Jaffna children suffer trauma

Place: Jaffna | Courtesy: BBC
| Date: 20000915

The most worrying aspect of the fighting for local people in Sri Lanka's northern Jaffna peninsula is the traumatic effect it has on children.

The incessant shelling and bombing of Tamil Tiger positions by helicopters and aircraft can be heard even in the relative safety of Jaffna town - still held by the government.

They have nightmares and end up screaming in the night Psychiatrist Daya Somasundaran The rest of the peninsula is under siege, and child psychiatrist, Professor Daya Somasundaran, says the constant bombardments are having a devastating effect on the mental state of children.

"For the last few months, I think this has now become the norm almost. The level of sound and level of destructive power has really escalated to an unbearable level," Professor Somasundaran says.

"Many of these helicopters actually fire from areas where civilians are so that you are really under the helicopter when it fires," he adds.

He says the trauma experienced by children takes many different forms, but will leave deep scars.

Child Tiger Renuka is now in solitary confinement "They are unable to go to sleep or they have nightmares and end up screaming in the night.

"Some of them want to go and sleep with their parents, some of them start bedwetting again and there are disturbances in their eating habits," he says.

Wounded or killed

The effects of living in a war zone are not just psychological.

Every day, children are being injured or killed.

Nine-year-old Ravi's family was displaced by the most recent fighting in Jaffna.

When he and his brother strayed from the refugee camp where the family were sheltering, they came across a live hand-grenade.

I was captured after an army patrol threw a hand grenade at me as I tried to shoot them with my AK-47 Child Tamil Tiger Renuka Turai Ratna of the aid agency Care has been helping Ravi come to terms with what happened.

"Along with his brother he went to fetch firewood and they found something like a ball, and his brother took the item in his hand and immediately it exploded.

"He was killed on the spot. And this small child was injured in the stomach," Turai Ratna said.

Child fighters

Children are being used by both sides in the bloody war for control of the Jaffna peninsula.

Thirteen-year-old Renuka is being held in solitary confinement at a government detention centre.

She did not take the deadly cyanide capsule all Tamil Tigers are ordered by their leadership to swallow if they are captured.

N Sivanadan: Giving children "a new lease of life" Now she's being paraded before journalists by officials, who are using her as anti-Tamil Tiger propaganda.

"I and lots of other girls around my age all joined the Tamil Tigers together. We were told that the only way we could obtain true freedom was by joining the struggle for an independent state for Sri Lankan Tamils called Eelam.

"I was captured after an army patrol threw a hand-grenade at me as I tried to shoot them with my AK-47," she said.

Help

Aid agencies are desperately struggling to make life more bearable for children affected by the war.

One project that has had an enormous impact is the Jaipur Foot Project on the outskirts of Jaffna town.

It's very distressing for small children to be attended to after losing their limbs N Sivanadan Here artificial limbs are mass produced. Some 60% of patients visiting the centre are children who have lost limbs to landmines, shells and in bomb attacks.

"It's very distressing for small children to be attended to after losing their limbs, but once they come here we fit them with artificial limbs," says N Sivanadan, the secretary of the project.

"And once they leave the institution we are very happy that we have given them a new lease of life with artificial limbs," he says.

Another recent aid agency initiative is aimed at providing children like these with some kind of basic education by distributing learning packs.

Many live in camps without schools, where sanitation is poor and food limited.

It is hoped that small contributions like this will have some impact on the bleak future these children face.