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Thursday, 31 January, 2002, 17:12 GMT
Sri Lanka's orphans bear scars of war
Sri Lankan children
Generations of children have known little else but war
Frances Harrison

Sri Lanka's two-decade long civil war has left thousands of children on all sides orphaned - facing a bleak future.

Perhaps the worst affected are those who live in rebel-controlled areas.

They have had to live under an economic embargo, without proper medical attention and education, and have repeatedly been forced to flee the fighting.

When I was small I was carried by my mother and she had to run with me, fleeing the shelling

Balasingham Ushanithy
The Sri Lankan Government has just eased the embargo and allowed journalists to visit the areas under Tamil Tiger control for the first time in years.

But at one of several homes, destitute children remain deeply traumatised by their experience of war. Nearly 200 children sit on the open ground in the twilight singing a nursery rhyme that every Tamil child in Sri Lanka knows.

They sing of going to school - running with excitement, having combed their hair first, neatly dressed, a drink bottle in one hand and a packed lunch in the other.

No safety

But these children have never experienced this comfortingly safe vision of childhood.

Balasingham Ushanithy, 15, remembers running for her life when the bombs rained down.

Tamil refugees
Many children have been repeatedly forced to flee fighting

"We were terribly shocked. We didn't know where to run. We were living in the open under the trees for some time.

"It happened when I was in so many different places - we've been displaced five or six times by the fighting.

"When I was small I was carried by my mother and she had to run with me, fleeing the shelling," she says.

Balansingham says it helps that all the children can talk to each other about their experiences and share them.

Her friend Shelvi told me: "Education and security are the most important things.

"Only if we are safe can we learn anything. At the same time, through education we learn how to protect ourselves from the bombardment - like running into the bunkers and saving ourselves."

There is a sort of chorus of coughing going on - the orphanage has just moved back to the main town under rebel control and medicine is difficult to come by.

Government forces surround rebel-held territory

Director Subramaniam Sabaratnam explained: "Because there is no medicine here, and because of the climate change, the children are suffering from the cough," he says.

Living on top of one another, the children's wheezing coughs, which really need treatment with antibiotics, have spread like wildfire.

Mental scars

But it is the mental scars that are most shocking.

If this war continues like this, our children will face the same plight

Komala, aged 19

Komala Mary Frances Xavier, 19, was born when the war began. As a small child, she was separated from her mother and brought up by her father until he was killed by the Sri Lankan army.

She was looked after by her relatives, until she was separated from them during the fighting.

She was then picked up off the road by some kind strangers.

"I did not know those people," she says. "They said to me child why are you crying? It was at the start of the displacement and I've been here ever since."

'Endless war'

I asked Komala if she could imagine having children herself and what sort of life she would hope for them. Her answer was bleak:

"If this war continues, our children will face the same plight," she says.

"If we die during the war, our children will also be orphans and have to live in homes like this.

"At least I was brought here by somebody, but what is the assurance that there will be people with humanity who will bring our children to homes like this."

The orphans in this home sing a Hindu devotional song, which talks about rebirth in a new life.

For these children it is possibly the only way they can imagine breaking the cycle of war and grief they have grown up in.

See also:

29 Jan 02 | South Asia
Up close with the Tamil Tigers
21 Jan 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka rebels release war prisoners
16 Jan 02 | South Asia
Tamil Tigers want ban lifted
15 Jan 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka eases rebel embargo
11 Jan 02 | South Asia
Optimism over Sri Lanka peace
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