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Sex tourists prey on Sri Lanka's children: Beach resorts are hunting-grounds for European child abusers and pornographic video makers. Tim McGirk reports from Colombo

SOME German men were in a hotel room with three Sri Lankan village boys, aged seven, 11 and 14, having sex and filming it. They would sell the pornographic video back in Europe. The men had rented the room for a month. Downstairs, pacing around helplessly, was Maureen Seneviratne, a child rights' advocate.

First she pleaded with the manager of the guest-house, a clean and proper-looking establishment shaded in the coconut groves behind Negombo beach. It was known through paedophile circles in Britain, Sweden and Germany, and while other hotels in this popular resort suffered many vacancies, this guest-house was always full. 'I'm not God to know what goes on inside my rooms,' the manager replied with a shrug. 'But I tell you, I won't bring my own children here - not around these foreigners.'

This was the last day of the Germans' filming. They were turning the three boys loose after having subjected them to a month of degradation and sexual abuse. In Europe, such behaviour would have brought them stiff prison sentences if caught. But in Sri Lanka, foreigners are never jailed for sex offences against children. The pay-off for each boy was a carrier bag with a box of cereal, milk powder, chocolates, a T-shirt and dollars 25. The Germans gave one boy a bicycle. 'He kept riding the bicycle round and round the garden, but the look in the boy's eyes was like something out of the Omen - intense and angry. Demonic,' Ms Seneviratne said. 'He was proud to own the bicycle but so, so ashamed at how he got it.'

An ebullient woman, with grandchildren, Ms Seneviratne confronted the German video cameraman as he came out of the room. 'How can you do this?' she sputtered angrily. The German rubbed his fingers together. 'Money, money, money,' he replied. One United States study estimated that more than 250 million copies of videos on child pornography are circulating world-wide, and most were filmed in the Philippines, Thailand and Sri Lanka. One raid, on a home in a Stockholm suburb in July 1992, yielded stacks of letters between paedophiles sharing descriptions of children's bodies and sex organs. Found in the haul were 300 hours of child pornography videos, mostly filmed in Sri Lanka with titles such as Boy Love in Negombo and Hikkaduwa - the Child Sex Paradise.

Sri Lanka is becoming notorious as a destination for paedophiles. The scale of child prostitution is probably larger in the Philippines and in Thailand, but in Sri Lanka the problem is growing fastest. And, in Sri Lanka, nearly all the victims are boys, aged between six and 14. Guesses of how many children have sex with tourists vary wildly between the government figure of 1,000 and some social activists' claim of 30,000. It appears that Western sex tourists visiting Asia are demanding child prostitutes in the mistaken belief that they are more likely to be free of Aids.

Sri Lankan boys are easy prey. Studies show that a paedophile is likely to be a middle-aged male professional, such as a doctor, a banker, a teacher or even a clergyman. Sometimes he is married, and often he suffered abuse as a child himself. He seduces with little gifts and by playing games. The number of children he seduces often runs into the hundreds. The excuse he gives is that the children enjoy it. Sri Lankan children are susceptible because they are naturally friendly and desperately poor.

A boy can earn as much fellating a tourist - 200 rupees (pounds 2.25) - as carrying bricks for 12 hours. Relations between boys and girls are discouraged until marriage, and until then many Sri Lankans take a discreet and casual attitude towards homosexuality. Some boys are lured into organised gangs who often run secluded villas co-financed by foreign paedophiles, while others have casual trysts on the beach with foreigners. Motor-rickshaw drivers outside the hotels frequently act as pimps.

At Mt Lavinia, a beach resort near Colombo, a middle-aged European was observed walking in the surf. He approached a young boy, whirled slowly on the ball of his foot. Then, with his toe, he wrote a number in the sand. The boy agreed and the two walked off holding hands. When a social worker mentioned seeing this awkward ballet movement, she was told by a colleague from Thailand that it was a code used by paedophiles for picking up boys.

Even more shocking is that some Sri Lankan parents condone it and rent out rooms in their shacks where their children satisfy the paedophile. 'One father told me: 'what did it matter, my son won't get pregnant',' recalled Ms Seneviratne. The foreigner's cash is offset by the child contracting such diseases as Aids and lasting sexual trauma. No Aids study has yet been made on the 'beach boys'.

Following the lead of Thailand and the Philippines, Sri Lanka is swiftly moving to pass tough laws to make abusing children punishable by up to 10 years in jail. Sweden, Norway and Germany are considering legislation that would make paedophilia a crime even if committed by one of their nationals in a faraway country.

So far, though, no foreigner has been jailed for child abuse in Sri Lanka and only a few have been discreetly deported. Yet the trade continues. A cyclist in the southern resort of Hikkaduwa was stopped by a woman demanding 'bon-bons for babies'. Having gained his attention, the woman offered the sexual favours of the small boy accompanying her.

(Photograph omitted)