The whole country heaved a sigh of relief when a little girl who had gone missing from the Kelaniya Temple was found recently. The media swung into action when the parents of two-and-a-half-year-old Senudi complained of her disappearance and the police were jolted into mounting a massive search for her.
What befell little Senudi and the mammoth effort that both the media and the law enforcement authorities made to trace her should be viewed against the backdrop of grand preparations being made to celebrate the first anniversary of Sri Lanka`s victory over terrorism. Until about a year ago, there had been thousands of child abductions in the northern and eastern parts of the country, but sadly a section of the media that expended quite rightly so tonnes of newsprint, barrels of ink and hours of airtime on Senudi`s abduction last week ignored the forcible recruitment of children that went on for years in the North and the East.
The incidence of child abductions by the LTTE reached such a height that a famous Jesuit priest in the East aptly likened the situation to an ogre descending from the mountains to prey on children! Many parents stopped sending their children to school for fear of abductions. Child recruiters operated out in the open. Special envoys of the UN Secretary General like Olara Otunu found themselves more here than in New York in a bid to persuade the LTTE to let go of children in its clutches, but in vain.
UNICEF tried to secure the release of child soldiers with the LTTE`s concurrence and sponsored a transit home project, which came a cropper as Prabhakaran, true to form, reneged on his pledge to set his child combatants free. At the height of war, UNICEF launched an expensive advertising campaign to raise public awareness of the scourge of child recruitment and we pointed out in these columns that the people were more than aware of the problem and that the only way to liberate those unfortunate children was to crush the LTTE military machine.
The forcible conscription of children in Sri Lanka ended the day Prabhakaran met his Waterloo in the shallows of the Nandikadal lagoon. No child has been recruited ever since and they are free to go back to school. Hundreds of ex-child combatants who languished under Prabhakaran`s jackboot are being rehabilitated and released into the mainstream society. Now is the time for the UN bigwigs to come forward and help those children without being putty in the hands of some western governments bent on harassing Sri Lanka for having defeated the LTTE militarily.
Sri Lanka`s streets are now safe for children. They do not have to fear terrorist bombs and their parents no longer stand guard near schools to protect their precious ones against terrorists. Gone are the days when husbands and wives chose to travel separately so that their children would have at least one parent left in case of terrorists attacks on buses and trains. Parents and children can have a good night`s sleep even in rural backwaters bordering the North and the East, free from fear of being butchered in their sleep. Little Senudi`s disappearance grabbed headlines and shocked the country because it happened in an environment free from terrorism. A few years ago, such an incident would have been eclipsed by a host of far worse happenings that the country used to experience day in day out.
The main reason why Sri Lanka`s victory over terrorism should be welcomed by one and all is the elimination of forcible child recruitment. On May 18 last year the ogre that had been descending from the mountains and preying on them was laid to rest. It was a victory for children!