Life continues to be a struggle for 45-year-old Kathir, a former Tamil Tiger combatant, and his family. Kathir was one of the 12,000 Tiger cadres who underwent a rehabilitation process soon after the end of the war.
Kathir was lucky to be released after a year of rehabilitation. “I was disabled due to the war and therefore my time at rehabilitation centres was just one year,” he said.
However, getting back to normal life was not as easy as Kathir had thought. “The people accepted me back into society. I never felt alienated by the people. But life was not the same,” he said.
Describing his first year after being rehabilitated, Kathir says it was the most traumatizing part of his life. “It was a time full of uncertainties. We were being monitored by the intelligence services as well. In addition, there were people who had grudges with people like us and who would provide false information to the security officers. So we didn’t know when we would be arrested once again,” he said.
Kathir’s wife, who is also a former combatant, is now a housewife looking after their five children who are schooling.
Today, eight years after hostilities ended, Kathir and his wife continue to struggle to make ends meet. “I can’t do much work. I have been depending on my relatives abroad and friends for my survival. All my children are now studying and I need to make sure they complete their studies without any obstacles,” Kathir said.
Out of the 12,000 ex-combatants (including 9374 males and 2032 females) who underwent and are undergoing rehabilitation, 594 (364 males and 230 females) were conscripted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as child soldiers. The figure of 12,000 also included undergraduates, sick ex-cadres, court-ordered releases, pregnant mothers, mothers with infants and those who have had only minor involvements in war-related activities. The majority are between the ages of 25 and 45.
Livelihood and housing still an issue
The Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation acknowledged that the issues faced by ex-combatants including adults and child soldiers were livelihood and housing related.
Livelihood problems involve the fact that their incomes are less. The former combatants also face societal problems including alienation.
Director Monitoring at the Bureau, Colonel M. Azad Izadeen said that the Bureau maintained offices in the Northern and Eastern provinces which were housed within the premises of the offices of the respective Government Agents, for the purpose of looking into the socio-economic welfare of reintegrated rehabilitated ex-cadres.
Colonel Izadeen explained that the Bureau was involved in making arrangements for them, which ranged from putting them in touch with Grama Niladari (village officials) development officers and the divisional secretariats, organizing social activities such as sports tournaments, the sourcing and provision of employment opportunities to even helping them by securing them livestock such as cows and goats for farming activities. The Bureau checks up on the reintegrated citizens who have not gone abroad or moved out of districts in the North and the East and also monitors them by way of listening to what the ex-combatants have to say.
He however noted that although the ex-combatants were quite disciplined, if they were not looked after in terms of jobs and economic security, the environment to which they are reintegrated into could become a potential threat, where they could fall prey, especially when financial issues come to the fore, to certain parties with vested interests who attempt to use them for nefarious activities. On the other hand, Colonel Izadeen noted that except for one or two odd cases involving rehabilitated individuals being involved in unlawful activities, matters which the Bureau let the Police handle, the security aspect concerning former Tigers was not a major issue as they did not gang up.
According to Izadeen, following discussions between the Ministry of Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs and the Bureau, interviews are being conducted at present in Kilinochchi, with a view to looking at absorbing 200 ex-combatants into the Army, Navy and Air Force in a civil capacity and not as uniformed soldiers.
The Bureau also plays the role of coordinator and facilitator in matters involving persons who have been rehabilitated and reintegrated while representing them in other related matters.
Izadeen said that while they were free to engage in politics by way of contesting or joining a political movement as some have, most preferred an obscure life to their former prominent selves.
“They are no threat. They want to live and get about life. We must see to their needs. We must look after them. We have to keep them happy. The government is inspecting the concerns including giving them houses and working on other related aspects. There is still a lot more to do,” Izadeen emphasized.
Female autonomy, trauma, moral relativism and alienation are deep seated issues
The Association of War Affected Women (AWAW) and the Parents of Servicemen Missing in Action (PSMA) in contrast say that issues pertaining to livelihoods and the housing of ex-combatants were merely the tip of the iceberg.
According to AWAW and the PSMA, the main issues were in relation to socio-cultural stigmas associated with how women in the North and the East are conditioned to behave and conduct their lives and what happens when they don’t fit into society, how individuals and families deal with trauma, the impact of the war, war-related and post-war realities, moral relativism and alienation.
Founder of the AWAW and chair of the PSMA, Visaka Dharmadasa said that it was more difficult for women to reintegrate than it is for men. Men for example, she said, can more easily relocate and marry.
The women have been out of their homes for lengthy periods and have carried out their work without the guidance of adults in the family or husbands. “The families therefore think God knows what happened to their girls when they were alone and on their own”, she added.
Also, the female ex-combatants have learned to think alone, have leadership qualities along with pride, dignity and self-esteem. They have built up their personality freely. They are not used to taking orders. Some want to study and pursue education.
Visaka noted that in certain cases reintegrated female ex-combatants questioned their potential mothers-in-law while adding that some ex-combatants could not come down from that mentality which they had during the period of the war.
Visaka also pointed out that what one understood as right and wrong takes a different meaning during war as what is wrong gets legitimized in the context of a war.
One of the first and foremost aspects upon conscription is that the combatant is brainwashed to break their family ties and not have any connections with them. This is how groups and organizations get those conscripted and use them to kill children, mothers and fathers.
They require psychological support. Some have no one to speak to. In certain cases, the detachment is severe.
“Some people previously respected them out of fear because they carried guns. Others considered them heroes. Still others consider them losers as they were defeated in a war which was fought partly for dignity. When one side is defeated there is a huge impact on not just the combatant but the community. Reconciliation is essential to make all persons understand. How much are the families ready to accept them? Families of combatants experience trauma different from the combatant. They may have faced social stigma, sometimes due to the combatants. Families have to go out of the way to a great extent. A lasting solution is therefore needed,” Visaka added.
Several rehabilitated combatants were employed by textile companies that were set up in the Wanni. The Sri Lanka Apparel Exporters Association (SLAEA) explained that of the garment factories established in the North and the East, 90% to 95%, employed young Tamils, out of which there are mostly females along with quite a lot of males.
The SLAEA said that for over three years, Omega Line has had a garment factory in Vavuniya (with approximately 1,700 employees), Hirdaramani has one in Mullaitivu while MAS Holdings has two in Kilinochchi.
Chairman of the SLAEA, Felix Fernando added that the main contact point through whom the companies did recruitment was the divisional secretary and the divisional secretariat divisions of the areas.
Post-rehabilitation reintegration is handled by Socio Economic and Welfare Coordinating Offices for Rehabilitated Beneficiaries of the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation which are found in Polonnaruwa, Batticaloa, Ampara, Vavuniya, Anuradhapura, Trincomalee, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Jaffna, Mannar, Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara, Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Ratnapura, Kegalle, Nuwara Eliya, Kurunegala, Puttalam, Matale, Badulla, Moneragala and Kandy.
While the vast majority of the beneficiaries have been traced, there is still approximately a quarter of the numbers to be traced.
They are employed in farming, labour, as drivers, venders, electricians, in tailoring, in the private sector, in fisheries, masonry, carpentry, as computer operators, in animal husbandry, as government employees, motor mechanics, private security, self-employed, casual workers, housewives, students, in bomb disposal, teachers, in the Civil Security Department, barbers and clergy. Still others have migrated, changed domain while certain others are disabled or dead. Self-employment loans have been provided by the Bank of Ceylon, the People’s Bank and the Sri Lanka Savings Bank for those among the reintegrated beneficiaries who have requested for such. A total of 481 were unemployed at the time.
Lawyers pointed out that the major issues out of the many compartmentalized problems faced by ex-combatants in societal reintegration were continued persecution and surveillance by the government and financial concerns, the latter which particularly afflicts ex-combatants including the injured and the disabled as the majority of ex-combatants are not in a position due to their physical fitness to engage in hard, manual labour and make a living and earn enough to build a house and buy what they have lost.
Member of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, Chairperson of the national committee studying problems faced by women headed households, president of the Jaffna Bar Association, President’s Counsel (PC) Shantha Abhimanasingham said that ex-combatants were still in custody and were being taken into custody still.
“They and their families don’t know whether they would be held for months or years”, he said.
Apart from ex-combatants, during the war, there were also those who helped and provided various services such as propaganda activities to the cause the combatants were fighting for.
“Such persons include those who give a ride in one’s vehicle to a combatant and may be called in for an inquiry. The public are thus a little afraid to mix, and more than mixing and associating are especially afraid to help ex-combatants by providing a house (neighbours may want to build a house for an ex-combatant) or an employment opportunity for fear of the government placing them also under surveillance and watching them. Thus they hesitate to employ them. The Government must therefore say that there won’t be any more arrests of this nature. Surveillance is not fully over. They don’t feel 100% free. They cannot live freely”, said Abhimanasingham.
Addressing the question on the need to maintain constant vigilance in former war torn areas she explained: “The Government should not have anything to fear as long as they monitor armed groups ready for any such activity including waging a war (which is near impossible now) and known suspects. If the Government wants to keep people in fear they can. It is entirely up to the Government.”
Obtaining a good job which pays a monthly salary is required and Abhimanasingham questioned whether educated ex-combatants who can work as teachers or peons are employed in the Government public service.
Abhimanasingham also said that there are transport related issues, especially difficulties in finding vehicles to run errands, which particularly affect the handicapped including those whose legs are affected. She called for factories and small industries to be started where the differently able ex-combatants can be picked up in buses and dropped off at a common location where they can be seated and work using their hands (objects can be sent to them via conveyor belts) to make something.