Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka: In Tamil Tiger territory, youths like Rajathurai Ponnambalam are living in hiding to avoid being forcibly recruited by the rebels and sent to fight in a Sri Lankan civil war they don’t believe in.
Many residents Reuters spoke to during a rare visit to the rebels’ heartland in the north said the Tigers are demanding every family contribute at least one member to a movement widely banned as a terrorist organisation by the likes of the U, Britain and the European Union (EU).
They tell of how brothers, sisters, sons and daughters have been taken against their will to camps to be trained as fighters. They say they are helpless to prevent it.
“They said: ‘Your family does not have an LTTE member, so you must join,“ said Ponnambalam, who is in his 20s and gave a false name for fear of retribution from the rebels. “I did not agree, so they took me away in a vehicle.”
“They took me to join the group as a fighter. They showed me about training, about fighting,” he added. “I don’t want to join. My family depends on me.”
He managed to get away. Many others have not been so fortunate, or live in constant fear that they will be next.
The Tigers deny they insist on recruiting one person from each family, but aid workers say the demand was made earlier this year and that the rebels have promised their staff will be exempt.
“There is no strict compulsion as to every family should give a single member,” Tiger political wing leader S.P. Thamilselvan said in an interview during a visit to the rebel’s de facto state.
“There are families from which you have two or three members (who have) already opted to serve in the LTTE ... but we are very keen to ensure that not more than one person from one family is in the LTTE, because that would be minimizing their family work.”
Aid Staff targeted
Families receive letters from the Tigers with names of members who must join underlined. Most international aid agencies are having to keep some local staff indoors. Some of them have not been able to leave their compounds for months. “All the NGOs in the area have great concerns towards recruitment policy. We do experience that staff of all the different NGOs are getting abducted or have tremendous pressure towards them because they want to recruit them,” said Arne Bangstad, programme manager of Nordic aid agency FORUT.
“We have been promised by the political wing that such recruitment should not take place and that the humanitarian status of the NGOs would be respected. But in practicality, we find that this is not really the case.”
Recruitment posters are pasted around Kilinochchi town. Pictures of the rebels’ elite Black Tiger suicide wing pepper bus-stands and shop fronts.
“Join with us. Protect our land from the Sinhalese army,” the posters say next to a photograph of a rebel fighter in characteristic Tiger-striped fatigues taking aim with an assault rifle.
A giant billboard in the town shows a montage of President Mahinda Rajapaksa holding a noose around the neck of a child slain in the grisly massacre of a family in the northwestern district of Mannar last year, which the rebels and military each blame on the other.
The distant sound of heavy artillery fire across the front lines that separate rebel from government territory serves as a permanent reminder of what awaits those recruited.
“One of my sons is in the LTTE. He joined 63 days ago. He did not join voluntarily,” one elderly man confided, insisting on anonymity. “His mother is not well. After they took him her sickness got worse. What can I do, even if I get angry?”
Another man says his underage daughter joined to meet the quota so that her elder brother could continue to be her family’s main bread winner in a district where 70% of the population lives below the poverty line, earning less than a dollar a day.
Similar stories abound, and fear is palpable as a new chapter in a two-decade civil war that has killed nearly 70,000 people since 1983 deepens. However families say married couples are generally exempt.
The United Nations Children’s agency UNICEF says the Tigers are still recruiting children despite pledges not to. UNICEF listed 1,591 outstanding cases of underage recruitment by the Tigers at the end of May. One child on its records is aged nine.
A UN envoy and aid groups have also accused elements of the military of helping to abduct children as soldiers for a band of breakaway rebels called the Karuna faction, which is seen as allied to the government.
The Tigers deny they are recruiting children -- defined as youths under the age of 18 -- and say some youngsters lie about their age to join up and fight.
But not all recruitment is forced.
While many ordinary Tamils say they do not agree with the Tigers’ violent methods, some have been polarized by the endless cycle of death and say war is the only way to make their case for wide autonomy from the majority-Sinhalese south. The rebels want a separate state.
“In the present situation, the LTTE want more cadres. We must give some kind of contribution to them,” said 33-year-old clay pot salesman Kaithiravelu Ranjitharajah, tending his stall at Kilinochchi market.
“My sister joined eight years ago. My brother died during the war and is a hero. Both joined voluntarily,” he added, looking at his own 18-month-old son. “Let the future decide if he will join.”