Impact of armed conflict on children in Sri Lanka

By: V. Yogeswaran

    This is the second part of a two-part article on the impact of armed conflict on children that appeared in Beyond the Wall, published by Home for Human Rights, Sri Lanka. This week we publish the final part. the first part appeared last week.

It is estimated that over 60,000 persons have died in this senseless war. The war has given Sri Lanka an abundance of orphans and widows. Orphanages have mushroomed in the northeast.

While attention is being paid to sustain the cessation of armed conflict that has come to replace the war after the signing of the MoU, the country is confronted with multiple questions about children affected by war, especially those who are orphaned. They seem to say, “Peace cannot replace my mother or father; peace cannot replace my lost innocence and childhood; peace cannot make me lovable and loved. I am kept in an institution and I am not at home, I am charitably maintained by the adult society in this institution but not lovingly. Peace cannot give me a new future due to this irreplaceable past of mine.”

If we adults fail to listen to this voice, we will reap a black harvest.

I have had the opportunity of visiting orphanages in various places and the visits have convinced me these children are already worried about their future. “If I do not behave well or make mistakes or break rules, I will be sent away. Will I be looked after in this place till I find a job? Will I be looked after and be given in marriage in due time?”

I am left wondering whether the institutional approach to take care of the orphaned is appropriate and will bring the desired outcome. Should we adopt other formulae in looking after these children? Will we not have better options in seeking foster-parent home adoption to bring a home environment for the orphaned child instead of an institutionalised environment?

There are numerous requests that have come my way from parents looking for their missing children and children looking for their missing parents. I have shared many anxious moments with children and parents helping them to cope with the emotional problems arising from these tragic circumstances.

This group of children is so special because of their unique experience. It is difficult to convey the truth that their missing parent is dead and will not come back. This peculiarity is derived from the fact that these missing persons are not counted among the dead. The security forces use the term ‘missing in action.’ In a similar manner, there are also many civilians accounted for as ‘missing’ in the northeast whose children are waiting in hope their father/mother will come back. This has become a long wait and reconciliation and acceptance has not really taken place.

It is futile at this juncture to ask hypothetical questions such as whether the LTTE or the security forces are holding missing persons in secret locations. Practical reality tells us that these persons are dead and there is only a remote chance of discovering them alive. But the human sprit refuses to accept this and the search continues. Not only is the anguish of the adults communicated to the children but their frustration, arising from the futile search, is also taken out on them. The refusal of the grownups to accept this reality is detrimental to the welfare of the child. Neither the child nor the parent is afforded an opportunity to cope with this emotional stress. There are thousands of such families and situations to be addressed in the future as the country moves towards peace and reconciliation.

Children of missing soldiers have similar experiences. They too grow up waiting and hoping that one day their father will come back. It is only an illusion and temporary shelter to sooth the emotional and psychological trauma of the child. Unless the reality is confronted and accepted the healing process will not begin.

Children disabled by war and armed conflict, mostly victims of landmines, miss play, which is an imported element in the life of the growing child. When a child misses play it means he or she fails to express himself/herself fully. Play is an integral part of a child’s world and the play in adulthood is the expression of the child in the adult.

According to a survey conducted by the White Pigeon Movement there are about 11,455 children affected by landmines according to the following breakdown: Mullaitivu 6158, Kilinochchi 4043, Mannar 1254. Other areas were not covered in this survey. All these children are below 16 years.

Loss due to landmines does incalculable damage to a child, physically and psychologically. The maimed child has difficulty in integrating with society. He or she is always bitter because of the lack of opportunities in life such as prospects for marriage, family life and employment.

Armed conflict leaves deep wounds in the physical, psychological and spiritual life of children. Physical impact - especially in the area of education, health and foodStandards of education of children in the northeast have declined due to educational institutions being occupied by the security1 forces forcing children out of school. Besides, school buildings have been destroyed or damaged, teaching staff displaced due to security and other reasons and in the institutions continuing to provide education, a serious inadequacy in facilities including a lack of study materials and other equipment.

Bamini (14) of Jaffna who was displaced many times with her family says, “When we were displaced, we did not have any food to eat, no water to drink and no place to stay… Every time we were displaced, we studied in different schools… I have studied in seven schools so far.”

Amidst fear and uncertainty children from refugee camps and displaced homes in isolated and abandoned areas peddled or walked to schools, which sometimes meant a tree shade or temporary hut. The student population which stood at 290,000 in 1990 dropped drastically in the coming years and was only 130,000 in 2000… Among the other areas, (the) education sector seems to be a major constraint facing the development officers. Even though the army has vacated most of the school buildings, there still remains a lot to be done. Teacher shortage, rehabilitation of war-torn buildings, provision of drinking water, sanitation facilities and physical resources to name a few.

A UNICEF survey indicates over 11,500 students do not go to school regularly in the Jaffna peninsula. Of that, 7809 have dropped out permanently and about 3946 do not attend most of the time.

In the Vanni, over 10,000 children do not attend school and others have polythene covered sheds as schools. Surveys are needed in other areas.

Just think of it. Every single child in our country today was born and has grown up experiencing the uncertainties, the fears and the destructive terror of armed conflict, either directly or indirectly. Today we have more than 270,000 internally displaced children who lost homes or had their families brutally killed or torn away from them. Thousands of them lost either one or both parents. Think of the near impossible task of locating their relatives or re-homing them in foster homes.

Thousand of children are killed every year as a direct result of fighting – from bullets, knife wounds, bombs and landmines. But many more children die from malnutrition and disease heightened by armed conflict. Wars – many of them in the world’s most impoverished regions – disrupt food supplies and destroy crops and agricultural infrastructure. They wreck water and sanitation systems along with health services. And wars displace whole populations, tearing families and communities apart. All these take immense physical and emotional toll on children. Beset by malnutrition, common childhood diseases and opportunistic infections, children by the thousands fall into a fatal spiral of failing health. Some of the highest fatality rates occur among children who have been uprooted from their homes, including those languishing in camps for refugees and internally displaced.

Children in Sri Lanka are no exception to this rule. Due to the economic embargo imposed on the northeast many essential goods were prohibited from being taken across. Prohibiting medical goods have caused serious health problems. According to health authorities the official embargo on pharmaceuticals to the north have caused the mortality rate among infants and pregnant mothers to increase by nearly 18%, mortality rate among children under five to increase by nearly 18% and malnutrition among under-12s which was at 4.3% in 1983 to go up to 40% in 2001. The death rate due to common diseases has increased due to the shortage of drugs.

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