VAVUNIYA, SRI LANKA – A bubbly boy runs around the office of Poonthottam Protective, Accommodation and Rehabilitation Center in Vavuniya, a town in Sri Lanka’s Northern province, disrupting the uniformed women from their duties.
“Akka, akka,” says 3-year-old Anjulan, which means “sister” in Tamil.
He tries to attract the attention of a female officer at the government rehabilitation center for women who fought for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a terrorist group, during Sri Lanka’s civil war. The war between the group and the Sri Lankan government lasted from 1983 until 2009, when the rebels surrendered.
Anjulan lives at the center with his mother, Malathi Selvaraja, 24, while she completes a one-year rehabilitation program after five years of fighting for the Tamil Tigers.
Anjulan jumps from a table and creeps onto his mother’s lap as she recalls her journey through blood, bombs and misery. She reveals the battle scars on her right hand and legs.
From the rebel group’s inception in 1976, it force-conscripted thousands of children younger than 18 without their parents’ consent, known as the “baby brigades.” Selvaraja says she decided to join the rebels as a ninth-grader before they came to her doorstep in Batticaloa, a city in eastern Sri Lanka, to drag her.
Without her parents knowing, Selvaraja walked into the nearest rebel camp in 2004 to become a Tamil Tiger. The next day, a van trucked her and other children to a training center in the thick jungles of northern Sri Lanka, which was under rebel control.
“We were given six months [of] hard-core weapon training,” Selvaraja says, “and at last, all were deployed in the battlefields.”
She says that she and the other children spent the first few days of combat crying. They hid when the government soldiers retaliated.
“But we didn’t have any other option,” she says. “There is no comeback, and you have to fight until you win or die.”
At age 17, she met her husband, who was also a child soldier. He fought as a Sea Tiger in the rebels’ naval wing.
“He was very handsome, and most of the girls tried to win his heart,” she says. “But he wanted to marry me. I still wonder why he loved me so much.”
As the final battle neared its end in May 2009, the Sri Lankan army cornered the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who were holding more than 280,000 civilians hostage at gunpoint. Selvaraja and her husband dropped their weapons and tried to flee to the government-controlled area.
“The LTTE police identified us, and they shot at us,” Selvaraja says, crying. “He got injured and breathed his last on my lap. I was lucky I was able to tell him I was pregnant before he closed his eyes. He was happy and requested me to run.”
With her husband’s family and thousands of other hostages, she fled and surrendered to the government army two days before the final battle on May 19, 2009.