Once a child soldier now an ice-creme truck driver
A former child soldier starts a new life.
The sudden rustling of leaves from a nearby tree conjures up fearful memories for Rajeewan. In 2006 with the hope of seeing his sister, he had travelled from his home in Jaffna to the Vanni region in Northern Sri Lanka.
At the time a cease-fire agreement had been signed between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), making it possible for people to travel into the rebel controlled Vanni region. This did not last, during the course of Rajeewan's visit fighting erupted between Government forces and the LTTE closing off the main return route back to Jaffna.
Trapped in the conflict
The 13 year old was trapped, unable to go back to his home in Jaffna. Cut off from his parents, friends and school Rajeewan was now in the midst of a raging conflict. His desperation and fear increased by the day, as the LTTE was now on the look-out to recruit more children to fight in their ranks. They visited towns and villages and Rajeevan's sister's home. In 2007, despite the pleas of his family, he got abducted and was taken away to be trained as a child solider. "I was really scared they would hurt me, I wanted to get out" says Rajeevan. His countless attempts to escape also failed as he was caught by the LTTE and brought back to their camp.
"I longed to see my family, I wanted to go home" he says. Subsequently Rajeewan was placed in their armed ranks and compelled to fight with them until the last stages of the conflict.
Going back home
At the end of the conflict in May 2009 Rajeewan surrendered to the Sri Lankan Army and was sent to a rehabilitation centre in Vavuniya. After a year there he was allowed to go back home. He had left his family as a 13 year old boy, and was now returning as a 19 year old fully grown adult. "I was happy to be finally home, but I was worried about my future and what I could do to earn a living and help my aging parents" he said. As a child Rajeewan had lost out on his school education leaving him no option but to look for unskilled labour work.
Rajeewan's luck changed when he was contacted by UNICEF to attend a Vocational Training Programme where he enlisted for a driving course. He was among 25 former child soldiers invited to participate.
On the Road
6 months later and fully conversant with the traffic rules and driving skills, Rajeewan was on the road. He got a permanent job with a local ice cream vendor and drives around villages and towns delivering fresh ice-cream to children. "I love to honk while driving past my home. My brother always comes out to wave" he says.
Rajeewan earns a daily wage of Sri Lanka Rupees 450/- which includes a lunch allowance. "I love my job and more than anything I am able to help my family" he says. Besides the monthly food supply, Rajeewa has also bought clothes for his younger sister and brother.
"I am so thankful to UNICEF for helping me to rebuild my life. I have a better future because of this" he says.
UNICEF support for child soldiers
Since 2002, nearly 7,000 children were recruited as child soldiers in Sri Lanka. At the end of the conflict in May 2009, a total of 594 children aged between 12 and 18 years surrendered to armed forces. At the time UNICEF worked with the Sri Lanka Government to ensure that all of the children were treated as victims and not persecuted. UNICEF also supported the Government to formulate the legal framework for the rehabilitation of child soldiers and worked with the Ministry of Justice and Commissioner General for Rehabilitation to provide education, recreation and vocational training as well as psychological support to help them deal with their past.
All child soldiers have now completed formal rehabilitation and reintegrated with their communities of origin. UNICEF has supported countless young people like Rajeewan, who had lost out on education, to rebuild their foundation of knowledge and skills through vocational training and job placements. Many of them have been able to start their own enterprise including sewing, fishing, plumbing and other similar vocations.
Making sure as many children and young people, who were caught up in conflict related violence, are rehabilitated and allowed to participate fully in community life, is a priority for UNICEF and its Government partners. Tackling similar social and economic disparities and addressing the needs of children and young people is important if there is to be a durable peace in Sri Lanka.
Story based on information and photos collected by Sarmili Sathes