The top official of the United Nations Children's Fund is in Sri Lanka to assess the needs of children affected by nearly two decades of warfare in the north and east of the island. UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy traveled north to the rebel-held town of Killinochi Friday, after meetings with government officials in the capital, Colombo.
A day ahead of her visit, the Tamil Tigers said they would return the child soldiers they have recruited since fighting stopped nearly a year ago.
Last week, international peace monitors accused the rebels of recruiting more than 300 children over the past year, in violation of a cease-fire agreement. Human rights groups estimate that the rebels used as many as 4,000 children in active combat in the two decades of war with government troops.
Tamil guerrillas blame underage recruitment on undisciplined junior members of the rebel group.
U.N. officials say halting the recruitment of child soldiers is at the top of Ms. Bellamy's agenda, as she meets rebel leaders. They say, the United Nations is prepared to help return all under-age soldiers to their families.
Sunila Abeyesekera heads INFORM, a rights group that tracks the civil conflict. She says, the Tigers recruited both boys and girls as young as 10-years-old. She says, they have suffered more than any other victims of the conflict.
"Life has been difficult. There have been no special concessions made to them because they are children," she said. "And … because they were children, [they] were engaged in some fairly dangerous and arduous tasks, and they have lost their childhood, not only their education, but sense of freedom and playfulness and all those things."
UNICEF also wants to focus on the rehabilitation needs of other children affected by the conflict. Tens-of-thousands of children are orphans, and many others have no access to education or healthcare.
Earlier this month, UNICEF began a campaign to bring thousands of children in the north and east back to schools, which, in some cases, had been closed for years. Ms. Abeyesekera says, the response was tremendous, and indicates that people in the north and east are gaining confidence in the cease-fire.
"One of the most interesting things is that, in this January, when the schools opened, the primary school intake was three times what it had been in previous years," she continued. "The schools … are being reopened at least on a skeletal basis. … But I do think there are huge problems of resources that are needed to rebuild and reestablish the educational structure to the level that existed in the 1970s. And that will be a really big challenge."
Child rights groups want international organizations, such as the United Nations, to continue to help rehabilitate war-affected children.
Sri Lanka's civil war erupted in 1983, when rebels began a struggle for a separate homeland for the Tamil people. Peace talks began last year, and hopes are high that a solution will be found to the ethnic conflict, which has killed thousands of people.