At 1-30 p.m. on Friday when President Mahinda Rajapaksa handed over 19-year-old Vanaraja Iswaran to his parents at the massive Temple Trees auditorium, it marked the end of a nightmarish phase of the youth's life.
He was recruited into the Tamil Tiger's outfit about five years ago – as the last of the Eelam Wars had begun to be waged – much against his will and his parents' will, he says. Soon enough, like most barely-literate teens, he liked the power that flowed out of the slinging gun. “It's easy to get misled in such an atmosphere. Most of these boys were misled,” an official said, at the function organised to mark the reintegration of over 1800 former LTTE combatants, into mainstream society.
Iswaran's parents had barely any idea where their child was. Soon after the conclusion of the war, they began a frantic search for the boy. He was among the 11,000 plus LTTE cadre who had surrendered in the end stages of the war. They located him at a camp in the Northern Province, after a long drawn out, sometimes frustrating search.
As he and his parents take the overnight bus to Jaffna, it marks the beginning of another, exceedingly painful process in his life. For the past two years, he had been in camps and, for a shortwhile, in jail. Life in the camp, in jail, or as a cadre of the LTTE, was broadly similar – there were timings for all activities, there was always someone to watch over. That phase of his life, the cycle of reward and punishment, came to an end on this sunny Friday afternoon. Now begins a life minus bunker beds and meal queues. Many of the former cadre ready for rehabilitation were vaguely aware of the concept of a home life.
Like many before him – numbering over 7000 - who had tried to get back to normal life, he and his 1800 colleagues, are aware of the challenges. “We have been taught a few trades,” said one, who gave his name as Partheepan. “We will try what we can do with it.” There has been anecdotal evidence from the Northern Province of society's reluctance to employ cadre; and also of cadre's own frustration with the ways of civil society.
Mr. Rajapaksa told them not to worry. “We will arrange bank loans for starting trades, we will make sure that your life will be secure,” he told them. Requesting them to pardon his bad Tamil pronunciation, he held forth: “Today is a happy day for all of you. Today is the day you all go home. All of you can live in peace from now on.”
While a majority like Mr. Partheepan are anxious and wait for the “day after tomorrow” when they get home, a few others are confident. One such is Santhalingam Gokulan, already an actor, and a performer. He belted out two songs, one Sinhala and another Tamil, and said that he was ready to take on the world. “He will also go to India to perform,” one of his peers informed The Hindu, as Mr. Gokulan rendered Harris Jeyaraj's “Uyire Uyire,” the plaintive lament in search of love from the Manirathnam movie “Bombay”: “kaalam thaduththaal ennai mannoadu kalandhuvidu…” [if time stops me, dissolve me in the earth beneath].