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Shake hands with an Angel - meeting with Lt. Gen Romeo Dallaire


Continued from Friday (December 30)

After Rwanda, Gen Romeo Dallaire gave leadership in a project to develop a conceptual base for the elimination of the use of child soldiers. In his best-selling book "They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children," Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire suggests to promote Zero Force, an international campaign to eradicate the use of child soldiers. He is determined to fight to eradicate the use of child soldiers in armed conflicts. It is a mission to which Gen Dallaire has committed himself for the rest of his life.

After Rwanda, Gen Romeo Dallaire gave leadership in a project to develop a conceptual base for the elimination of the use of child soldiers. In his best-selling book "They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children," Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire suggests to promote Zero Force, an international campaign to eradicate the use of child soldiers. He is determined to fight to eradicate the use of child soldiers in armed conflicts. It is a mission to which Gen Dallaire has committed himself for the rest of his life.


Former LTTE child soldiers. File photo

According to the Canadian International Development Agency, worldwide, in any given year, over 300,000 children under 18 are exploited in armed conflicts as child soldiers and sex slaves.

Gen Romeo Dallaire's present mission has a great significance to Sri Lanka. Over 7,000 children were forcibly recruited and sent to war by the LTTE during 1983 - 2009. In 1998 the special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu, visited Sri Lanka and requested the Tigers to release these children under humanitarian grounds. According to UNICEF data, there were a total of 6,183 cases of child recruitment by the LTTE in five years after the February 2002 Ceasefire Agreement. Out of this 3,732 were boys and 2,451 were girls.

UNICEF too constantly urged the LTTE to stop recruiting child soldiers in Sri Lanka. Over the years these children witnessed some of the most disturbing experiences that affected them physically, mentally and emotionally. Children were abducted and forced into weapon training and they were subjected to torture, in doctrination, sleep deprivation and often forced to commit atrocities.

Professor Daya Somasundaram of the University of Jaffna did extensive study on the psychological problems that were experienced by the Sri Lankan child solders. According to Professor Somasundaram child soldiers suffer from numerous psychological and psychiatric ailments.

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 somatisation, 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)

In his book Power Games in War and Peace Prof Harendra de Silva, the eminent paediatrician and the former chairman of the National Child Protection Authority, points out that Sri Lankan child solders undergo lifelong physical and psychological damage and it is crucial to offer wide-ranging rehabilitation to the victims. Prof. Harendra de Silva further says that in Sri Lankan society, a child is often depicted as a flower, and the national flower of Sri Lanka is the blue lotus. The view of the child at the same level of the adult indicates the importance of looking at children with the same prominence. Therefore, the children should be protected from physical and psychological harm.

In 2002 during the CFAI was able to visit some villages in Mulankavil area in Kilinochchi District to conduct medical camps that were organized by the IMPA (Independent Medical Practitioners Association Sri Lanka). During that time period it was a LTTE held area and many civilians came to seek medical treatment. There were a number of children with battle wounds and later we came to know that these children were forced to engage in military offensives by the LTTE in their fight against the Sri Lankan Army. Some children were less than 16 years of age. It was a devastating moment for the doctors who had come from the South of Sri Lanka to treat these children. Some doctors were hiding their faces. I saw tears in their eyes. This incident stirred me to write the poem "Yesterday's Child.

Yesterday's child

Yesterday you were an innocent child
Today you are a killing machine
holding a T56
No feelings no penitence or passion
What an unhealthy transformation

Yesterday I saw you were going
to school
You carried books in your hand and
I could see a naive smile
Today I see blood in your hands
They turned you into a Chucky doll

No longer I see your childish smile
Instead I see the atrocious face
The face filled with anger and hate
You cast a deadly shadow

What happened to the yesterday's
child?
Who stole his childhood? and why?
Fruitful and innocent youth
Turned to dust that will never return

Yesterday's child no longer you exist
The innocence is no more
All you see is a wasteland without
a human touch
The land filled with emptiness
and sorrow

After the military defeat of the LTTE the Sri Lankan government released all the child solders those who were held by the Tigers and conducted a rehabilitation programme to integrate the child soldiers into society. The children were sent back to schools. Certain amount of success has been achieved in these rehabilitation programmes.

It is imperative to know that the Chief Minister in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, Pilleyan (Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan) was a former LTTE child solder. Although rehabilitation programmes were conducted, mental health experts point out that some former child soldiers suffer from malignant PTSD and they need far-reaching therapy as well as integrated psychosocial rehabilitation.

Therefore, the authorities should get help from the international agencies, such as, Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative to help the former child soldiers of Sri Lanka.

Gen Romeo Dallaire is now extensively working on the problem of war-affected children, and has visited countries where children are used as a weapon of war. Gen Dallaire emphasizes that there are two words that should never go together: 'child' and 'soldier'. He further says that his ultimate aim is to eradicate the thought of using children as weapons of choice in conflicts.

Michel Chikwanine was a former child solder who found refuge under Gen Dallaire's foundation. Michel Chikwanine became a child soldier when he was five-years-old.

He was abducted in 1993 by a rebel militia in Congo. He was given a fire arm and forced to commit unspeakable atrocities. His childhood was stolen by war-mongering adults. Today he is living in Toronto but still hounded by the awful memories of a bloody war.

There are thousands of ex-child soldiers like Michel Chikwanine who are struggling to integrate into mainstream society.

Gen Dallaire with his crusading spirit works in the child soldiers' initiative. He is fully dedicated to this noble project which he has made his life's mission to end the use of children in conflicts and wars. Concluded

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