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Monday, June 22, 1998 Published at 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK

World: South Asia

Sri Lanka's children of war

The children of northern Sri Lanka live in the middle of fighting

The problems of children caught up in wars is being discussed at an international conference in London. The BBC Colombo correspondent Susannah Price examines the plight of young people whose lives have been traumatised by the 15-year conflict in Sri Lanka:

A group of children perform an intricate dance in a small theatre in the northern Sri Lankan town of Jaffna. The appreciative audience sit in the open air and applaud their performance.

UN representative Olara Otunnu: Tamil Tigers need to rethink their approach to recruiting soldiers
The members of the Centre for Performing Arts in Jaffna are justly proud of their performance - considering they live in one of the areas of Sri Lanka which has seen the most fighting in the past decade and much of which is still in ruins.

"All the children in Jaffna are psychologically affected," said VJ Constantine, General Secretary of the Centre.

"This is therapy and entertainment at the same time. It helps to stop the children being so traumatised."

War generation

The 15 years of war in Sri Lanka has meant that a whole generation has grown up knowing only the intractable conflict between the government and Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

Hundreds of thousands of children who live in the north and east of the island have been directly affected by the violence - their relatives or friends have been killed or injured for example. More than a quarter of mine victims are children.

Sivasan, 16, who is a student taking his 'O' Level exams stood on a mine in the compound next to his home in the northern Jaffna peninsula.

"Of course my life is not the same", he said pointing to his artificial leg made of aluminium with a rubber foot.

"I can carry on studying, but I can't play sport or lead a normal life like before."

Displaced families

The war has lead to huge numbers of families being displaced all round the north and east.

Marie Staunton from Unicef: "The front line is now the village, the home, the hut"
Many left Jaffna in 1995 because of fears of fighting when the army was advancing and travelled southwards to live in the rural area known as the Wanni, which is controlled by the Tamil Tigers.

In the area there are reports of shortages of teachers and equipment in schools and the health services lacking basic supplies.

"The teachers in that area face may problems, even to get water it was a struggle," said one woman who had just left the area.

"The children suffer a great deal, they lost their elders and their neighbours and everything."

It is a story repeated in the refugee camps in the central town of Vavuniya and among the Muslim refugees who were forced to leave Jaffna by the Tigers and in countless other areas of the island.

Child soldiers

The recent visit to Sri Lanka by the United Nations representative on children in armed conflict, Olara Otunnu, highlighted the issue of child soldiers.

Aid agencies have accused the Tamil Tigers of recruiting child soldiers and the government claims that they are using them in combat.

However in May the Tigers gave Mr Otunnu an undertaking not to use children below the age of 18 in combat and not to recruit children under 17 years.

Although the move was widely welcomed it is not clear how this will be monitored.

At the same time the army moved to deny reports that it was planning to recruit young people in schools. The military is extremely short of manpower but has reiterated it will not lower its age limit of 18 years.

Peace would come too late

The head of the presidential task force on child protection said they had interviewed about 20 child soldiers who had been rehabilitated - but would not specify from which group.

"Most joined voluntarily because they thought it was the thing to do. They also thought if they remained there was the possible threat of the other side arresting them - so they wanted to have a gun and have protection."

He said there were few facilities for rehabilitation which could store up problems for the future.

"Even when there is peace we are going to have a large proportion of the population who are traumatised," he said.

"Many of the worst affected are the children. Even if there is peace, it will be too late for them."

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