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30th August 1998

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Lost at sea, locked in cell

By Shelani de Silva.

Nineteen young men who braved the seas on a month long journey to enter the Land of the Rising Sun in search of "better prospects" were deported to Sri Lanka last Saturday.

After weeks at sea, the group was able only to spend ten hours in Japan on arrival before they were arrested. Aged between 18 and 32, all were from the Negombo- Wennapuwa belt.

Mentally and physically drained by their harrowing experience, they spoke of their fear of becoming insane without human contact during their two month imprisonment and the circumstances of their flight.

When 24-year-old Susantha Thamil heard that his uncle was planning to take a few boys from the area to Japan, he saw it as the path to fortune. His elder brother had been able to work in Japan for six years after entering the country illegally and was also to be part of the group.

Having lost his father early in life, and keenly aware of the struggle his mother went through, Susantha was determined to earn and provide for his mother.

"Getting a job for people like us is difficult. My mother protested about the trip but we decided to join," he said.

The sea voyage had gone as planned. The group disembarked at an isolated stretch of beach in Japan around 9.00pm. They decided to move in groups so that suspicion would not be aroused.

"Although we had split up we kept getting together. Maybe we were all frightened and after nearly a month at sea the tension was too much. The first group came across a bus stand, and when we checked the board, it said the next bus to Tokyo (our destination) was at 7.15 am.This gave us some hope. So we planned that while four took shelter at the bus stand the others should wait in the nearby jungle. At first we thought there was no human habitation but later found that it was a small town. It was a beautiful place," explained Susantha.

Although they planned to split up, after about two hours they had all stayed at the bus halt. This had aroused suspicion. By about 4.00 am, a lady had come out to the street and seeing 19 dark skinned men immediately alerted the others in the village. By this time several vehicles passing by had also stopped to inquire what they were doing there without any bag or baggage.

"We cooked up a story saying we had come on a trip to this part of Japan and that the vehicle had broken down. They listened without comment and proceeded in their vehicles. We said the same thing to the villagers," said Susantha.

The police had arrived at 7.00am. The Lankans had told them the same story but when they failed to produce their student cards and work permits they were arrested.

They were immediately taken to the police station, photographed and questioned individually for a day.

"At first we were told we would be released in ten days but we were there for two months. It was the most horrifying experience of my life. We were put into a dingy cell with no natural light. No matter how warm it got, we had to sleep with our shirts. Meals were equally bad, we got raw fish and vegetables sprinkled with honey. Initially none of us were able to eat but later we had to force it down our throats in order to survive," he said.

Finally the Lankans were taken to court and deported. For most the abortive mission cost them their homes and the few remaining valuables because they had to mortgage all to pay for the airfare and the sea voyage.

Twenty six-year-old Dixon Wasantha, a fisherman, lost everything. Having no permanent income he joined the group through hope for a better life. "I managed to collect the money just a week before the trip, that too with my brother's help since I don't have any savings."

"Being a religious person I had faith that at least a few of us will be saved," he says of his ordeal. "I recited the rosary each night and even made a cross out of ekels which I kept hidden on my bed."

Gamini Ajith (26) a father of a three-year-old son was also among the group. In his case going abroad was his great ambition. Susantha's cousins Indika and Nalin, who incidentally are the sons of the skipper, also joined simply because the father assured them that Japan was much better than another country.

Skipper Jerad Nelson Thamil, a fisherman in Wennapuwa was sorely disappointed that his well drawn up plans had collapsed.

It was Jarad's nephew who having worked for the last six years in Japan told him there were many job opportunities in Japan and there was good money. Having been a fisherman for more than 20 years Jerad had sailed to India, Pakistan, Somalia, South Africa Mozambique, Australia, Burma and Bangladesh.

"I got several maps and decided to take the route through the Nicobar islands Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, South China Sea, Cambodia, Vietnam Philippines and Taiwan to Japan. Once the route was planned I started work on the fuel and other material," he said.

For the 4700 odd mile voyage Jerad had calculated that he would need 30,000 litres of fuel and 6000 litres of water for consumption. He also took a four member crew with him. He requested the nineteen Lankans each to pay an advance of 50,000 rupees and Rupees five lakhs once the mission was completed.

"I took the sole responsibility of taking them to Japan but I told them that what happens in Japan was not my responsibility. But having said this I wanted them to find employment."

"More than the loss of money all the hours I put into planning the journey has left me mentally drained. The disappointment cannot be expressed," he said.

What is most surprising is that this group sees no wrong in their action in trying to gain illegal entry to another country.

"All these boys can look after themselves, they can afford to have a meal. But they want something more. They want a lot of money so that they can be stable," Jarad argued.

Let us not leave our humanity behind

"Don't you love me Daddy"- a child. "You are my ten year old" - a father. Words of a song with a flawless depth of maturity. Listening one imbibes the background of balance, proportion, taste, restraint and a marked discernment of abundant freedom. From that keyboard came meaning and warmth and hope and family. Today in Western societies the family fabric is being torn apart. Blunt, often obscene language, candied lyrics, freer fashions push the young in these societies while old restraints lose their force. These societies often cannot agree on conduct, language and manners. Hailed as a release from hypocrisy, their emphasis is on the senses and the release of the sensual. Is it necessary to superimpose this wave pattern on Sri Lankan society, Sri Lankan children?

Children and caring and love are synonymous. Love and caring are goals to be attained, rather than built-in actualities in society. So a rumble of words, words and more words can only bring about apathy, disillusionment and a prickly self-respect. Finally we have a society that will cripple everyone at every turn with laws that cannot be enforced or implemented and commissions with runaway costs.

With media, TV and Radio there is publicity as never before in Sri Lanka. A rising complex of national, international identification of pride in children. Yes. But it is necessary for their total welfare, to look for solutions that work, rather than solutions that fit a pre-conceived set of generalisations, and ideas, a parade of Western abstractions, way out of the socio-economic context of this Third World Country. In the cluttered-up penny-pinching lives of rural and urban poor SURVIVAL counts and a child is often an undernourished slave in his own home. According to a 1997 survey in a population of 18,300,000; we have an estimated 5,648,150-15 - 19 year olds. Today half the world's population live in cities. UN projections indicate more than 2/3 by the year 2015. Living in a period of increasing violence and social disorder the rearing of children is costly, labour intensive, and personal. It can be achieved to a great extent successfully only by parents and even that with much difficulty and hard-headed practicality. In single-headed households especially mothers, it calls for not only hardship and sacrifice but tears as well.

Ariyawathie stood quiet, stubbornly silent. Her one- year-old in a serious state of third degree malnourishment, lay inert in her arms. Four other children who had ripped through her womb at short intervals of 6, 4, 3 and 2 clung to her skirt. She had been virtually dragged from her shanty room by the LCES Health worker so the nourishment given free would save the little one's life. Exasperated. - "Do you want your child to die ?" The maze of contradictions in her life disappeared. The only reality was this moment - our words. So the tears came. A scene of unrelieved human desolation. The drawn face seamed as she struggled for composure. Eyes heavy with pain and meaning and scarcely audible there came the whispered answer - yes."

A stunned silence.

A woman, a mother des- perately attempting to sort out her life, her problems her way, alone and unaided. Bringing up a family - children - requires the multifaceted initiatives of an unique enterprise. It needs financial stability, unlimited commitment. So Ariyawathie had it worked out.

"I have my passport ready; money - a job overseas. I can leave the other four children with friends, relatives but not this child - nobody wants this sick child."

Does that mean it does not matter, if this child dies?"

It matters that I try to save the other four. What else can I do?" Poverty. Helplessness and bravado mixed up in dim witted plans, her way.

We were again, at LCES, as so often happens the only point where true contact with reality is possible.

Published figures of the women gone abroad as Housemaids reveal 70% are Mothers. Children, are farmed out to relatives, neighbours; arrangements made are short-lived as monies promised are never regular. A child - children drift back to a house that is not a home- has only the barest of essentials. No learning material and an alcoholic father; or a father and another 'mother'. Said a social worker "a married man left for two, three years, will find another woman". At school 'mother' is 'Malini'; when real mother Somawathie returns, she storms the school. Mother is Somawathie not Malini- the Principal is confused, the Teacher is confused, child and playmates are confused.

The child, boy or girl is often prepared to return "home" to endure the brutal and brutish for the reassuring hug of familiarity, of environment, of siblings or cricketing friends, and an unsupervised lifestyle. Drug addiction, crime, petty thievery escalates.

Aged grandmothers, feeble and tired from the drabness of struggle, of poverty, so grey and threadbare, have lived out their lives. Still however they have the ability to find emotional room to take over further responsibility. More than hundreds, nay thousands of grandmothers in isolation attempt to finance and to discipline children left behind.

Most of them earn a pittance doing the laundry in middle-class homes. They take home the midday meal given them to share with the children. One cup of milk-tea makes two with water added! Her final reward ? Left on the road and a telephone call to the Mother Theresa Sisters to pick her up as they take in the 'no home' destitutes. Their Convents are full. These changes in family functioning and structure have had a large and negative effect on children, and the aged.

The country's economic situation makes it necessary that families are kept small. The Family Planning Association has had a significant track record keeping the birth-rate down. So it is with a degree of concern and dismay that we understand the financial support is to be withdrawn. LCES has sent over the years a few thousand girls and women for lectures. We continue to do so though burdened now with paying a fee. Networking with NGOs we find the FPA one of the operational best. Must all that experience gained and a job well done be lost to the country?

It is estimated there are 700 abortions, possibly more a day in Sri Lanka. Young people losing the comforting certainties of youth. The older women grappling with a situation in a complex web of emotional, social and cultural considerations. When reality intrudes all these tirades against injustices, rights make live characters - humans, drift into caricature.

Lawrence is a twelve-year-old drop-out, Suresh 11 years, has not gone to school. Two of many hundreds, thousands, - no clothes, no shoes, no meals, mothers abroad no one to supervise. Driven by economic imperatives their day begins early at dawn with priority needs and priority activity. Food for the family and competing for jobs in the market place, while shouldering responsibilities society has thrust on them, there is need for tenacity of purpose. In the real world limited resources impose choices. The next mile is the only one the 'small man' concentrates on and he is soon selling fish, greens, firewood and so on. Men, money, and mistakes, a mix of factors; an accumulation of experiences. Market lore wisdom and snappy reflexes get them in and out of trouble. A complex and challenging scene.

Around 9 - 10 a. m, earning for the family done, they turned to the 'Athuduwa' traditional 'hand-help' apprenticeship training that turned out the welders, plumbers, carpenters, masons, motor mechanics, cycle repairers of the years gone by. The informal sector with indigenous technologies is often located on illicit land, and has no access to credit. However it provides training for the thousands who have a low level of education, cannot keep regular time or regular attendance. Given the poor background and low food calorie intake productivity level is low, - on-the job mistakes and thieving a problem. But this early age hands-on-training (labelled exploitative) gets this child-on-the-street, a skills training equivalent to the NAITA level 4 certification.

This traditional source of training of drop-outs still operates though not as effectively as before. It has all become too costly for the artisan to afford the 12, 14 year old, with attendant problems. The lunch packet that was Rs.2 is now Rs.24/-. So the older youth are taken on. Bring in legal sanctions and there will be children-on-the-street in large numbers. Bring in legal sanctions, and thousands will be left out of gaining any entrepreneurial skills. It is completely impossible setting up institutions. Food, costs, waste, theft, personnel problems - maintenance and plumbers, electricians, matrons, cooks are impossible to find. The alternative was in a home where they fetch and carry and are labelled domestics and supposedly exploited. Jude was a keen 12 year old drop-out apprentice in carpentry. But he could never keep time - why? "I forget to get up" he would say. The Community Educator investigated. At 4 a. m, sometimes earlier, he would half stumble down to the public water stand-pipe to fetch water for the family. Large numbers of adults rushing to work, impatient and besides water he would collect cuffs, and curses. It took hours doing trips with two heavy buckets. Job done - he would fall off to sleep and forget to get up.

Rural communities are dwindling. Fortunately however they are still very much locked in the past. Schools close at harvest time, transplanting and so on. In the Plantation Sector the entire family, even the 12-year-old work so they could have a square meal and basic necessities. There are 3.25 million households, excluding North and East 3.5 million. It is difficult to believe these millions of Sinhala, Tamil Sri Lankans will ill treat children the way it is made out, highlighting extreme cases of cruelty.

There is no absolute right answer to any question. Yet the wrong choice could be disastrous. There is necessity that authorities legislate to accommodate the variations in situations. When Reality intrudes, and poverty is stark, a reluctance to face reality will only make a bad situation worse. As Human Rights marches on, let's not leave our humanity behind.

'He said come and then he hit me'

By Chamintha Thilakarathna

Could a child of six have been raped in her own school by another student? This was the shocking reality that confounded stunned parents in Gampola. Six-year-old Fathima ( not her real name) was allegedly raped in the junior school premises on Tuesday August 11th by a student no older than sixteen.

Fathima fiddled with her dress with a lost stare as if trying to figure out what had happened in her own mind when The Sunday Times met her. When she finally lifted her head from that posture, her confusion was obvious. She swung her legs and turned her little face towards her mother.

"I went to the bathroom at one end of the college with four of my friends. When I came out there was a boy outside of about 15 years, also of the same school, who showed me a chewing gum wrapper and said, "come." I followed him hoping he would give me the gum. He took me to the back of the bathrooms, and asked me to lift my dress. Then to lower my panty. Then he pressed me onto the wall and hit me," was all that she could make out of what happened.

According to Fathima's account the boy had threatened her. "He had threatened to throttle her if she screamed and said she better not say a word about it to any one else either," said Fathima's mother.

Beyond that, Fathima has only a vague memory. But the strongest memories are the worst and the most painful. "It was a tall boy in school uniform. He had big eyes and a dark face. He had a scar on the left side of his face," she said.

But school authorities have been unable to establish this student's identity.

When her friends found her Fathima had been lying on the ground crying. They had taken her to the classroom and related the story to the teacher who had listened and requested that they go back to their seats.

The parents who noticed Fathima limping back home had checked to see what was wrong, to find her thighs and vagina swollen and blue. They hurried her to the hospital and she spent five days there.

While Parliament was debating the Child Rights bill targeted specifically at child abuse, Gampola authorities were attempting to cover up the tragic incident.

"It was a simple minor incident,"said M.C.Halaldeen, Assistant Secretary of Education at the Katugastota zone, who is also acting as Principal of the school.

He said, "The boy had not raped or anything but had tried to do something. Now everything is alright. We don't want this to get around. It's bad for the school. It's over," Mr. Halaldeen said.

The reputation of the school seems to be uppermost in the minds of the school authorities, including teachers and some parents.

But some furious parents in Gampola have launched a protest campaign. Villagers stoned the houses of the Principal and the deputies. The former Principal decided to close the school without prior notice from August 17-24th. They were subsequently transferred. The security cadre on duty on the day of the tragic incident have resigned. A departmental inquiry had taken place but this has not pacified the parents and old boys. "Three days later while an inquiry by the police was going on the Principal still denied that such a thing had happened," said outraged members of the Old Boys Association.

"It's incredible and unimaginable to hear of this disgraceful act happening in a college, which was founded and nurtured to be one of the best colleges in the Central province by the late Dr. Badiuddin Mahumud," said an old boy. "Never in the history of the college has such a thing taken place," he added.

"The inquiry has been badly slowed down due to lack of co-operation from school authorities," said Sujatha Weerasinghe, police officer in charge of the Women and Children's division of the police who is investigating the matter.

According to Ms. Weerasinghe, the principal had denied that such an incident took place within the school premises.

"The child's legs and vagina were swollen and there were blood clots on the thighs," she said. But the DMO of the hospital refused to give information.

Meanwhile Fathima, the youngest of a family of seven sisters and four brothers, and her friends are unable to attend school because of threatening phone calls.

But, "I want to go back to school,"said Fathima. But she can't. Nor do her parents want her to in fear of what Fathima will be forced to undergo psychologically.

"We are not asking for damages, all we want is the culprit to be brought before the law," said Fathima's relatives. But will there be any justice for this little girl?

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