kilinochchi and they still faced problems relating to land, employment, housing, obtaining birth certificates and social stigma.
“Among all these issues, unemployment is the major problem for them. We helped some of them to get jobs. Most of them didn’t have National Identity Cards as they don’t have the required information like birthday, residential address and family details. We helped them to get NICs. We help them in providing legal aid and also to start self-employment,” he said.
Weerasekara said that the majority of ex-combatants hoped that the Government would look after them for another two to three years until their lives are more stable.
“I can give a 1,000% assurance that none of these girls and boys will take up arms again. They are living very peaceful happy lives as there is no war for them to die. If someone is trying to disrupt the peace, they will be the first to inform the Army. They just want jobs to earn a living,” he said.
“Rehabilitation of ex-combatants a success story”
Most of the former LTTE combatants came for rehabilitation voluntarily and they were placed in a one-year rehabilitation process in 2009. Initially there had been 24 centres and now it has been reduced to one centre where only 45 inmates are undergoing rehabilitation. But some more, who will be referred by the Courts, are to come from remand prisons for rehabilitation.
Since over 12,000 rehabilitated ex-combatants are back in the society, now our main focus is to provide them sustainable livelihood assistance to start their lives. The rehabilitation officers in eight districts – Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Colombo are now collecting details about them, their requirements for livelihood support.
Centres for caring ex-combatants
We are working to set up State-run centres like Abimansala, in which injured soldiers of the armed forces are looked after, to provide care for the ex-combatants who are paralysed or badly injured and don’t have any family members to look after them. They, who need special care, will be provided lifelong care, if necessary. We are collecting data on them.
We have proposed to have a special centre in Kilinochchi to help the ex-combatants with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and also to address the psychosocial issues among them in the north.
In our action plan, we have programs to help women-headed families to offer them financial support and shelter. According to our findings, the northern people are still deprived of decent shelter. In the proposed housing projects, the ex-combatants will be given priority.
I always believe we should not only help the ex-combatants but also their children. If we neglect their children, they will be vulnerable in future to similar situations their parents had been subjected to. If we can take care of their children now, it will help us to maintain peace in future. Therefore, our focus is always the ex-combatants plus the next generation.
The Government has successfully completed rehabilitating the ex-combatants and now we want to address the reconciliation aspect of the process. Livelihood restoration is given priority as one of our recent surveys has revealed that over 22% of the rehabilitated ex-combatants are unemployed.
While the committee appointed by the Prime Minister is exploring means of creating livelihoods for the rehabilitated ex-combatants, the Rehabilitation Authority will find more foreign jobs in the Middle East, Korea and Singapore through the Foreign Employment Bureau.
Some ex-combatants are already employed in Korea and earning well. Over 360 rehabilitated ex-combatants, including those who are employed in Korea and migrated with their families, are living peacefully abroad. We helped some of them migrate by providing necessary documents.
Loans for self-employment
Under the self-employment scheme, rehabilitated ex-combatants are given soft loans with an interest of 4%. Over 1,783 have already obtained loans and started their businesses. Over 5,000 have submitted applications and we are processing the applications to grant them loans soon.
In some loan applications some information like permanent address are lacking but we are negotiating with the banks to skip this requirement to grant them loans to start their businesses. For some beneficiaries, we have extended the grace period for repaying considering their economic status.
Following instructions by the Prime Minister, we are now having discussions with foreign banks to grant loans to ex-combatants.
Some have obtained their second loan. Our main focus is to look after the rehabilitated ex-combatants well to ensure they are financially stable so nobody can influence or motivate to enter into illegal activities. I personally believe that it would be best if we can give them State jobs and keep the ex-combatants under our payroll, as they gain confidence about their future.
Ex-combatants, peaceful citizens
These ex-combatants have given up arms as they were defeated militarily and if they wanted to create some volatile situation they could have done it after they re-entered society. I am happy to say all of them are living very peaceful lives and there are no records of their involvement in any form of illegal activity in society during the past six years.
When rehabilitating ex-combatants in other countries, the ex-combatants were taken for rehabilitation forcefully. In Sri Lanka it is unique as they came for rehabilitation voluntarily. At the initial stages we had problems in requesting their own societies not to look at them as terrorists. We had to take several efforts like public awareness campaigns to change their perspective to welcome the ex-combatants back to society.
The ex-combatants are given the opportunity to join the armed forces but only 5% of them accepted it. My view is that it was because they didn’t want to touch weapons and be in a military environment again. They want to have peaceful lives with their families. We need to respect their attitude and need to ensure their security and give them fullest support to have better positions in society.
Social stigma due to caste
I found that a major cause that contributes to social stigma is the caste problem in the north. Most of the ex-combatants are from low castes and they were controlling the people during the LTTE period. Those villagers, who still hate the ex-combatants for conscripting their children, had mistreated them once they were reintegrated. This situation needs time to heal. Compared to the situation at the beginning, there is a marked change in their attitudes towards the ex-combatants, who are leading peaceful lives. Now their children are schooling with the rest of the children.
I am sad to state that there is some influence by political parties with vested interests in creating a situation against these combatants. If they are not accepted by society, it is easy for those politicians to fish them to their side.
As the Commissioner General, I want to say this is one of the world’s best models to prove the success of rehabilitation of ex-combatants. The Government and people of this country need to look after the 12,081 ex-combatants in society very well for the next five years.
None under surveillance
As the Commissioner General, I reiterate that no ex-combatant is under surveillance and we don’t monitor them once they are reintegrated into society. They are free individuals as other Sri Lankans who are living in the rest of the country.
I say with responsibility that there is no requirement for them to report to the nearest Army camp or the Police station once they have been released after rehabilitation. However, if they violate law and order of the country, they will be dealt with via the law. So far no such case has been reported against released ex-combatants.
Invite Tamil diaspora
The Tamil diaspora, I feel, still have a different picture about the process and hope they will understand the reality soon. Here I place the blame on the media and our foreign missions in the respective countries for not giving publicity on the rehabilitation process and its success stories. Recently a group of Sri Lankan Tamils in UK sought our help to go to the north. We arranged the trip. When they met me after their trip to the north, they said that they never thought the situation in the north was good as they always get distorted and twisted stories about the north.
No one from the Tamil diaspora has contacted me to help the ex-combatants so far. But those who witnessed the reality in the north have commended our efforts to uplift the lives of ex-combatants.
We know most of the ex-combatants have relatives abroad who are indirectly supporting them. If you look at the bank transactions, you can realise it. They may be living in cadjan huts but they have dollars and sterling pounds in their accounts.
As a Government we can’t give them everything and we are happy they are getting support from somewhere, but this support needs to be continued in a positive way with no hidden agendas to disrupt the peace and stability in the north.
Around 2,170 still
The doors are still open for those who have not come for rehabilitation. There are around 2,170 ex-combatants who have not come for rehabilitation and are in society. We know most of them didn’t report to us fearing they would be subjected to harassment and tough interrogation or they would be imprisoned again, but I assure no harm will come to them if they come for rehabilitation voluntarily.
They are not even under surveillance but if they come for rehabilitation it will be a plus point for them to clear their names. Society will also accept them well if they are rehabilitated.
All child soldiers are now over 18 years of age. Most of them are enrolled in higher education as they were given the opportunity to catch up on their missed education during the rehabilitation process. Over 30 ex-combatants, including former child soldiers, are now eligible to enter universities. There are 232 undergraduates including child soldiers who are doing medicine and engineering.
We want to help the ex-combatants continue with their higher education and we help them to achieve their educational goals. We believe that proper education will always promote peaceful citizens.
Out of the total reintegrated ex-combatants, 6 to 7% of ex-suicide cadres are also reintegrated and leading peaceful lives.
Counselling, which is one of the main component of the rehabilitation process, has helped to change those who were ready to die by killing many people. From the day one of the rehabilitation process, we used counselling as an effective tool to tap their minds. Our counsellors handled them carefully and touched their inner feelings to read their minds to teach them the value of living rather than taking their own lives. They are also taught about the value of other people’s lives. They were motivated to respect each other and their culture, religion and attitudes.
We also taught them the importance of knowing their rights to education, life, speak, vote, religion and justice. The Sri Lankan model of rehabilitation is a rights-based approach and is designed to always ensure the safety of the ex-combatants.
I always say we haven’t done 100% for the ex-combatants. There are some gaps but from what we have done so far, I can proudly say the rehabilitation of the ex-combatants is a success story.