Nalini has five children, but when she wakes up in the morning she remembers that only three are safe in their beds.
The other two are training to be soldiers.
Her son, now 17, was abducted by Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam four years ago.
They came back for her 13-year-old daughter a few months ago, despite a February 2002 ceasefire to end 20 years of war and statements by the rebels saying they are against child recruitment.
Nalini says although she is fearful of harassment from the rebel group famous for its suicide bomb attacks, she wants to tell her story, but she asks that her real name is not used and her east coast village not identified.
"There has just been so much injustice done to me. What more do I have to lose?" the slightly built woman asks, suddenly looking fierce.
With its poverty, ethnically mixed population and fluid lines of control between the government and rebels, the east coast is known for its volatility and stories of child abductions by the rebels are common.
Some of the children are taken from their homes, but more recently, villagers say the rebels are picking up their targets in the street or on their way home from school.
"That way they can say, 'we don't know where your children are' or they tell us they came on their own," Nalini explained.
Father Harry Miller, a Jesuit priest and community leader who has lived in the eastern town of Batticaloa for more than 50 years, said rebels still demanded families give them one child for training, despite denying long ago they had such a policy.
Aid agencies have estimated children comprised more than 20 percent of the rebels' fighting force in their struggle for a separate state for minority Tamils in the north and east.
"Some have been able to buy their way out," said Miller. "For those who don't give kids, they exact heavier taxes."
The Tigers have admitted to having underage recruits in their ranks in the past, but say the practice has stopped. They blame any continuing abductions on a lack of discipline among their cadres.
UNICEF (news - web sites) says the number of reported cases is "drastically reducing" but concedes people are nervous about making complaints after the rebels suspended peace talks in April and with a number of political killings and grenade attacks in the region.
"We do recognise that at the moment the security situation in Batticaloa is quite tense. So maybe parents are not coming forward as strongly as they were before," said UNICEF protection officer Chris Watkins.
Nonetheless, the agency is pushing ahead with a plan they agreed with the rebels and government to rehabilitate child soldiers, which includes transit centres to house released children while their families are traced.
"It gives people more courage to come forward. People are heartened that we do have an action plan for working with the LTTE," said Watkins.
But no one knows how many children are in the camps, and if the Tigers are sincere in their willingness to release them.
UNICEF had 20 reported cases in June and about 1,000 since the Norwegian-brokered truce. But one Batticaloa resident who works with mothers of abducted children said she suspects the number in the east alone could run into the thousands.
"Practically every single family has given a child in the villages," she said.
Father Miller agrees the ceasefire has had little impact on recruitment in the east, and says the Tigers' harassment makes it hard for people to believe they are sincere in the bid to end a war that has killed more than 64,000 people.
"Now suddenly, they have access to the cleared areas, and so they're getting at the children who they did not have access to before," he said, referring to government-held areas.
For many village families, whose livelihood is based on cultivating small plots of rice and fishing, taking a child means taking part of an already meagre income.
Aruna's son was the primary earner in the family before he was taken more than a year ago. He managed to escape, but the Tigers picked him up again last month.
"He was making about 250 rupees (.58) a day as a labourer. My husband is disabled so he hasn't been working," said Aruna, who also did not want her real name used.
She says that for people like her, who are unable to pay the Tigers' regular taxes, they are forced to support the cause by giving a child. She has little faith the Tigers will ever give up children voluntarily.
"I don't know, but it doesn't seem that UNICEF can force them," she said.
Nalini made a direct appeal to the rebels after her daughter was taken, and made complaints to UNICEF and Nordic monitors overseeing the truce.
The Tigers told her they would release her daughter if she withdrew her complaints -- a promise she did not believe -- and sent her on a wild goose chase to several camps before telling her they had sent the girl for training.
"They just told me, 'our parents also shouted like this for us', and sent me away," she said. "I don't know if there will be a settlement. If a war starts, our sons and daughters are there and will be dying." [Lindsay Beck, Reuters]
Posted on 2003-07-30