|© UNICEF video|
|An image from one of the video public service announcements in ‘Bring Back the Child’, the newly launched media campaign against the use of child soldiers in Sri Lanka.|
By James Elder
VAVUNIYA, Sri Lanka, 26 February 2009 – As the star cricketer on his school team, Sitha would always count the days until Saturday and the morning of his next match. It was his weekly moment of glory, a time when all the other boys in his village in northern Sri Lanka came to watch him take out his bat, put on his cricket helmet and stride to the wicket.
But on one particular Saturday, as he slid his helmet on, tears rolled down his face. A year earlier Sitha, had been abducted by an armed group. He was taken to a camp where he and other children were forced to train with weapons and shown how to plant landmines.
As part of the training, Sitha he wore battle fatigues and a military helmet. His cricketing days were seemingly over. At the age of just 12, he was a child soldier.
‘They sent me to the battlefront’
Since 2002, nearly 7,000 Sri Lankan children like Sitha reportedly have been recruited into armed groups. Their predicament is exacerbated by a 25-year conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that has killed more than 70,000 people.
This year, fighting has greatly intensified and child soldiers are being thrown to the front line.
“I was taken to a camp and forced to use guns,” said Sitha. “I was scared and just wanted to be back with my family. Then they sent me to the battlefront. I saw terrible things, and some of my friends being killed.”
|© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2009|
|‘The Dancer’ – a poster from the media campaign to end child recruitment, launched by UNICEF and the Government of Sri Lanka.|
Campaign to end child recruitment
As part of a national programme to tackle the issue of child soldiers, the President of Sri Lanka and UNICEF today launched a national campaign to prevent child recruitment and promote the release of all recruited children.
‘Bring Back the Child’ is a multimedia initiative directed towards armed groups, vulnerable communities and affected children. The campaign is made possible by the financial support of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and UNICEF France.
Public service announcements produced for the campaign will air on television and radio, and campaign messages will appear in newspapers and on billboards and posters across the country. The messages – all in the country’s three languages: Sinhalese, Tamil and English – are being concentrated in the north and east.
The campaign’s call for an end to child recruitment goes hand-in-hand with the provision of reintegration and rehabilitation services for children who are released by armed groups.
Hope for a second chance
“Child soldiers live in a theatre of violence and suffering where their lives are at great risk,” said UNICEF Representative in Sri Lanka Philippe Duamelle.
|© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2009|
|‘The Cricketer’ – a poster from the child-soldiers media campaign in Sri Lanka.|
“Many are killed or maimed. Those who survive suffer traumatic events with often grave psychological implications. Even those who avoid combat lose precious years that cannot be replaced.
“And yet there is hope in what I have seen,” Mr. Duamelle continued. “The children who are helped to come through this experience show extraordinary resilience and can successfully reintegrate into society. They should be treated not as criminals but as victims, and they must be given a second chance at childhood.”
Making children safe again
Today Sitha has his second chance. Free from the armed group, he is now a part of UNICEF’s rehabilitation programme. He is receiving counselling and is back in school and back with his family. And yes, he is back on the cricket field.
However, many of his friends remain on the battlefield. The ‘Bring Back the Child’ campaign is one part of a national bid to change this sad reality.
“Today we hope this campaign will significantly contribute to ending child recruitment,” said Mr. Duamelle, “and that in the very near future we will see the last child soldier released, and all of Sri Lanka’s children finally safe from this intolerable practice.”