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Sri Lanka's stolen children

By CNN Correspondent Kasra Naji

Valachchenai residents block the main road in a protest against the abductions.
Valachchenai residents block the main road in a protest against the abductions.

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BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka (CNN) -- It's a parent's worst nightmare: the peace process is faltering and Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels are recruiting again -- abducting unsuspecting children at the rate of nearly two a day.

The U.N. agency for children's rights, UNICEF, says it received reports that 52 children were recruited in September.

But the actual figure could be ten times higher as many parents fear the rebels and don't report when children are abducted, according to Father Harry Miller, 78, an American Jesuit priest who has made Batticaloa his home for the past fifty years.

"It is like an ogre that descends from the hills once in a while and takes children away," he told CNN.

"Each time, everybody hopes it is not their child, but some time or the other it would be the turn of their child.''

Last week, parents and school children in the small and poor town of Valachchenai, an hour's drive north of Batticaloa, took a rare stand.

They blocked the road outside the school and demanded the return of abducted children.

This was the first such action taken by terrified people in the north and east of Sri Lanka after some twenty children were abducted in a few days around the town.

Thangamalar Mahoharan was the only parent willing to speak to CNN on camera.

She said her 18-year-old son had been accepted to go to university, but on Friday evening while he was out walking with some friends, they were bundled into a van and taken away.

"I was sick in the stomach when I heard he had been taken. I could not eat until I went to see the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] and they told me they would release my son in three days," she said.

"We have raised him for 18 years. We want him back."

But ten days later, the son has not been returned.

At the nearby school, senior students stayed away from their classes.

A group of twenty students stood in the shade outside the principal's office, saying they would not return to their classes until two of their classmates who had been abducted were returned.

A seventeen-year-old girl told CNN she was worried for herself. "What guarantee is there?" she asked.

"How can things go on?" a sixteen-year-old boy asked in a quiet voice. He said he was so worried about his abducted friends he could not concentrate on his exams.

The principal of the government school, Murugeesu Thavarajah, 53, had a picture of the rebel leader, Vellupillai Prabakaran on his wall, but even so, he feared reprisals if police were asked to investigate.

"Everyone here has it on their wall if they want to work here," he said, speaking from his office close to the rebel-controlled territory.

A few days after the CNN interview, he was badly beaten up by unknown assailants.

Taken to rebel territory

The decades-long conflict has claimed 65,000 lives in Sri Lanka.
The decades-long conflict has claimed 65,000 lives in Sri Lanka.

The residents of Valachchenai believe abducted children are taken to rebel territory just an hours drive away.

In this part of Sri Lanka, life is basic. Twenty years of fighting has wrecked havoc with people's lives. Poverty and malnutrition are endemic and there is no running water or electricity.

The square at a road junction is adorned by a monument to LTTE fighters -- a statue of rebel in camouflage fatigue holding a AK-47 in one hand, standing next to a roaring tiger sitting next to him.

Across the square is a big painted portrait of a former Black Tiger, a member of the rebel's suicide squad who claim many Sri Lankan leaders along with former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi as their victims.

The rebels expect Tamil families to contribute at least one son or daughter to the rebel's cause -- the establishment of a homeland for the Tamil minority in northeastern Sri Lanka.

On the day CNN visited, the LTTE showed local journalists a group of eleven boys whom they said were at least 18 years old and had joined the rebels voluntarily.

But at least two of the boys had been forcibly taken, according to family and friends.

"They are desperately in need of getting new recruits, because they have lost so many," Father Miller said.

Stepping stone

The rebels have stepped up their recruitment of children at a time when they have made a commitment to getting rid of their child soldiers.

Earlier this month, UNICEF set up a transit camp in the rebel territory in the north of the country to house released LTTE child soldiers. The camp is a stepping stone before children are returned to their parents.

On October 4, the day the first of three planned Transit Camps was inaugurated, the rebels handed over 49 children whom they said had joined voluntarily but were being returned as they were under age.

Under international pressure, the rebels agreed during peace talks earlier this year to release child soldiers.

But a rise in child recruitment in the past few weeks has thrown doubt on the rebel's commitment to the agreement, according to UNICEF.

Last week, the U.N.'s representative in Sri Lanka, Ted Chaiban, called for the immediate release of child soldiers taken in Valachchenai.

UNICEF teams on the ground are working to verify the exact numbers of children recruited, but the figures are not the issue.

"The recruitment of just one child is a serious violation of children's rights. This continued recruitment of children is completely unacceptable," according to the statement issued by Chaiban.

But parents are not taking chances. Many have stopped their children from going out and some have even stopped their children from going to school.

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