BATTICALOA, 10 November 2010 (IRIN) - Cheran was 15 when he was abducted into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). He ran away two years later in January 2009.
"Being with the LTTE was a disaster. I never believed or cared for their cause, and don't like violence in general, but I feel that I might be seen as a terrorist or a violent person by others. This thought is very depressing."
Since the Sri Lankan government declared victory against the LTTE over a year ago, former child soldiers like Cheran have returned home, but many still face problems reintegrating and are fighting another battle - to overcome psychological scars and regain acceptance into society.
According the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 6,903 children are known to have been recruited by the LTTE between 2002 and 2007.
Since the 1980s, the Tamil Tigers used children - many of them forcibly conscripted - as scouts and sentries, and in the 1990s, also for combat, said Brig. Sudantha Ranasinghe, director-general of the government department mandated to rehabilitate former child soldiers.
When the conflict ended in May 2009, the government helped reintegrate the children into society by giving them counselling and vocational training, and helping them to enrol in school. In April, the government closed its last remaining rehabilitation centre for former child soldiers in the northern town of Vavuniya.
According to UNICEF, 588 children have been reunited with their families while nine children remain in children’s homes and a further 54 children have been returned to school hostels for their education. The government and UN children’s agency are working on establishing community-based reintegration to meet the needs of all children.
"Children are always victims of war and are never perpetrators. Society now has a duty of fully reintegrating these children without any discrimination," said Hemamal Jayawardena, a legal protection specialist who has worked with former child soldiers.
"If we fail to trust them, if we treat them differently or act in an irresponsible manner, we could create a situation where their pasts could begin to haunt their minds again. Then all the good work of the rehabilitation process could be in vain," he said.
Children have remarkable coping mechanisms and can even block out the "shattering psychological trauma" they've suffered, Jayawardena said.
"The seemingly normal life ex-combatant children are now going through shows their resilience and the great ability of children to cope and adapt," he said. "With time, most have been able to forget and put into their past the terrifying experiences they went through during recruitment, training, carrying lethal weapons, and even engaging in war."
Nonetheless, the trauma of life at war - when no one is paying attention to a child's needs - has serious repercussions on a child's psychological growth.
"Child soldiers live in environments that are the complete opposite from a normal child's living environment," said Mahesan Ganeshan, a psychiatrist who works with trauma-affected children in eastern Sri Lanka. "Being a child soldier distorts a child's view. Their expectations about everything change."
Many former child soldiers lack confidence, and therefore struggle with relationships and trust. They also have problems with anger management, he said.
Such issues pose a challenge for their reintegration with their families, schools and communities. "It's hard for them to make friends and spend spare time together because of their former association with armed groups," said Win Ma Ma Aye, the head of child protection for Save the Children in Sri Lanka.
When there is a security-related incident, "people often suspect the involvement of former child soldiers which deters them from starting afresh", she said, adding that they also have a hard time finding jobs. "All of these lead to more stress and often result in more aggressive and/or depressive behavior," Win Ma Ma Aye said.
"I wished I had died"
Susila, the youngest child of a family of four, was 15 when she was forcibly recruited by the LTTE in 2001. She was beaten and eventually forced into battle. She ran away from the LTTE six years later.
Now 24, Susila is unemployed, surviving with help from her family in Kokkadicholai Village, Batticaloa District. She tries hard not to think about the war.
"I thought I would die, especially after 2006 when fighting became really bad," she said. "Sometimes I wished I had simply died in fighting. The worst was the fear of pending death, rather than death itself."
Pic: Udara Soysa (IRIN is an editorially independent, non-profit project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), funded entirely by voluntary contributions from governments and other institutions.)