“When I’m gone, release me. Let me go.
I have so many things to see and do.”
– Excerpt from ‘Butterfly’

Even today too little is been said about them. Yet, they lived as fighters and died as children in a war they knew nothing about, in a war they had nothing to do with in the first place.

Vishnu Vasu’s documentary poem, Butterfly, is a remarkable tribute to those thousands of child soldiers who died in vain, as well as those who survived despite circumstances. It is also about a filmmaker’s humble journey in finding closure and breaking the silence around what must be remembered as the darkest years of our history. Through this piece I do not intent to review the movie as I feel that no word could match the emotion, humanity and cruel reality depicted through Vasu’s lens. But I do wish to invite those who still haven’t done so to watch ‘Butterfly’.

We all heard at some point of the many tragedies gone through by child soldiers in Sri Lanka; 40% of whom were girls. But we never really got to hear their stories. We never got to hear their fears, their sorrows or even their courage and their hopes. Some had joined the LTTE out of extreme poverty, some out of anger/revenge or simply because they wanted to experience the thrill of holding a gun. Others were abducted and forcefully recruited into the LTTE’s baby brigade before they were turned into innocent killers. It didn’t really matter how old they were. The LTTE training would start at 3 in the morning and would go on with no rest till 11 in the night, as described in the narrative. Those who disobeyed were punished, both verbally and physically.

Those who run off from the training camps were sometimes trapped back in the nets of the militants, often tortured, humiliated and forever deprived of their childhood. Boys, girls, all of them had their heads shaved in order to be easily identified. Villagers, sometimes even relatives, would often report it to the Tigers whenever they came across an escaped child. This was, for them, the only way to save their own child. Insensitivity, as one of the survivors says, appeared as common among the people. Some, however, did risk their lives to save those children of war.

With Butterfly, Vishnu Vasu gave a voice to those children who were forced to give up their innocence to a cause unknown…children whom we failed to save. But he also paid homage to those helpless parents who resisted and sacrificed their life trying to preserve the lives and innocence of their children. Some hid their children in suitcases and carried them on their head. Others sent their child to the forest, or even buried them in order to hide them from LTTE recruiters. Yet, many were those who could not save their child:

“First they came for my son. He died. Then they came for my son-in-law. He died too. Finally they came for my daughter. I pleaded at their feet. But they dragged her away like an animal. The memory of my children haunts me all day long. I feel like ending myself. But I have no choice. I have to live for my grandkids. I am the grandmother of these three innocent kids.” (Testimony excerpt from ‘Butterfly’)

Having to make up for the lost cadres, child-soldiers were often sent to the front line with a cyanide capsule attached around their neck (this practice intensified during the last phases of the conflict). None of them wanted to die. None of them wanted to kill either. They simply had no choice but to obey the rules in order to stay alive. Systematic conscription of children as combatants was one of the worst forms of crimes committed by the LTTE. The fact that the CFA did not contain any provision to put an end to this practice demonstrated a clear weakness in our legal framework.

Today, although Sri Lanka was de-listed by the UN from the ‘List of Shame’, although all ex-child combatants were rehabilitated, reintegrated and provided with formal education, we must remember the stories of this ‘lost generation’; for they did not deserve any of the sufferings they went through. Most of those who survived are now young adults. Some are married or widowed. Others are orphans and/or parents. Their testimonies would haunt anyone who would take the time to listen to them. Their resilience would surprise many of us. But their childhood would always remain a mere shadow that they would forever drag in a harrowing swamp of suppressed memory, muddied with blood.

“Don’t tie yourself with many tears to me.
I gave you my life to a cause unknown.
Now let me rest.
Now let me fly.
Fly away from you.
Fly away to a place so serene,
I will be born a butterfly.”
(Excerpt from ‘Butterfly’)

  • n. ethirveerasingam

    “Butterfly” is another compelling reason to permit the investigation team appointed by the UNHRC to have access to Sri Lanka to offer a chance for all those who were victims or their immediate families were victims and to all the eyewitnesses to bring to light the atrocities committed during the war years by all parties to the war. It will give an opportunity for the survivors of the horrors inflicted upon them to tell their experience to independent investigators who can bring the perpetrators to justice if they are living, and if they are dead to assign them, by name, publicly by the commission the atrocities they committed.
    The children who suffered still need therapy and they need more assistance than what they received or receiving. An international investigation can recommend adequate remedies to bring the former child soldiers a renewed life. Otherwise they will be forgotten and left to fend for themselves. The anger bottled up inside them are yet to be released in beneficial and productive ways.

  • Kaush

    ethirveerasingam, I like your comment and have the same feelings. But as a person loves the country, would fear entry of the investigation team and how they would be directed by the TNA politicians can bring double blow to the victims as these innocent people would be taken for a ride again to accomplish their political agendas

    • Fitzpatrick

      Before worrying about the TNA taking people for a ride for political agenda’s, consider the government which is very famous for taking people for a ride, case in point UVA and the international community, India promising 13 + and giving 13 –

  • Hello dears, This is Vishnu i am the filmmaker of BUTTERFLY. Thank you for participating in this healthy conversation. i would be very happy to meet all you beautiful and concern readers and possibly watch BUTTERFLY together. There is so much more to share. Give a shout. >> [email protected]

    • Rosanne

      I just returned from watching BUTTERFLY at the A&K Lit fest.
      I found it powerful, moving … and very sad. So many innocent lives lost or scarred for (as Arun Dias Bandaranaike commented in the Q & A session ) sheer stupidity on both sides.
      Congrats on an enlightening documentary.

  • n. ethirveerasingam

    The eminent persons with their experience are not going to be swayed by TNA or any others trying to direct them. They will give credence to witnesses based on the submissions. They will decide who they want to interview. They are the best persons to bring justice to all the dead and living victims. We really dont have any other alternative to move forward. I will accept whatever verdict they deliver.