New Lease of Life for Rehabilitated Ex-Terrorists

Sitting under the scorching sun at mid-day at Keppapulavu village in Mullaitivu, twenty-seven-year-old Wasantha Kumar related horrific stories of a past that was filled with war, misery and blood. Wasantha had been an LTTE cadre who joined the terror group to save his younger cousin sister. “I joined not because I wanted to but I had no other choice," he said.

While living in Udayarkattu in Kilinochchi as a displaced family from Mankulam in Vavuniya, they were getting threats from the LTTE to recruit a teenager to the organisation. “The LTTE was trying to take my uncle's fifteen-year-old daughter forcibly and since my uncle opposed he was arrested. I had no option but to join the LTTE to free the family,” Wasantha said.

Wasantha belonged to a family of farmers and his mother and father had left their ancestral lands in Mankulam during 1995 and settled in Galewela when he was five-years-old. “I studied in the Sinhala medium at our village school in Galewela and in 2005 during peace time, I revisited Mankulam where my relatives were still living. There I found a job in road construction and was happily earning an income until the LTTE took my only identification documents stating that outsiders cannot work in the locality. I had no National Identity Card and had no way to return to my father,” he said. Wasantha is the second of four boys and his mother had passed away when he was seven.

After joining the LTTE, Wasantha had been a member of the Radha group serving until the end of the LTTE. After one month of training to use T56 and hand grenades, Wasantha and around 200 new recruits were put in to the service at medical centres that treat injured LTTE cadres. “In February 2008 I was sent to the front and was deployed in Devapuram, a little distance beyond Pudukuduyirippu. There I got injured during a shell attack and was treated at the Medical centre at Mullivaikkal. Even before my wounds were healed I was sent back to the front at Pudukuduyirippu. There the attacks were intense. Again I was injured by a gunshot to the abdomen. I had to be treated for more than one-and-a-half months. While I was under treatment I was ordered to join the front at Pudumathalan. I had to go there. There I met my uncles and aunts – my relatives I was living with before joining the LTTE.

Reminiscing the last few days of the battle, Wasantha said there had been no food either for the LTTE cadres like him or for the people. For months they had been feeding on rice porridge. The last point Wasantha had been under a 'dan' (wild berries) tree. “On a roster I had to fetch the porridge in the morning. I went on a push bike with a large plastic bucket. When I return with a bucketful of porridge children of displaced families living on that route come running after me. About 25 children surround me begging for porridge with jugs in their hands. I distribute the porridge among the children and do not take any back to the camp. I just tell my fellow cadres that I fell during a shell attack and broke the basket or fabricate some other story. The sight of the children made me cry sometimes. At that time rice, dhal, flour was very expensive. A kilo of flour was around Rs.3000 – 4000 at Puthumathalan during this time. People could not afford to buy food. I know a person who exchanged a coconut for a three-wheeler,” Wasantha went on to explain the misery he saw during the last phase of the war under LTTE stronghold.

The family was trying to escape from the LTTE area but was facing many obstacles. I joined them and went up to the Wadduvakkal Bridge at the edge of the Nandikadal lagoon. “We were able to escape only when the Army broke the LTTE defence line,” he explained their escape on the fateful day.

“When I surrended I knew I will not be killed because I will be a prisoner of war but never expected that I will be able to live free like this. There are lots of sports and cultural activities too that we greatly enjoy,” he added comparing his life with the LTTE. “Many youth who were in my peer group never wanted to stay with the LTTE. But we had no other option,” Wasantha said.

Today Wasantha has many options. He is learning carpentry at the Rehabilitation Centre at Maradamadu operated under the Bureau of the Rehabilitation Commissioner General. It is not only a livelihood he learns. He is getting back the fun filled youth which he missed for many years. “We have cricket matches and concerts. We get the chance to play and dance,” said the young man.

On the Thai pongal day he and another 99 young men from the Maradamadu centre were at the Keppapulavu village in the Maritimepattu division of the Mullaitivu district for a special celebration. Keppapulavu is the last village to be resettled.

The villagers were to celebrate Thai pongal with hundred Tamil youth from the Rehabilitation Centre for ex LTTE cadres at Maradamadu and another group of hundred Sinhala youth from the Southern Province.

The day turned out to be a spectacular one with wonderful customs of a typical Tamil village. The event was at the premises of the slowly rising school of the village. Young men from the Maradamadu centre, along with the officials of the Bureau of the Rehabilitation Commissioner General, were ready to welcome brothers and sisters of the south. All the villagers were gathered at the premises of their tiny school.

The two youth groups got together that day at this event organised under the guidance of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms Minister Chandrasiri Gajadeera to accompany people who had no proper place to celebrate their new year.

The villagers resettled in Keppapulavu in September last year. They were the last to leave the IDP camp at Menik farm in Cheddikulam. Permanent houses are coming up in the area with the building material provided by the Government and construction work done by the Sri Lanka Army.

The group from the South brought in traditional cultural events of the area and many of the people in the village had never had interactions with the other parts of the country – specially the younger generation. It was an extraordinary experience for the rehabilitating youth as well.

Nadarasa Rajkumar (28) from Trincomalee is now with the rehab centre for eight months. He had been a fighter with the LTTE in 2000 and 2003.

“We were in office work as well as in the front. At the beginning I was deployed in the squads for clearing. When more people were joining the LTTE we were appointed as team leaders,” Rajkumar said.

In 2008 Rajkumar had gone abroad to work as a driver and returned in 2010. In 2011 August the Terrorist Investigation Division arrested him for being involved in a terror organisation. Early 2012 he was handed over to the rehabilitation program. He has a daughter now one year and three months and his wife and daughter lives with his family in Trincomalee. “Now I'm learning masonry. Before that I studied lagoon fishing - breeding the fish varieties and fishing techniques,” he said.

What did you feel when you were in the war? I asked. “In a war we have to follow orders and make sure that the job is done perfectly. We cannot afford to keep on thinking about us getting injured or about us being killed,” he said. “Though I joined voluntarily it was at a very young age. We liked weapons and young men in uniform looked handsome and the entire picture was adventurous to us,” he said.

Being one of the members active in the Eastern Front of the LTTE Rajkumar said that in 2005, 2006 many experienced LTTE cadres left the force giving many reasons but actually they were stick of the organisation. “Before the changes we didn't mingle with the civilians much.

And children were not forcefully recruited. But things changed and many cadres lost believing in the aim of the organisation. The 'good fellows' in the organisation started leaving. Then the organisation faced a split and the situation was bad after that. And we knew that the organisation was getting close to its end,” he explained.

“When I requested to leave the organisation, my leaders said I have to undergo punishment for leaving and I agreed to face any punishment as long as I was able to leave. Later they said I need not go under punishment but to come back when summoned. On this condition I returned home and after three months I got a letter with an order to return. And I had to,” he said.

“War does no good to people. The main problem we as Sri Lankans face is the language barrier. Tamil people should learn Sinhala and Sinhala people should learn Tamil. When there are no barriers there will be no clashes too,” he said.

“We should be careful about the segment of politics that would try to plant racist ideas in our brains. Teenagers are quite vulnerable. That happened to us. But when we grow older and experience good and bad in life we begin to realise what is the correct path. So we as people need to be wise and not give any chance for extreme ideas to live,” he said.

“My neighbours are Sinhala people. Among my life-long group of twenty six friends six are Sinhala and three are Muslim. One of my Sinhala friends was with the Sri Lanka Army and he had died during the war. We were friends since childhood and we all get together whenever I go home on vacation,” Rajkumar said.

The rehabilitating youth are ready for the changing world. They know back in the community life is not going to be easy. Rehabilitation is also making them learn the patience to face these challenges rather an aggressive approach.

Krishnasami Selvathurai (61) is a father of a rehabilitated ex-LTTE cadre. “Now my son is with us and both of us go fishing in the lagoon - the job we did for generations,” Selvathurai said. Selvathurai was born in Mathugama and is fluent in Sinhala. “I settled down in this village in 1977 after marriage. My wife's relatives were living here. So we came and settled down here to start fishing in the lagoon and that has been my job ever since,” said Selvathurai. With the rise of war Selvathurai left the village in 2009 with his family. In fact the entire village left. Lastly they were living in Puthumathalan, the thin stretch of sandy coastal area North of Mullaitivu, until the Army was able to clear a path for them to escape.

“The LTTE took my son to fight. Fortunately he was still alive at the end of the war,” he said.

This new generation of youth is putting their best effort to create a stable future.

They are on the lookout for the best job opportunity in the market, or the best place to start their lives. The aspiration of youth of all categories in a society has no difference. While in this race for success the chances are high for them to forget about living in harmony.

The special event at Keppapulavu village gave a different experience to both groups and hopefully would last a lifetime. “Rehabilitation is not only learning a life skill and following the curriculum set up for them. Understanding society is a crucial part,” said Brigadier Dharshana Hettiarachchi, the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation.

“Rather than prosecuting, the Government adopted an approach to rebuild their lives with a view to making them useful citizens to the country. Both custodial and community rehabilitation has opened their eyes, minds and hearts,” Brig. Hettiarachchi said.

Courtesy - Sunday Observer (By Dhaneshi Yatawara - Reporting from Mullaitivu)