Sporadic reports of abductions and forced recruitment of boys and young men by the Karuna group began soon after the split from the LTTE in March 2004, but the reports were few until March 2006.13
According to local human rights groups and international agencies active in the eastern districts, around that time armed men from the Karuna group began to invite children to come with them for work in nearby Polonnaruwa district. Some of the children never returned.
June 2006 saw a dramatic jump in Karuna group abductions of boys and young men: families in Batticaloa district reported more than 40 abductions in that month alone, including 23 abductions on one day and 17 on another.14
The 23 abductions on one day occurred primarily in two villages. Human Rights Watch interviewed four of the eight families from one of those villages who had a son abducted that day. They gave detailed and consistent testimony about the abductions and the parents’ efforts to get the boys and young men back, including visits to Karuna camps, where parents saw their sons and the men who took them away.
Three of the families, interviewed separately, said the Sri Lankan army had come to the village on the morning of the abductions. Soldiers gathered seven boys and young men in a nearby field, they said, checking their IDs and taking their photographs. Members of the Karuna group, who arrived that night, abducted four of these seven boys and young men, as well as four others from the village. It remains unclear whether the Sri Lankan army was purposefully cooperating with the Karuna group by identifying potential abductees or was conducting operations to identify LTTE supporters, as it has done in other villages of the district.
Human Rights Watch also spoke with four of the 13 families from the other village who had sons abducted that day. They explained how between 10 and 15 armed members of the Karuna group dressed in Sri Lankan army uniforms temporarily held the 13 boys and young men in a nearby shop before taking them away. They knew they were Karuna cadre because they later visited their abducted children in Karuna camps. Across the street from the shop stood an army post and some of the parents pleaded with the soldiers to intervene. Two soldiers spoke with the Karuna group members while they were holding the abductees in the shop, parents said, but the soldiers took no effective action to secure the abductees’ release.
The spate of Karuna group abductions prompted UNICEF to issue a public appeal on June 22 in which it noted that it had verified 30 cases of child abduction in Batticaloa district alone. The agency called for immediate action to “halt the abduction and forced recruitment of children by the Karuna group.” The statement also called on the Sri Lankan government to “investigate all abductions and ensure that children in affected areas are given the full protection of the law.”15
The UNICEF statement seemed to have a positive effect, and for a short period abductions alleged to the Karuna group nearly ceased. However, this decline was reversed following the beginning of major military operations between government armed forces and the LTTE in late July. In August, UNICEF recorded nearly 50 child abductions by the Karuna group, and an additional 84 cases from September through December.16
In July a group of aggrieved parents directly informed the government of the abductions. In a petition to the Supreme Court, 48 mothers submitted a list of their sons—boys and young men—with detailed information alleging that the Karuna group had abducted them. This submission was copied to President Rajapakse and Mahinda Samarasinghe, the minister for disaster management and human rights. Five months later the army began an initial investigation but, according to local human rights groups, the army pressured many of the families to label the perpetrator as an “unidentified armed group.”
After July the public presence of the Karuna group grew. Its military wing expanded its presence in Polonnaruwa district near Welikanda, and the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal political party opened offices in more towns and villages across the east. The new political offices and the abductions appear linked. The TMVP office in Batticaloa town had already opened in March, when the abductions in that area jumped. Events in Trincomalee town followed a similar course: a TMVP office opened there in late August, and over the next six weeks the Karuna group was implicated in the abductions in Trincomalee of between 15 and 20 young men, according to a member of the local town government.17 On September 24 the TMVP opened a new office in Chenkalady next to the Siththandy Sri Lankan army camp, about 18 kilometers north of Batticaloa town. That day, Karuna forces allegedly abducted 12 boys and young men from the area. In Ampara district the first reported Karuna abduction came in July, shortly after the TMVP opened an office in Akkaraipattu town in the district.
Throughout July, August, and September, international aid workers in Batticaloa town reported seeing Karuna cadre with weapons in bags moving openly around the town. When Human Rights Watch visited Batticaloa and Trincomalee towns in October the Karuna presence was pronounced. TMVP signs and graffiti were prominent on many buildings and street corners. Local residents said they sometimes recognized Karuna cadre manning checkpoints together with the Sri Lankan army or police. In both Batticaloa and Trincomalee towns the government security forces are firmly in control, with regular checkpoints and patrols. In some areas of Trincomalee, military checkpoints lay only 200 meters apart.
By September abductions had taken place throughout Batticaloa district, in places such as Kiran, Mankerni, Santhiveli, Chenkalady, Valaichchenai, Manmunai (North and Southwest), Porativupattu, Koralaipattu (North, South, and West), Kattankudy, Eravur town, and Eravurpattu. Most of these areas lie within three kilometers of police or army camps.
Karuna forces abducted boys and young men from their homes, work places, temples, playgrounds, public roads, and even a wedding. Human Rights Watch heard reports from multiple sources of abductions from a camp for internally displaced persons, but did not directly investigate these reports.
At least some of the children are being trained for combat and have been deployed in military operations. The father of an abducted young man who visited his son at a Karuna camp in Karapola said his child had been wounded in combat. “His ear and his leg were black,” the father said. “He said that a mine had exploded near him during a fight and that his friend next to him had been killed and he had been wounded.”18
Human Rights Watch conducted a brief interview with a distraught mother in Batticaloa district whose son was abducted in June. In October she received a notice from the TMVP informing her that her child had died in battle.19 According to neighbors, Karuna forces held a funeral in Theevuchenai where they have a camp. “The Karunas refused to give the body back to the family and the boy was buried there,” a neighbor said.20 It is not known if this casualty was the same person as the friend of the young man mentioned above.
The abductions have sent fear through families in the east, who were already struggling to deal with regular abuses by government forces and the LTTE. “We stopped sending them to school about seven months ago,” said one mother with two children, aged 14 and 15. “My husband was killed two years ago so I have to protect my kids,” said another.21 Other parents said they escorted their children to and from school.
According to parents in Batticaloa district and local human rights activists, some children were volunteering to join the Karuna group, along with young men. International law prohibits armed groups from recruiting children, even “voluntarily.” (See Chapter IX.) “In a neighboring village some children are volunteering, even as young as 10 or 12,” the mother of an abducted 14-year-old said. “Kids are attracted by other kids, and they get paid too.”22
In January 2007 the UN made public the secretary-general’s report on the situation of children and armed conflict in Sri Lanka, which documents child recruitment by both the LTTE and the Karuna group between November 1, 2005 and October 21, 2006. In the section on the Karuna group, the report notes allegations “that certain elements of the Sri Lankan security forces are involved in aiding the recruitment and/or abduction of children by the Karuna faction in the East.”23 In particular, the report mentions reports that on June 14 and 26, 2006 in Batticaloa district, armed Sri Lankan army personnel accompanied Karuna group members who abducted and recruited nine children, aged 14 to 17.
Eyewitness accounts of abductions attributed to the Karuna group frequently followed the same pattern. Typically a group of at least six men, usually armed with assault rifles, arrived in a village. Sometimes they were dressed in black pants and shirts, but often they wore uniforms of the Sri Lankan army. Sometimes they had masks but other times their faces were visible and villagers occasionally recognized the men as members of the Karuna group. They always spoke fluent Tamil (army personnel and police, overwhelmingly ethnic Sinhalese, are unlikely to be fluent Tamil speakers). The armed men often knew who they were looking for, suggesting they had intelligence about the local population.
In response to repeated allegations of abducting children, the Karuna group frequently claims that the LTTE is responsible for these crimes. But the parents of abducted children in the eastern districts, as well as eyewitnesses to abductions, local human rights activists, and staff of international aid agencies, while acknowledging that the LTTE continues to commit abductions, have consistently rejected that claim. They note that LTTE forces could not have moved so freely in government-controlled territory, often during the day. In some cases, the abductors identified themselves as members of the Karuna group, or villagers recognized them as such because they are from the area. Finally, many of these accounts were confirmed by parents who later saw their abducted son in a TMVP office or visited them in a Karuna camp (see below).
Throughout 2006 the Karuna group primarily targeted males between the ages of 15 and 30. The youngest confirmed abducted child was 11. The group tended to spare young men who were married or boys who attended school, but this was not a strict rule. Human Rights Watch is aware of two cases when the Karuna group abducted girls.24
The targets are frequently poor and uneducated families in rural areas, who have a limited ability to protect themselves or to seek redress. Particularly vulnerable to abduction are families who have or had a child in the LTTE, either because they volunteered or were abducted. In a few cases, local human rights activists and international agencies said, the LTTE abducted one son and the Karuna group abducted another. Human Rights Watch interviewed families in two such cases: According to the mother of a young man abducted by Karuna forces from Batticaloa district in May 2006, the abductors knew that another son was with the LTTE. “You gave a son to the LTTE, so you have to give a son to us,” she said they told her. The LTTE had abducted one of her sons in 2001.25
Another vulnerable group is boys and young men whom Karuna released after the split with the LTTE in March 2004. At that time, the newly formed Karuna group released more than 1,800 boys and girls who had been abducted by the LTTE (see Chapter III).26 In the months following the split, many of these children were aggressively re-recruited by the LTTE. In 2006, some were also re-recruited by the Karuna group. According to UNICEF, of the 208 children reported recruited by the Karuna group between January 1 and December 31, 2006, fifteen of them were recruited for a second time.
After abducting boys and young men, the Karuna group often holds them temporarily in the nearest office of the TMVP. Parents in Ampara and Batticaloa districts told Human Rights Watch that they either saw their abducted sons in these offices in the days after the abduction, or TMVP officials confirmed they had been there. In Akkaraipattu, Ampara district, members of humanitarian organizations said they had seen children on the TMVP premises: “I saw a little boy between 12 and 14 at the TMVP office,” one aid worker said. “He had a wound on his left arm and a walkie talkie in his pocket. Within the compound I saw several other boys, some of whom were getting visits from their families, all of them no more than 15 or 16 years old.”27 Parents of abductees and international aid agencies told Human Rights Watch that by September they frequently saw armed children guarding the TMVP office in Batticaloa town.
The mother of a teenager abducted in September 2006 from a village in Batticaloa district said that she first went looking for her child in the TMVP office in Chenkalady but the officials there said her child was in Batticaloa town. She went to that TMVP office with three other mothers and told Human Rights Watch what she saw:
We saw our children on the top floor of the TMVP office. We were three mothers of children taken from here. The children signaled to us that we should go or they would get hit.28
After a few days the Karuna group usually transferred the abducted boys and young men to one of its camps in the Welikanda area in the Polonnaruwa district, about 50 kilometers northwest of Batticaloa town (see map). According to parents who visited the camps and local humanitarian workers familiar with the area, the Karuna group maintains four or five camps in the area north of the main A11 road around Sewanpitiya. The area is firmly under government control and there is no way for an organized armed group to operate there, let alone maintain a network of camps, without the Sri Lankan military’s knowledge and at least tacit support.
The most detailed description of the area came from a Sri Lankan aid worker who had seen five Karuna camps. Three of them are in Mutugalla, he said, two in the village and one just outside. All of them are behind thatched fences. According to the aid worker, Mutugalla has a Sri Lankan army post. A fourth camp, a field hospital, is in a building in Madurrangala. A Sri Lankan police post was originally nearby, he said, but it was removed. A fifth camp is in Karopola.29
After a period of between two weeks and a month, the Karuna group allowed some parents to visit their sons in a Karuna camp. Some of the parents who visited their sons said their child was armed and being trained as a combatant.
In some cases, families with an abducted son received a “payment” (koduppanavu) for their child’s services, either given by the son during a visit or sent by postal order. The amount was typically 6,000 rupees per month (US $55). A laborer’s monthly wage is roughly 5,000 rupees. On some occasions, the Karuna group let abducted boys and young men go home on supervised visits to their families for a night. In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, a young man visited his family with the men who had abducted him from his home.30
In a few cases during 2006 the Karuna group released abducted children, but this was rare. According to local human rights activists, the families with released children frequently did not report the release for fear that their son could be abducted again, either by the Karuna group or the LTTE. Some families also did not want others to know how they secured their child’s release, especially if money was paid. According to UNICEF, the Karuna group released 23 children it had abducted during the year; 18 children ran away; and two died.31
Children who escape or are released face special risks. They can be targeted again by the Karuna group and they are susceptible to attack or abduction by the LTTE because they are branded as Karuna fighters. Families previously often sent their vulnerable children to Colombo but, with abductions and attacks against Tamils there on the rise, many families no longer consider the capital safe.
“If my son escaped or was released I would be unable to keep him at home, it would be too dangerous,” the mother of an abducted 18-year-old said. “Depending on the case, either the Karuna group, the army, or the LTTE would look for him. I really don’t know where he could go to get protection. If there were more efficient protection programs, maybe more kids would escape from the Karuna camps.”32 The mother of an abducted 21-year-old agreed. “I want to say that if our kids escaped, they will have problems coming back home,” she said. “They can’t be protected at home. In addition to that, if our kids escaped, the Karuna group would come home and take our other kids.”33
The total number of boys and young men abducted and forcibly recruited by the Karuna group remains unknown. The only two organizations publicly keeping track are the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) and UNICEF. Both of their figures are low because they depend upon families reporting the abductions. Some families are unwilling to report, either out of fear of reprisals or because they doubted that reporting the abduction would facilitate their child’s release.
According to the SLMM, throughout 2006, in Batticaloa district 167 adults and 117 children were abducted by non-signatories to the 2002 ceasefire agreement that the SLMM is mandated to monitor.34 Although “non-signatories” could include criminal elements or other armed groups, available evidence suggests that the vast majority of these abductions are attributable to the Karuna group. In Ampara district, the figures are seven adults and three children.35
According to UNICEF, as of December 31, 2006, families in Ampara, Batticaloa, and Trincomalee districts had reported 208 abductions of children by the Karuna group. The vast majority of these reported abductions were of boys (206 out of 208). Most of the abductions took place in Batticaloa district (181), followed by Ampara district (23), and then Trincomalee district (4).36 By UNICEF’s estimation, the real figure of abducted children is three times higher because many families do not report. It also should be noted that UNICEF figures do not reflect abductions of people age 18 or older.
Unlike the SLMM, UNICEF provides a breakdown by age of the abductions it has recorded. According to the November 2006 statistics the age distribution of Karuna abductions in the three eastern districts looked like this:
Ages 10 to 12: two abductions
Ages 12 to 14: eight abductions
Ages 14 to 16: 59 abductions
Ages 16 to 18: 109 abductions37
As noted above, many cases of abduction and forced recruitment go unreported. This includes non-reporting to the police. Families that did not report their cases to the police expressed two main concerns. First was fear. The Karuna group has threatened many families not to report the abduction to international agencies like the SLMM, the International Committee of the Red Cross, or the police. “If the TMVP knows I’m here talking with you they’ll come at night and shoot me,” the aunt of an abducted 18-year-old said to Human Rights Watch.38 The second concern was that formally registering the case with the police would not help retrieve their missing son. Even the families that did report their case expressed skepticism that the authorities would take any steps against the Karuna group. “They are all working together—right?” the grandmother of one abducted boy asked rhetorically.39
Fifteen of the 20 families interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they reported the abduction of their son to the local police. In all of these cases, the police recorded the complaint, although human rights groups and aid agencies told Human Rights Watch that in many other cases the police had refused. In none of the 15 cases, however, did the police undertake what the family considered a thorough investigation, and in no case did the police secure the abductee’s release. “We told the police it was Karuna,” the mother of a teenager abducted in September said. “We have heard nothing from them since.”40
The families in Batticaloa district who reported their cases to the police experienced varying responses. In a few cases the police were polite and agreed to record the case. But in the majority of cases, as recounted by families to Human Rights Watch, the police were rude and aggressive, and some initially refused to record the crime. “We reported to the police [in Eravur town],” the mother of an abducted child said. “They said we’ll take the entry but we’re not going to look for them.” She continued, “They treated me like a dog.”41
“The Karuna group took your child so why don’t you complain to them?” the police allegedly told another family who tried to register a complaint.42 Aside from this being a shirking of police responsibilities to the public, a local human rights activist pointed out the speciousness of such a police response. “Where do you go to seek redress with Karuna?” he asked. “With the police or the STF [Special Task Force] there is a mechanism, and with the LTTE too. But with Karuna there is no one with authority anywhere.”43
When the police did record the allegations, they often took only minimal details and they frequently refused to provide the complaint number. The mother of an abducted child said that her husband went to the Eravur police station to report the case. “The police opened a file but they didn’t communicate the complaint number,” she said. “They said they would investigate the case but they didn’t do anything. Like the other parents, I brought a photo of my child but they didn’t take it.”44
On December 1 Sri Lankan Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe told Human Rights Watch that the government had recently instructed the police to record complaints from families of abducted children. He repeated this to a journalist six weeks later.45 Some investigations by the army reportedly began in December. As of January 15, 2007, however, there was no evidence that the police were any more responsive to abduction complaints.
13 UNICEF reported a total of 19 cases of child recruitment by the Karuna group from October 2004 through March 2006. Data supplied to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, January 12, 2007.
14 UNICEF reported 43 abductions of children in June 2006. Ibid.
15 “UNICEF Condemns Abduction and Recruitment of Sri Lankan Children by the Karuna Group,” UNICEF news note, June 22, 2006, http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/media_34677.html (accessed December 28, 2006).
16 UNICEF reported 47 abductions of children in August, 18 in September, 37 in October, 21 in November, and 8 in December. Data supplied to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, January 12, 2007.
17 Human Rights Watch interview, Trincomalee town, October, 2006.
18 Human Rights Watch interview with father of abducted young man, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
19 Human Rights Watch interview with mother of abducted boy, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
20 Human Rights Watch interview, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
21 Human Rights Watch interview with widowed mother, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
22 Human Rights Watch interview with mother of abducted boy, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
23 “Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in Sri Lanka,” December 20, 2006.
24 According to UNICEF, the Karuna group abducted two girls in Ampara district, but the date is not provided. Data supplied to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, January 12, 2007.
25 Human Rights Watch interview mother of abducted young man, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
26 UNICEF recorded the return of 1,825 children to their homes in April 2004. Data supplied to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, January 12, 2007.
27 Human Rights Watch interview with aid worker, Ampara district, October 2006.
28 Human Rights Watch interview with mother of abducted boy, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
29 Human Rights Watch interview with aid worker, Colombo, October 2006.
30 Human Rights Watch interview with mother of abducted young man, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
31 Data supplied to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, January 12, 2007. It is not known whether the deaths reported by UNICEF include the case confirmed by Human Rights Watch.
32 Human Rights Watch interview with mother of abducted young man, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
33 Human Rights Watch interview with mother of abducted young man, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
34 Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, Summary of Recorded Complaints and Violations from SLMM Batticaloa, December 27, 2006. Signatories to the 2002 ceasefire agreement are the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE. SLMM’s statistics go up to December 27, 2006.
35 Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, Summary of Recorded Complaints and Violations from SLMM Ampara, December 27, 2006. For all districts in Sri Lanka, the SLMM reported 248 abducted adults and 131 abducted children by non-signatories of the ceasefire agreement.
36 Data supplied to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, January 12, 2007.
37 Ages are at date of abduction. Apparently UNICEF does not know the ages of all reported abductees.
38 Human Rights Watch interview with aunt of abducted young man, Ampara district, October 2006.
39 Human Rights Watch interview with grandmother of abducted boy, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
40 Human Rights Watch interview with mother of abducted boy, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
41 Human Rights Watch interview with mother of abducted boy, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
42 Human Rights Watch interview with aid worker, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
43 Human Rights Watch interview with aid worker, Ampara district, October 2006.
44 Human Rights Watch interview with mother of abducted boy, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
45 Namini Wijedasa, “Tiger Pledge on Child Recruits no Honoured—Human Rights Minister,” The Island (Colombo), January 14, 2007.