March 23, 2010 / 9:59 AM / 7 years ago

Cricket helps heal Sri Lanka's ex-child soldiers

<p>Former child combatants play cricket as part of a rehabilitation program sponsored by Sri Lankan government institutions, the International Cricket Council (ICC), the Sri Lankan Cricket association and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Colombo March 19, 2010.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds</p>

COLOMBO (Reuters Life!) - Dozens of former child soldiers who have known little expect war in Sri Lanka are being given a chance to reintegrate into society through the country's favorite sport -- cricket.

The Sri Lankan government, along with international agencies including the U.N. children's fund UNICEF, recently launched a cricket program to rehabilitate the young fighters who once battled among the ranks of the Tamil Tigers separatist movement.

These young fighters surrendered or were captured after the decades-old war ended last year, and now live in camps on the outskirts of Colombo, where they are being given vocational training and the chance of an education.

"Our athletic talents were stunted when we were young. At the camp, UNICEF came to us and encouraged us to play cricket. We have learned a lot through this program," Gopi, a 16-year-old former fighter, told Reuters.

"We can even make good coaches for the younger generation in the future," she said, refusing to give her full name or even show her face to reporters.

<p>Former child combatants celebrate after they played cricket as part of a rehabilitation program sponsored by Sri Lankan government institutions, the International Cricket Council (ICC), the Sri Lankan Cricket association and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Colombo March 19, 2010.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds</p>

Dubbed "Cricket for Change," the program so far has 24 students. Eighteen former combatants graduated as Cricket Peer Leaders after a week's training.

International child protection agencies and the Sinhalese-led government had accused the Tamil Tigers of recruiting thousands of children to fight, some of them by force. The Tamil Tigers denied the accusations.

Slideshow (3 Images)

Sri Lanka Cricket, the sport's national body, teamed up with UNICEF, the International Cricket Council (ICC) and several ministries to launch the program, which aims to promote cricket not only for children formerly associated with armed groups, but to other disadvantaged youth as well.

"These young people have acquired new skills, learned the importance of team work and partnership. They have embraced values of trust respect and fair play," said Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF's representative for Sri Lanka.

The 25-year-war between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended when the government claimed victory in May last year.

The United Nations estimates that between 80,000 and 100,000 people died in the conflict which erupted in earnest in 1983 when the Tigers began to fight for a separate state for Sri Lanka's minority Tamils in the island's north and east.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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