Two weeks ago, I won the European Commission's Lorenzo Natali
Prize for Journalism, awarded to print and online writers for
outstanding reporting on human rights and democracy.
It hadn't been an easy race to finish. Among those who competed
were journalists from top international publications like The Guardian,
United Kingdom, and The Hindu, India. Their entries covered high-
profile topics of fundamental domestic and global importance.
For instance, a contender from Lebanon wrote on the fate of
Lebanese prisoners in Syrian jails. An Argentine investigative reporter
exposed how Doe Run - a prominent North American company that
deals in lead and metals - was poisoning the blood of children in an
underprivileged Peruvian village. A South African journalist delved
into Nigeria's oil wars, a story that is still stealing world headlines. The
UK reporter traced the personal histories of Chechen gunmen who, in
2004, had staged a school hostage in Beslan leaving 331 people
(mostly children) dead.
There had initially been 996 contenders for the prize. Fifty, then 15,
were short listed from five regions - Africa; Latin America and the
Caribbean; the Arab world, Iran and Israel; Asia and the Pacific; and
Europe. The level of journalism among all the finalists was high. I was
plain lucky to have gained an edge. My report - 'Blatant, relentless
child recruitment' - was deemed first in Asia and the Pacific and also
awarded the overall Lorenzo Natali Prize.
On a personal and professional level, I am elated to discover that
honest, principled journalism does pay, at least in the international
arena. I am relieved to learn that one needn't necessarily lick boots,
tow lines or plug stories for political parties (or the Tigers) in order to
get ahead. I am satisfied that LTTE child recruitment was considered
a serious enough threat to be recognised along with hundreds of
other human rights violations decaying this world. I'm grateful for the
many friendships I forged in Brussels. I wholly enjoyed the lights,
camera and action.
But what has my small private victory -- my 15 minutes of fame --
achieved for the little toy soldiers of Sri Lanka? Bally nothing.
Unless there is an immediate change in the impaired strategy adopted
towards tackling this crime, hundreds of children will continue to be
stolen from their homes to fight a twisted battle that can be fought
without fighting. This country is constantly teetering on the edge of a
precipice, lurching madly. If active warfare resumes, child combatants
will die like flies. And it won't be the first time.
As an international correspondent from the Toronto Star recently
wrote: “… old habits, like young soldiers, die hard.”
Most of us are familiar with the many official versions of the child
soldier tale. We have read the reports and know the statistics. We
have seen that child recruitment, for better or for worse, is currently
the government's plat du jour. Chicken soup for the soul. Something
tasty to discredit the LTTE with. We continue to seethe at how the
state and military exploit these minors for publicity purposes --
parading them to the media like exotic exhibits exclusively imported for
the national zoo. Bravo.
We have also heard the LTTE's vacuous denials. We have since
learnt that they are lying. When they aren't busy fibbing, they are
busy propagandising that children -- undereducated, hungry and
desperate -- are queuing to join their forces out of gnawing poverty.
True, but for the many, many abductions.
What the Tigers have not revealed, however, is how much of their
own elastic supply of funds is being used to help these destitute
children from within their own homes. They have never explained how
they spend these mountains of money. There are no audited
accounts. Tellingly, the children of our north and east remain the
country's most deprived victims and it isn't entirely the government's
We have read the official pronouncements of the international
community. There are rarely, if ever, standalone statements on child
recruitment. The issue is usually smuggled in with a myriad of other
remarks (mostly sermons), almost as if the world were apologising for
mentioning conscription at all: "So sorry, Mr Prabhakaran, Sir,... but
we are forced to say something to them suckers."
Not surprisingly, shallow words and hollow diction have helped only
We have taken good note of the useful statistics complied by UNICEF
or the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. Some of us have swallowed
these numbers whole. Others have correctly analysed that the
information may be flawed because the relevant agencies depend
largely on complaints -- and not everybody complains. Hardly. We
have also decided that UNICEF can do better than crouch behind
defunct halfway homes, mild negotiations, glossy annual reports and
Real people, real stories
But this is what we already know. My report, therefore, isn't about the
official versions. It is about real people and real stories. Wet tears and
dry despondence. I have learnt through the years that reality looks
different from the ground. There are just too many people
humbugging to us in Colombo and Kilinochchi.
I once interviewed the inhabitants of a tsunami camp at Vakarai, an
area in Batticaloa under LTTE control. Skins blackened to the colour
of tar by the beating sun, they toiled at digging a well in the sandy
soil. Streams of sweat ran down their faces. They were dirty, tired and
too desperate to be desperate. Their eyes bespoke emptiness. The
insides of their tsunami huts were bare. Their clothing bordered rags.
They did not have two coins to rub together.
Their children were being taken away, these men and women told me.
(I wrote down their names but didn't use them in my report. I didn't
want blood on my hands). "We are scared to send them out," said
one woman, wearing what looked like an old nightgown. A 15-year-old
boy had been abducted just the other day. He was riding his bicycle
on the road. Parents could no longer leave their children alone at
home. Some were too afraid to go out and work. This sad little group
then told me that many children were being kidnapped at a junction
near a prominent school.
I saw that junction. I saw the school. It's not far from the Tiger
cemetery in Vakarai. There was an office of the Tamils Rehabilitation
Organisation nearby. I also saw the suspect LTTE cadres. One
carried a knife. Another held a stick. They were on motorbike. As I
watched, an old man on a rickety bicycle rode past, eliciting a
comment from one of the men. I heard the old man shout at them.
The interpreter translated: "You're here to take our children. Go on,
take them. Why harass me?" I saw the LTTE beat the old man.
I wrote the story. I spoke to people. Nothing happened.
At Vavuniya, in November, a team of foreign journalists visited a camp
for the war displaced. I was with them. We weren't investigating child
soldiers. We merely wanted to know what these people had to say
about the forthcoming presidential elections. Would they boycott the
poll? Did the idea of Mahinda Rajapakse scare them witless? What
were their worst nightmares? That kind of thing.
As we weaved through that maze of appallingly filthy shacks, it struck
me that one old man was determinedly dogging our footsteps. We
couldn't shake him off. Riveted by the stricken look in his wide,
pleading eyes, I asked him what the problem was. "I'm alone," he said.
"They've taken my son. I want to find him." His was a tale of wrenching
sorrow. From what I could make of it, the rest of his family had been
killed in military attacks during the war. He had been left with a young
son who was now missing, suspected to have been taken by the
I had seen that same look of anguish in the eyes of other men and
women. An old woman with a quivering voice told me in Batticaloa that
her grandson had been abducted while he was on fun trip with some
buddies. They were riding a tractor when compelling thirst had forced
the boy to dismount and to ask for water from a group of waiting men.
They took him, instead. On the back of a motorcycle.
Unlike in many cases, the family had quickly discovered which LTTE
camp the boy was at. His uncle went to get him but was sent away by
LTTE cadres who fired into the air. He spent the next few days
stumbling frenziedly from pillar to post in a vain attempt to secure his
nephews release. I don't know how that story ended.
On the same visit, I met a 15-year-old boy who had escaped from an
LTTE camp a few days after he was abducted. I interviewed him at his
grandfather's home because his parents were too afraid to keep him
at the usual address. It was night. His eyes kept darting nervously to
the door. His voice often dipped low. He spoke rapidly, as if he wanted
to finish his narration quickly. He was scared. He and two others were
walking to class -- at 3 o'clock in the afternoon -- when some men had
stopped them to ask directions. They had barely had time to say they
didn't know the location when some chemical-smelling cloths were
held against their faces and they lost consciousness.
They later found themselves in a camp where some other young
people were also being held. This boy claimed he had been beaten
and threatened. His abductors, whom he insisted were Tiger cadres,
told their newest captives to join "Brother Prabhakaran" in his struggle
for Eelam. They had been furious to receive information that his
parents had gone to the police and other authorities. He brought out
the shirt he had been wearing at the time. It was ripped at the back.
He said it was due to the assault.
The three of them escaped when some of the men in the camp were
preoccupied with transferring the earlier victims to another site. His
parents had been frantic. Now they sat before me, pleading with me to
find protection for his son. "I escort him everywhere," his father said,
his expression torn. The two other students had been shifted out of
Colombo. This boy had nowhere to go.
I tried to help. I spoke to people in Batticaloa who had experience in
the field, who had heard these tales before. One of them met the
family and offered advice on self-protection. There was little else they
could do. For most, it's a no-win deal. They live in perpetual fear.
The truth is out there
I can write more but I've used up the word count. The stories aren't
hard to find. They slam you in the face, demanding to be penned. I
remember walking into a transit camp for tsunami victims in
Thiraimadu, Batticaloa. I selected a shack at random and asked a
young girl there if she knew of any children who had disappeared.
She said two boys from her tuition class had been taken the previous
week. Last year, tsunami camps were protected by government
soldiers who had specific instructions to prevent child abduction.
Temple festivals are LTTE favourites and are usually organised by
the Tigers themselves. Youngsters, caught up in the excitement and
the crowds, are grabbed excitedly by hungry recruiters.
I have met religious leaders involved in rehabilitating child soldiers.
Brave men doing brave work. Sometimes they find it hard to get
funding from fancy NGOs because they want fancy project proposals
that are difficult to write. Psychological problems are the most
challenging to tackle, they say. The children have trouble integrating
with society. They are misfits whose every experience in life has
wounded them deeply, physically and mentally. Tormented,
traumatised and explotied -- one way or the other -- by the military,
the LTTE, or both.
I have heard the confessions of children who had volunteered to the
LTTE because life had been too hard at home. One girl told us that
stepmother problems had forced her to enlist while others spoke of
gut-wrenching poverty. No money. Many others had been kidnapped.
Life had been tough within the organisation but a drop of good had
come out of the gruelling training. These young people were
disciplined, honest and obedient.
Around every corner is a statistic. Real people, real stories. In every
face, there is a snatch of news that isn't being written.We prefer to
vomit the fabrications of foolish, deceitful Colombo politicians or what
the LTTE charmingly feeds us. If we write one single report that is
mildly critical of the LTTE, we spend the next 52 weeks doing damage
control -- because we want our interviews, our Thamilchelvan smile
and our sweetened cups of Kilinochchi tea. At what cost?
Let's not seek solace in the numbers. They may have dropped but
only because the channels of information are no longer functioning
effectively. An NGO worker in Batticaloa, who predictably opted to
remain anonymous, said last year: "We are worried that the pathways
to getting information are no longer working very well. The problem is
quite acute but only isolated incidents are recorded. The perpetrators
are aware that child recruitment is a public relations faux pas and are
intimidating the public to prevent reporting."
There can be no excuse for the induction of children to fighting
forces. Abduction is baneful. Poverty and deprivation cannot be an
excuse for voluntary recruitment because the LTTE has the ability
and resources to change the lives of children from within the safety of
their own homes -- to clothe them, feed them, educate them and
make them employable.
On this front, we have failed. Human rights bodies with their reports
have failed. Journalists have failed. The government has FAILED
because, for them, child recruitment is a political, not a humanitarian,
issue. UNICEF has failed. The international community has failed.
NGOs have failed.
Someone, somewhere, is always ready to whitewash the wrongdoers.
UNICEF has taken to arguing lately that the average age of children
being recruited has increased. A false sense of security is being
created out of one global agency's desire to remain viable with the
LTTE. To "engage" with the perpetrators. They also say complacently
that one cannot expect the Tigers to stop recruitment until the peace
process shows some level of success. Bless you, UNICEF, for giving
the LTTE reason to continue what even Kofi Annan has termed as a
"zero-tolerance" crime. We'll wait till then. Our children will wait till
then. Their parents will also wait.
In the meantime, let's have the honesty to admit that, as long as our
own kids are safe... we don't give a damn. [Island]