I was in Vavuniya on Independence Day, to join in celebrations at a couple of the Rehabilitation Centres. These had been planned by the officials administering the camps under the authority of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, but our Confidence Building and Stabilization Measures Project had assisted with the arrangements. Ironically, the main funding we receive, from UNHCR, cannot be used for these youngsters, just as for some strange reason the World Food Programme does not feed them. Fortunately the government is more enlightened and sees these victims of the LTTE’s forced recruitment as deserving of all possible assistance and encouragement.
I am particularly sorry that the UN system, which kept such recruitment secret (talking about it only in internal documents, which seem to have been the only things in the UN system that did not leak in the bad old days), will not do more to make up to these children for the earlier neglect. But I suppose we should be thankful at least that UN officials now work with the government, in accordance with the UN Charter, and do not continue to feel they have to hold the balance between an elected government and terrorists, as the more excitable Campbells and Dixes did in times past. And so I was hopeful when I saw officials of WFP in the second centre I visited, along with UNAID officials. Though they were there on other business, I hope what they saw will convince them that true humanitarian assistance should not be grudging or dogmatic.
They came in the midst of a volleyball match, which was extremely exciting, with the team that had won the playoff amongst the rehabilitees meeting an army team. I found myself very much on the side of the girls, to the disappointment of the army ladies, to whom I tried to explain that, since they had trained the girls, they should have wanted them to do better than themselves. Unfortunately, such philosophical concepts as to the teaching profession did not go down well with many who were caught up in competitive emotion. Certainly the squeals on both sides were straight from the world of Enid Blyton.
On the verandah behind the volleyball court, there were practical sessions in Beauty Culture. The CBSM officers had
got private funding to bring down two ladies who were powdering and plastering and arranging hair, with the assistance of some of the rehabilitees whom they had trained previously. The girls being treated were obviously enjoying the process, and coyly permitted me to take photographs. It was difficult to imagine that these delightful examples of feminism had been trained, not so very long ago, in the use of weapons. Certainly I could not imagine that any had volunteered for the purpose.
After lunch, following a discussion, we had a concert, with skilled singing and dancing, and also an awards ceremony, in which they clapped as hard for the army ladies as for their own favourites. One was the captain of the volleyball team, another was the announcer, who also won an award for batting. I gathered that she had earlier worked for Tiger Radio.
The same was true of the Master of Ceremonies at the first camp I went to, the one at Poorthottam which was for former child soldiers. He himself had been released, but had come back voluntarily to work with the others, since it seemed he could not get appropriate training where his family was. That certainly is a lacuna that I hope can be addressed soon, but meanwhile the camp benefited from his obvious skills.
After a charming flag hoisting ceremony, which included the release of a dove, and speeches in both Tamil and Sinhala, we had a drill display which was enchanting – and of interest too to the children from the neighbouring houses, whose noses were glued to the barbed wire fence that separated the camp from their compounds. What was the highlight of a well rehearsed performance was a display with national flags, including the building up of pyramids by the girls and boys respectively to display the standards aloft.
Afterwards we had tea, with sweetmeats made by the youngsters, who fell on the food in a combination of discipline and schoolboy greed which the erstwhile announcer managed most effectively. I wondered whether he had held some sort of command position earlier, but he was most engaging, and seemed thoroughly caught up in his duties. It struck me that, on balance, whatever he had done earlier, this was a good example of rehabilitation.
More of course remains to be done, and it is time the government moved swiftly on the vocational training and other aspects of socialization that are laid out in the Action Plan. The former Commissioner General had done a fantastic job in assessing these youngsters and sorting out what levels of rehabilitation are needed for each, but funding has been slow to come in, and the programmes need now to be fast forwarded.
My own view is that we should go ahead even with military resources – as indeed we are doing with the feeding, to better effect than when WFP provided its limited rations and government had to hunt around for complementary food, which the NGOs were self-righteously clutching to their bosoms. It is mere dogma that demands that the military should not be involved in rehabilitation and reintegration. Sadly we are still oppressed by the mood of seven years ago, when the international community indulged the Tiger claim that the armed forces were necessarily the enemy of civilians.
Fortunately at least some UN officials have begun to realize that the situation is very different here from that which obtains in some countries in which they have served, where there are no effective government structures in many areas and where armies can be laws unto themselves. On the contrary, our armed forces, which have shown themselves more disciplined in combat situations than others which are in the centre of relief operations all over the world, need to be granted recognition as being full partners in the winning of the peace as well.
Certainly what they have done thus far in the Rehabilitation Centres, with limited resources, and unlimited dedication, deserves celebration as an essential component of the reconciliation process. You could sense clearly the affection of the youngsters for the young female captain who looked after one camp, for the gruff older major in the other. The officer in charge of all the camps obviously knew how to build on the different strengths of his subordinates in different places, an aspect of management that I have seen more commonly in the army than elsewhere, and which we certainly need in times of deprivation and difficulty.
All in all, I was very glad I had missed the larger celebration in Kandy, and come to this quieter place, where such effective symbols of the national integration that should go with independence had been on display. I can only hope that the larger resources these enterprising youngsters deserve, the administrators as well as the former combatants, will soon be made available to ensure swift and effective rehabilitation and reintegration. Reconciliation certainly was already well in hand.