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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 January, 2004, 07:37 GMT
Caring for Sri Lanka's wounded rebels

By Frances Harrison
BBC correspondent in northern Sri Lanka

Disabled fighters at the Tigers camp in northern Sri Lanka
Conditions are basic but the fighters say they are lucky to be alive
It is just after dawn and a group of Tamil Tiger fighters lines up in front of the flagpole at a camp in rebel-controlled northern Sri Lanka.

They pledge to sacrifice their property, their souls and their bodies for the liberation struggle.

That is exactly what they have done - this is a camp for disabled rebel fighters.

These young men and women have rarely met outsiders.

Here hundreds of young boys and girls maimed on the battlefield have been given new limbs and a new life.

We want peace and we don't want our comrades to be disabled like us
Alagan Suntharamoorthy, disabled fighter

Those who cannot be sent out to do useful service for their community are cared for in this camp.

There is no physiotherapy, no trauma counselling and no disability pension.

They live in basic huts but many say they are lucky to be alive.

"We were continuously fighting for three days. We were surrounded by the enemy - there were just five of us," recalls 28-year-old wheelchair-bound Alagan Suntharamoorthy, who is now studying electronics.

He suffered spinal injuries and now needs help doing almost everything.

"We want peace and we don't want our comrades to be disabled like us," he says.

That depends on whether a ceasefire that has been in force for nearly two years holds.

Traumatised

In a darkened hut three women type on ancient Braille machines.

One has to lower her ear to hear when she has reached the end of a line of typing because she cannot see.

Disabled fighters at the Tigers camp in northern Sri Lanka
Many prefer to stay here than return to be a burden on their families
Another tentatively hits the keys with the three remaining fingers on her hands.

"A mine exploded and I can't remember anything after that," says 25-year-old Kanchana, who lost the sight in both eyes while clearing the way for another unit of Tamil Tiger fighters to advance.

Her eyes fill with tears and she finds it hard to talk.

Six years on, she is still clearly traumatised by what happened to her while she was still in her teens.

In a spartan environment the Tigers do their best to look after their disabled.

The most seriously injured probably did not survive the journey from the frontline to the hospital - so bad were the roads during the fighting.

Today many disabled fighters prefer to stay in the rebel movement, where they have respect and moral support rather than return home and be a burden on their families.

Peace has made little difference to their daily lives.

Mine menace

But there are rebel fighters who have benefited from the past two years of ceasefire.

Sri Lankan de-mining unit
Sri Lanka's women de-miners now have professional equipment
Around Elephant Pass - one of the most bitterly fought over stretches of land anywhere in the world - the Tigers' de-mining group is busy at work clearing mines.

They are doing it with international assistance from an organisation called Norwegian People's Aid.

It has trained Sri Lanka's first professional women de-miners and equipped them with new navy blue protective clothing and helmets.

"We really feel sorry for our sisters who did this work during the war without proper equipment," says Sangeetha Nagendran, 23, the team leader and herself a former fighter.

"Now we get all this help from the international community so we don't have to take the same sort of risks our sisters did," she says.

"When I was with the Tigers I had to abide by their rules but this is different because I am working for the people by clearing mines for them," says her colleague, Perumal Nithy, 25.

For these women de-miners peace has meant a new job, help from the outside world and hope of a better life.

But for the disabled fighters there is little to look forward to.

Whether there is war or peace - they still have a terrible past and little future.


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