By Shanika Sriyananda
April 9, 2015
‘No matter how much time you have wasted in the past, you still have an
entire tomorrow’ – the thought of the week is written on the green
notice board at the Rehabilitation Commissioner General’s Head Office at
The officials of this office have been able to seal off the past of over
12,000 former fighters of the LTTE who had wasted their time in the
past and rehabilitate them to be peaceful souls who are now aspiring for
a better tomorrow.
But back at home after undergoing a year-long rehabilitation which
helped them to brush up their hidden talents and skills, for many the
road of life is still bumpy with many socio- economic hardships.
With a high unemployment rate, social stigma, disabilities due to battle
field injuries, poor educational qualifications and poor mental
stability, they struggle to earn a decent living six years after the end
of the 30-year-long war on terrorism. Finding a job has become their
Gopika Raviraj (not her real name), 22, is unemployed and depressed as
she and her two young children have to depend on the earnings of her
disabled husband, who works as a casual labourer.
Gopika, a former child soldier married to a former combatant whom she
met at the rehabilitation centre, has two young children aged three and
five. Conscripted at the age of 15, she was dropped on the battlefield
after a few weeks of weapon training. She says she fought not to kill
anyone but for her own defence in fear of death.
“I have no proper education. I didn’t want to sit for my Ordinary Level
exam at the rehabilitation centre. I followed a beauty culture course
and like to start a small salon but have no money to invest. I applied
for a bank loan but it was rejected,” she says.
Gopika is grateful to her husband for marrying her without a dowry.
“Some of my friends who were with me at the rehabilitation centre are
still single as their parents don’t have money or property to give as
dowries. My husband didn’t ask for a cent. He feeds us and looks after
us well, but I can’t be a burden to him any more as he is disabled due
to a gunshot injury on the battlefield,” Gopika says.
According to a recent survey by the Bureau of the Commissioner General
of Rehabilitation (BCGR), out of the total ex-combatants who have been
reintegrated, over 22% are unemployed due to various reasons.
Over 11,000 ex-combatants were forcibly conscripted by the LTTE. Most of
them were in their teens and had missed formal education. During the
one-year rehabilitation, they were given vocational training and
T. Malathi (name changed) is a well-trained suicide cadre of the LTTE’s
Black Tiger Unit. Trained for years and having carried out two spy
missions in Colombo, today she is a mother of two cute little girls.
“I failed in both attempts as security was too tight in Colombo those
days. I was in Kotahena. When the two missions were failed, the regional
leader of the Black Tigers called me to Vavuniya. It was during the
final months of the fighting in the north. While I was in Vavuniya I met
my husband who is a three-wheeler driver,” she recalled.
After the war ended in 2009, she voluntarily surrendered to the
authorities. As she had identified herself as a Black Tiger, she had to
spend two years in Boosa prison before entering the rehabilitation
“I didn’t know the whereabouts of my parents, the only one I knew was
that three-wheeler driver, so I told the rehabilitation officers that I
wanted to talk to him. They found him and he started coming to the
rehabilitation centre. We fell in love and he married me after I was
released from the centre. I leant sewing when I was in rehabilitation,
now I earn a small income by undertaking some orders to support my
husband,” says Malathi, adding that she hopes to have a house of her own
Her husband’s parents opposed him marrying Malathi as they came to know
that she was a suicide cadre. “They asked me how a woman committed to
die would become a good housewife and a mother, but the rehabilitation
officials had convinced them, inviting them to some public awareness
programs, to accept us when we are released. I realised the value of a
human life and started loving myself and people around me when I was
taking part in leadership programs,” Malathi said, embracing her two
“The LTTE taught me to hate people but during rehabilitation I learnt to
love people. This gave me hope for future,” Malathi added.
The ex-combatants were given vocational skills training – mechanical
skills, information technology, agriculture, animal husbandry, food
processing, handicrafts, carpentry and construction under the
rehabilitation program while they are psychosocially supported through
counselling and mentorship system to improve emotional resilience.
Ravi Kumar (54) got an appointment as a sworn translator in Kilinochchi
on January this year. He served as a Sinhala teacher at the Sinhala Maha
Vidyalaya Kilinochchi, the former administrative capital of the LTTE,
and now teaches Sinhala at a private education institute.
“I was not directly involved with the LTTE but I was compelled to do
Sinhala translations for them. When the war was over I volunteered to
get rehabilitated to clear my name. At the rehabilitation centre, I
worked as a clerk and also taught Sinhala to ex-combatants,” Kumar, who
is a father of three sons, says.
He said as a teacher he has lots of connections with the rehabilitated
ex-combatants and none of them want to get involved in politics or
support any of the politicians but they need jobs to live peacefully.
“They only look for jobs. Whoever offers them jobs anywhere in the
country, they are ready to work to earn a living,” he said, adding that
some who have battle scars still face problems as they could be easily
identified as ex-combatants.
“Some Sinhalese and Tamil people who still have fears about the LTTE are
reluctant to offer them jobs. Earlier the female ex-combatants faced a
problem of getting married as people had a perception that girls who
were LTTE cadres were tough and couldn’t be controlled when they were
married. But now how people look at them has changed a lot and most of
the female ex-combatants are married, having children and leading a good
family life. Time will heal all wounds,” he said.
Counselling to cure
Working as a school counsellor for over 10-years, S. Pavanitharan has
two years of experience as counsellor at the rehabilitation centre at
He said counselling coupled with religious activities in the
rehabilitation helped immensely to develop positive mentality among
ex-combatants. “They have seen death from tender ages. Once they were
taken into the LTTE, they had been constantly taught about the value of
dying for the LTTE’s cause. They have not seen and heard stories of
living,” he said.
Pavanitharan said at the beginning it was a difficult task for the
counsellors to tap their minds as they were not speaking due to shock.
“These young girls and boys never thought that they would get a chance
to live when fighting in fierce battle fields. We talked to them daily
to help them develop positive thinking. We talked about family, values,
ethics and their rights, but we never talked about their past. We did
individual and group counselling throughout the year,” he said.
According to Pavanitharan, the counsellors faced challenges as most of
them were ignorant about the world outside the north. “They were taught
forcefully to think within the LTTE framework for nearly 30 years. They
have seen only the LTTE, war and blood. But during counselling we taught
them how to love their lives and dreaming for better future. We help
them to set their own targets,” he said.
Citing the story of one of the ex-combatants, he said allowing them to
talk during counselling sessions helped to cure their inner wounds.
“I met an ex-combatant from Batticaloa who is married and having a son.
He is partly paralysed due to a mortar attack during the battle and had
no hopes for future. During the first session he unfolded his story from
A to Z and started crying loud. He told me that it was the first time
he had a chance to come out with his story and he felt there was someone
to listen to his story. He said he didn’t have hope for the future as
he always knew that he would die in a battlefield soon,” Pavanitharan
said, adding that the ex-combatants with PTSD were exposed more to
religious programs to heal their inner wounds.
“We also taught them, in group counselling, how it is important to live facing challenges rather than dying in a war,” he said.
He said it was difficult to banish negative thoughts among the suicide
cadres who were heavily brainwashed to take their own lives. “But
continued counselling based on positive approaches helped to change
their minds. Today, they never think about death. They want to live for
themselves, their families and their children,” Pavanitharan said.
Nimal Weerasekara, the Rehabilitation Officer of the Economic, Social
and Welfare Coordinating Centre, Kilinochchi, said there were more than
3,000 rehabilitated ex-combatants in Kilinochchi and they still faced
problems relating to land, employment, housing, obtaining birth
certificates and social stigma.
“Among all these issues, unemployment is the major problem for them. We
helped some of them to get jobs. Most of them didn’t have National
Identity Cards as they don’t have the required information like
birthday, residential address and family details. We helped them to get
NICs. We help them in providing legal aid and also to start
self-employment,” he said.
Weerasekara said that the majority of ex-combatants hoped that the
Government would look after them for another two to three years until
their lives are more stable.
“I can give a 1,000% assurance that none of these girls and boys will
take up arms again. They are living very peaceful happy lives as there
is no war for them to die. If someone is trying to disrupt the peace,
they will be the first to inform the Army. They just want jobs to earn a
living,” he said.
“Rehabilitation of ex-combatants a success story”
Most of the former LTTE combatants came for rehabilitation
voluntarily and they were placed in a one-year rehabilitation process in
2009. Initially there had been 24 centres and now it has been reduced
to one centre where only 45 inmates are undergoing rehabilitation. But
some more, who will be referred by the Courts, are to come from remand
prisons for rehabilitation.
Since over 12,000 rehabilitated ex-combatants are back in the society,
now our main focus is to provide them sustainable livelihood assistance
to start their lives. The rehabilitation officers in eight districts –
Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee,
Batticaloa and Colombo are now collecting details about them, their
requirements for livelihood support.
Centres for caring ex-combatants
We are working to set up State-run centres like Abimansala, in which
injured soldiers of the armed forces are looked after, to provide care
for the ex-combatants who are paralysed or badly injured and don’t have
any family members to look after them. They, who need special care, will
be provided lifelong care, if necessary. We are collecting data on
We have proposed to have a special centre in Kilinochchi to help the
ex-combatants with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and also to
address the psychosocial issues among them in the north.
In our action plan, we have programs to help women-headed families to
offer them financial support and shelter. According to our findings, the
northern people are still deprived of decent shelter. In the proposed
housing projects, the ex-combatants will be given priority.
I always believe we should not only help the ex-combatants but also
their children. If we neglect their children, they will be vulnerable in
future to similar situations their parents had been subjected to. If we
can take care of their children now, it will help us to maintain peace
in future. Therefore, our focus is always the ex-combatants plus the
The Government has successfully completed rehabilitating the
ex-combatants and now we want to address the reconciliation aspect of
the process. Livelihood restoration is given priority as one of our
recent surveys has revealed that over 22% of the rehabilitated
ex-combatants are unemployed.
While the committee appointed by the Prime Minister is exploring means
of creating livelihoods for the rehabilitated ex-combatants, the
Rehabilitation Authority will find more foreign jobs in the Middle East,
Korea and Singapore through the Foreign Employment Bureau.
Some ex-combatants are already employed in Korea and earning well. Over
360 rehabilitated ex-combatants, including those who are employed in
Korea and migrated with their families, are living peacefully abroad. We
helped some of them migrate by providing necessary documents.
Loans for self-employment
Under the self-employment scheme, rehabilitated ex-combatants are given
soft loans with an interest of 4%. Over 1,783 have already obtained
loans and started their businesses. Over 5,000 have submitted
applications and we are processing the applications to grant them loans
In some loan applications some information like permanent address are
lacking but we are negotiating with the banks to skip this requirement
to grant them loans to start their businesses. For some beneficiaries,
we have extended the grace period for repaying considering their
Following instructions by the Prime Minister, we are now having discussions with foreign banks to grant loans to ex-combatants.
Some have obtained their second loan. Our main focus is to look after
the rehabilitated ex-combatants well to ensure they are financially
stable so nobody can influence or motivate to enter into illegal
activities. I personally believe that it would be best if we can give
them State jobs and keep the ex-combatants under our payroll, as they
gain confidence about their future.
Ex-combatants, peaceful citizens
These ex-combatants have given up arms as they were defeated militarily
and if they wanted to create some volatile situation they could have
done it after they re-entered society. I am happy to say all of them are
living very peaceful lives and there are no records of their
involvement in any form of illegal activity in society during the past
When rehabilitating ex-combatants in other countries, the ex-combatants
were taken for rehabilitation forcefully. In Sri Lanka it is unique as
they came for rehabilitation voluntarily. At the initial stages we had
problems in requesting their own societies not to look at them as
terrorists. We had to take several efforts like public awareness
campaigns to change their perspective to welcome the ex-combatants back
The ex-combatants are given the opportunity to join the armed forces but
only 5% of them accepted it. My view is that it was because they didn’t
want to touch weapons and be in a military environment again. They want
to have peaceful lives with their families. We need to respect their
attitude and need to ensure their security and give them fullest support
to have better positions in society.
Social stigma due to caste
I found that a major cause that contributes to social stigma is the
caste problem in the north. Most of the ex-combatants are from low
castes and they were controlling the people during the LTTE period.
Those villagers, who still hate the ex-combatants for conscripting their
children, had mistreated them once they were reintegrated. This
situation needs time to heal. Compared to the situation at the
beginning, there is a marked change in their attitudes towards the
ex-combatants, who are leading peaceful lives. Now their children are
schooling with the rest of the children.
I am sad to state that there is some influence by political parties with
vested interests in creating a situation against these combatants. If
they are not accepted by society, it is easy for those politicians to
fish them to their side.
As the Commissioner General, I want to say this is one of the world’s
best models to prove the success of rehabilitation of ex-combatants. The
Government and people of this country need to look after the 12,081
ex-combatants in society very well for the next five years.
None under surveillance
As the Commissioner General, I reiterate that no ex-combatant is under
surveillance and we don’t monitor them once they are reintegrated into
society. They are free individuals as other Sri Lankans who are living
in the rest of the country.
I say with responsibility that there is no requirement for them to
report to the nearest Army camp or the Police station once they have
been released after rehabilitation. However, if they violate law and
order of the country, they will be dealt with via the law. So far no
such case has been reported against released ex-combatants.
Invite Tamil diaspora
The Tamil diaspora, I feel, still have a different picture about the
process and hope they will understand the reality soon. Here I place the
blame on the media and our foreign missions in the respective countries
for not giving publicity on the rehabilitation process and its success
stories. Recently a group of Sri Lankan Tamils in UK sought our help to
go to the north. We arranged the trip. When they met me after their trip
to the north, they said that they never thought the situation in the
north was good as they always get distorted and twisted stories about
No one from the Tamil diaspora has contacted me to help the
ex-combatants so far. But those who witnessed the reality in the north
have commended our efforts to uplift the lives of ex-combatants.
We know most of the ex-combatants have relatives abroad who are
indirectly supporting them. If you look at the bank transactions, you
can realise it. They may be living in cadjan huts but they have dollars
and sterling pounds in their accounts.
As a Government we can’t give them everything and we are happy they are
getting support from somewhere, but this support needs to be continued
in a positive way with no hidden agendas to disrupt the peace and
stability in the north.
Around 2,170 still
The doors are still open for those who have not come for rehabilitation.
There are around 2,170 ex-combatants who have not come for
rehabilitation and are in society. We know most of them didn’t report to
us fearing they would be subjected to harassment and tough
interrogation or they would be imprisoned again, but I assure no harm
will come to them if they come for rehabilitation voluntarily.
They are not even under surveillance but if they come for rehabilitation
it will be a plus point for them to clear their names. Society will
also accept them well if they are rehabilitated.
All child soldiers are now over 18 years of age. Most of them are
enrolled in higher education as they were given the opportunity to catch
up on their missed education during the rehabilitation process. Over 30
ex-combatants, including former child soldiers, are now eligible to
enter universities. There are 232 undergraduates including child
soldiers who are doing medicine and engineering.
We want to help the ex-combatants continue with their higher education
and we help them to achieve their educational goals. We believe that
proper education will always promote peaceful citizens.
Out of the total reintegrated ex-combatants, 6 to 7% of ex-suicide cadres are also reintegrated and leading peaceful lives.
Counselling, which is one of the main component of the rehabilitation
process, has helped to change those who were ready to die by killing
many people. From the day one of the rehabilitation process, we used
counselling as an effective tool to tap their minds. Our counsellors
handled them carefully and touched their inner feelings to read their
minds to teach them the value of living rather than taking their own
lives. They are also taught about the value of other people’s lives.
They were motivated to respect each other and their culture, religion
We also taught them the importance of knowing their rights to education,
life, speak, vote, religion and justice. The Sri Lankan model of
rehabilitation is a rights-based approach and is designed to always
ensure the safety of the ex-combatants.
I always say we haven’t done 100% for the ex-combatants. There are some
gaps but from what we have done so far, I can proudly say the
rehabilitation of the ex-combatants is a success story.