all towns are one, all men our kin.
|Home||Whats New||Trans State Nation||One World||Unfolding Consciousness||Comments||Search|
This book is dedicated to the women fighters of Liberation Tigers who have sacrificed their lives in the struggle for the liberation of their homeland and for the creation of a new society where women can live with equality, honour and dignity.
Over the past eight years Tamil women have made an enormous leap in the mode and depth of their participation in the nation’s struggle for self- determination. They have moved from non-violent politics into armed struggle. The history of Tamil women in the armed struggle for national liberation waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam constitutes both an extension of women’s participation in the national struggle and a history of its own. Subsequently the women fighters of the Liberation Tigers have earned an international reputation as the most fierce, highly disciplined and courageous women combatants the world has ever produced. Constituted as a fully fledged military force and structured within the overall organisation of the LTTE, these young women fighters have carried out extra-ordinary military feats in their struggle for the freedom of their homeland.
Women’s entry into the armed struggle is the inevitable extension of their long contribution to national political campaigns against State oppression. However, their involvement in Parliamentary politics and non-violent campaigns did not radically change the cultural images of women. Parliamentary politics and non-violent struggle remain within the acceptable domain of women’s behaviour. The history of women in combat in the armed struggle is a chronicle of a fundamentally different order. Women in combat belong to a totally new world, a world outside a normal woman’s life. And that is what makes these women fighters so interesting and admirable. They have taken up a life that bears little resemblance at all to the ordinary existence of women. Training and carrying weapons, confronting battle conditions, enduring the constant emotional strain of losing close associates, facing death almost every day, are situations that most women not only wish to avoid, but feel ill at ease with. But not the women fighters of the LTTE. They have literally flourished under such conditions and created for themselves, not only a new women’s military structure, but also a legend of fighting capability and bravery.
The Women’s Military Unit of the Liberation Tigers, as the women’s structure is known, is undoubtedly the outcome of relentless and intensified national oppression. The oppression by the Sinhala State and its apparatuses of repression over a period of four decades, has severely affected the nation and women’s lives in particular. Constant exposure to oppression has had a profound effect on the life and thinking of young Tamil women. Since 1984 young women have come forward to join the armed struggle spear-headed by the LTTE. With the large scale induction of women into the LTTE the female cadres have overcome inestimable difficulties and challenges in the process of their metamorphosis from patriotic village girls into revolutionary guerrilla fighters. In this process the Women’s Military Wing has become a well organised, highly disciplined and experienced fighting force.
This work provides a brief historical sketch of the birth, growth and development of the Women’s Military Unit of the LTTE. It documents, m some detail, the engagement of the women fighters in various armed combats in the liberation war.
The first chapter gives a brief outline of the historical background of the State oppression perpetrated against the Tami people. It documents the upsurgence of the non-violent political campaigns, the decline of Parliamentary and constitutional politics and the emergence of the armed revolutionary struggle of the LTTE.
The second chapter of the book deals with the recruitment and training of women military cadres for armed combat. The training ground marks the beginning of women’s military life. The rigorous training provided by the LTTE transforms the women cadres into well-disciplined, efficient armed combatants capable of confronting the most difficult and dangerous war situations.
The history of the armed struggle of the women fighters of the LTTE, their active involvement and achievements in the protracted and escalating war constitutes the main body of the book. Starting with the initial induction in the first battle in Mannar in October 1986 and ending with the major offensive assault on the large military base at Palali in the Jaffna Peninsula on the 23rd November 1992, the women fighters, as we have documented, have made an enormous contribution to the advancement of the armed resistance campaign.
In recording this six year history of the armed struggle, the work attempts to portray the systematic growth and development of the women’s fighting force and their multiple experiences from jungle guerrilla warfare to a more advanced and sophisticated form of mobile warfare. In anyone’s military catalogue their experience and achievements are enviable. The women combatants have not only confronted the military power of the Sri Lankan State but also fought the largest army of the Indian regional superpower.
For nearly two years, in the LTTE’s resistance campaign against the Indian occupation army, the women fighters played a significant role in engaging the Indians in urban and jungle guerrilla warfare graduating into an effective fighting force poised against a formidable military machine. Since the outbreak of Eelam War 2 in June 1990, the women cadres have participated in all types of battles from guerrilla ambushes to semi-conventional confrontations.
The Sinhalese soldiers too have paid a tribute to the courage and determination of the women fighters. A Sinhalese columnist wrote in the Island newspaper that,
This extra-ordinary women’s force is loaded with a glorious history of courage, tenacity and sacrifice, of comradeship, patriotism and devotion to duty and cause. Since 1986, when the women fighters appeared on the battle scene, till December 30th 1992, three hundred and eighty one young women have sacrificed their lives in the armed struggle to advance the liberation of their homeland; to die a heroic death rather than living under the heels of oppression. This book is their story- the story of the women fighters of Liberation Tigers.
The objective and subjective conditions that led to the active participation of Tamil women in the armed resistance movement have been shaped by specific historical processes of State oppression. This history extends to a period of four decades during which time the Tamil nation has been subjected to a calculated and systematic form of oppression by the chauvinistic Sinhala State. Ever since the independence of the Island from British colonialism in 1948, successive Sri Lankan governments adopted racist policies aimed to undermine the national identity of the Tamils. Repressive legislations were enacted to stifle the educational and employment opportunities of the younger generation. State sponsored Sinhala colonisation threatened the geographical unity and integrity of the Tamil homeland. This multidimensional oppression assumed the character of genocide posing a serious danger to the national existence of the Tamil people.
Tamils resisted the State oppression through non-violent political struggle. Adopting the Gandhian principle of Ahimsa, the Tamil parliamentary political leadership mobilised the entire Tamil nation and organised mass national protests. In these national campaigns, which dominated the Tamil political scene in the late fifties and early sixties, women played a crucial role as active participants. Tamil women participated in demonstrations, picketing and protests. In the nationwide Civil Disobedience Campaign which began in February 1961 and continued over a period of three months, thousands and thousands of women joined in the national protest. The satyagrahis effectively crippled the Government’s administration in Tamil areas. The alarmed Sinhala government responded to the non violence of the satyagrahis with violence. Armed State forces were deployed to crush by force the campaign of the peaceful protesters. Peaceful women satyagrahis too, were subjected to beatings with batons and rifle butts by the racist armed forces of the State.
The informed political consciousness of Tamil women on the national conflict which led to their active participation in non-violent campaigns was crucial during this historical period. The participation of women in political campaigns at this juncture deepened and enhanced the national character of the Tamil freedom movement. However, while the national resistance by non-violent politics contained progressive and democratic aspects in that it mobilised all sections of the national masses, it was, essentially, a politics chartered with conservative ideology and leadership.
The political discourse of the old leadership suffered severe limitations in theory and in practice to deal with the phenomenon of social oppression of women. Major social contradictions in the Tamil social formation were subsumed under the slogans of national emancipation from racist oppression of the State. The conservative Parliamentary leadership therefore failed to formulate a radical programme articulating solutions to the multi-faceted social oppression, including the social repression of women. The politics of non-violence, though it mobilised wider sections of the popular masses - including the women - for national agitations gradually lost its significance and glamour because of the poverty of a practical approach to deal with critical national and social issues.
The Birth of Tamil Tigers
Mounting institutionalised state oppression and violence heralded the decline of the relevance and usefulness of constitutional and Parliamentary politics for the Tamil people. There was a transitional period of politics from non-violence to armed struggle, from Parliamentary politics to guerrilla warfare, from demands for Federalism to demands for secession and a separate Tamil State. Tamil women followed the unfolding political scenario and responded to the demands of the situation. New responses and new solutions were demanded, particularly from the Tamil youth, who bore the brunt of State oppression. Ultimately armed resistance to confront genocidal violence of the State became the legitimate and logical mode of struggle. Secession from the Sinhala State and the creation of an independent State in the traditional Tamil homeland became the popular political objective in the face of intolerable national oppression. Committed to these objectives a guerrilla organisation - the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - was formed in 1972 to spearhead the armed freedom struggle of the Tamil people.
From the outset of the formation of the Liberation Tigers women have contributed to the armed struggle. Although, in the early days, their contribution was confined essentially to socially defined women’s work, the value of such work cannot be underestimated. For example, the guerrillas enjoyed widespread moral support from Tamil women. But there was also work undertaken by women which involved considerable personal risk and danger. Women provided information on the movements of the armed forces and provided shelter and safe houses to underground guerrillas. By such actions women played a crucial support role in securing the safety and survival of the cadres. Women too, cared for sick and injured cadres. This work carried with it the risk of exposure and subsequently detention, torture and possibly death. Indeed, women were taken into custody on suspicion, subjected to rigorous and lengthy interrogations and faced torture. Women have been deprived of sleep during interrogation, sexually harassed and subjected to death threats by having pistols placed against their foreheads.
Women Join the Armed Struggle
When we study the early history of women’s participation in the national struggle we can see a constantly emerging militant tendency in women committed to a cause, determined and not afraid to face dangers. Constraining the full realisation of the tremendous resource of women’s militant potential were powerful ideological conceptions about women’s role in society. This reactionary ideological system based on patriarchal domination reduces women to second class citizens prescribing a role confined to housekeeping, reproduction and slavish submission to men.
The concrete conditions which forced a tremendous rupture, projecting women into a new depth of participation for national freedom were the State organised anti-Tamil riots of July 1983. This horrific outburst of racial violence in which thousands of innocent Tamil civilians were murdered, which left a trail of rape, arson and looting proved to be the ultimate revelation of the depths of Sinhala chauvinism and racism. As a consequence the armed resistance of the Liberation Tigers gained further legitimacy as a mode of political struggle. The stage was now set for armed struggle for national Liberation.
Young women too experienced the horror of the racial riots. They themselves were victims of the riots. The forces of social constraint which had obstructed their deeper participation earlier, had left them exposed and defenceless in the face of violent racist hatred and State terror. Deepening genocidal oppression now propelled them out of their established social life into a new revolutionary world. Young women broke the shackles of social constraints, they ripped open the straight jacket of conservative images of women. The militant patriotism of Tamil women finally blossomed as they entered into a new life of revolutionary armed struggle.
The emergent aspirations of Tamil women to join the armed struggle brought increasing pressure on the LTTE leadership to step up its policy of inducting women into the armed struggle. Young women demanded their right to self-defence and their right to exercise their patriotic sentiments. The LTTE leadership, committed to the emancipation and equality of women, welcomed such demands and expanded its military programme for training women.
Military Training Of Women Cadres
The credit for providing and creating the facilities and opportunities for women to complete a comprehensive military training programme has to be given to the leader of the Liberation Tigers Mr. Velupillai Pirabaharan. He was confident that women had the potential for military training and combat. Unlike many of his fellow cadres caught up in male chauvinist conceptions of women and their place in society, Mr.Pirabaharan was determined that women should have equal opportunity for participation in all aspects of the armed struggle. Even he admits, however, that women have exceeded his expectations of them. To quote him:
With the support and encouragement of the leadership the military training programme for women began on a regular basis. In 1984 the potential women fighters were assembled in Tamil Nadu, India and on the 18-8-1985 in the newly established military camp set up in the jungles the young women of Tamil Eelam created history. Never before in the history of the Tamil nation have women become active military participants. Early Tamil literature is full of episodes which glorify the selfless, sacrificing mothers and wives encouraging bravery and heroism in their sons and husbands. But there is a studied silence on women in combat. The Women’s Military Unit of Liberation Tigers has changed all that; they have altered the trajectory of Tamil history and introduced a radical new dimension into the history of Tamil women.
Rupture with the Past
The emergence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on the Tamil national political scene has provided Tamil women with opportunities and horizons that would never have entered the minds of Tamil women a decade ago. The very decision by young women to join the armed struggle - in most cases without the consent of parents -represents a vast departure of behaviour for Tamil women. Normally young women remain under the control of the father and brother. Male control follows them throughout their lives. The decision to break-out of this cycle of suffocating control is a refreshing expression and articulation of their new aspirations and independence.
It could perhaps be one of the biggest decisions of their lives. Such a decision makes a social statement about the characters of the young women. It tells society that they are not satisfied with the social status quo; it means they are young women capable of defying authority; it means they are women with independent thoughts; young women prepared to lift up their heads such young women fly in the face of tradition, but they are the women who are the catalysts for social change. Entering into the military training programme represents an extension of the social challenge that young women have made by making a decision to join the national struggle. By embarking on the military training programme designed and based on the physical stature of men of a particular age, Tamil women have ruptured one of the most entrenched and glaring aspects of Tamil society - the sexual division of labour. Firstly, they have stormed into a previously all male activity and secondly the training programme by women has challenged the entire edifice of beliefs about women's strength, endurance, potential, determination, courage and talents. It sets the same goals and expectations for women as it does for men.
It can be argued that men's potential and goals have become the yardstick of measurement of achievement for young women. To a large extent that is so. However, in the contemporary situation proving that women contain all the potential and are just as capable as men is a great success and leap forward in the ideological debate for Tamil women struggling to find a new identity in a society heavily influenced and manipulated by reactionary conceptions of women. Tamil women have proven that not only they, but by inference all women, have equally as much potential as men, perhaps more.
The women in the fighting unit live and function as a separate force of the military structure of the LTTE. It has its progressive aspects and is a positive development for the women of Tamil Eelam. As has been previously mentioned Tamil women's lives are predicated on men. Dependency on men is viewed as the norm for women. The evolution of the women fighters into a self-reliant structure breaks with the traditional female dependency and has given the young women tremendous opportunities. Through their own structure the female cadres learn administration, decision making and leadership. All activities are undertaken by the women themselves. No obstacle is seen to be too difficult. consequently, the young cadres have developed tremendous self-confidence.
The military training programme is multi-faceted in purpose. To begin with, the training programme aims to build on the radical, fresh characters of these exceptional young women and to release unknown and unrealised potential. Secondly, the programme aims to produce a powerful fighting force. Therefore, military training aims at the maximum physical and mental fitness of skilled combatants. And thirdly, training is aimed at creating highly politicised, determined cadres prepared for supreme sacrifice to achieve their political objective - a liberated homeland.
Rigorous and Wide-Ranging
The military training programme for women is continuous though interrupted. Combat experience is also viewed in the wider context of training. As such, the training programme begins with a basic three months course followed by an additional advance training period of three months. Progressively the breadth and depth of the cadres' knowledge, training and experience is increased.
The basic three months training course is rigorous, wide-ranging and a testing ground for the cadres. It is a new experience and makes great demands on their energies and endurance. The day begins at 4-30 a.m. and continues till late evening. The training programme consists of rigorous physical exercises - long distance running, crawling under barbed wires, rope climbing, military parade etc. - along with theoretical and practical exercises on weapons. At the same time, sentry positions in the camps have to be staffed day and night, the cleanliness of the camp maintained etc. Political studies are also included in the training programme.
The three months training programme is the initiation period into the rigours of military life. This is the period when elbow skin turns to calluses; when barbed wire treats the soles of the feet as a pin cushion; when ropes burn off the palm of the hands. It is the time when, cadres bathe in their sweat; when dust replaces talcum powder; where clothes become rags. This is the time when your rifle becomes your friend; when alertness becomes a life saver; the moon and stars your light; grass and twigs your informants.
Following the completion of the three months training programme and a evaluation .of progress the trainees move onto the advanced training programme for a further period of three months. During this programme the cadres study a wider range of heavy weapons more deeply and are given training in how to handle them. Simulated combat situations with live ammunition are repeatedly undertaken not only to teach cadres various fighting tactics but to familiarise them with the sounds and impact of live ammunition. Familiarity with a wide range of combat situations and fire-power creates confidence and skill in the cadres.
Crucial to the successful outcome of the training programme and the functioning of the LTTE is the maintenance of discipline in the cadres. From the outset of the basic training programme classes are given setting out clearly the codes of conduct of the LTTE and the nature of punishment. This discipline is vigorously maintained by all those in charge of the LTTE cadres.
Special Training Courses
The training period provides an insight into the particular characters and talents of the young women. They too, evolve ideas about their particular interests. Through mutual consultation and discussion between trainees and instructors the young women cadres branch off into areas of their particular interest or talent. Here again the women break new ground by moving into fields of work not normally undertaken by women in Tamil society. For example, women learn to use and maintain communication equipment, they learn how to handle explosives, they learn about mining, weapon technology, electronics etc. Other cadres may specialise in the use of heavy weapons. Some of them study field medicine, others branch off into political work, intelligence work etc. In the meantime, should the need arise, the trained cadres are deployed into battle situations. Women cadres who demonstrate a particular aptitude for combat situations are selected for further military training. These female combatants undergo Special Commando training and with more sophisticated and rigorous training become part of an elite fighting force. Periodically all the women fighters return to the training camps for refresher courses.
When young Tamil women join the LTTE they are trained for combat. There is no doubt that the women cadres will be deployed in battle. This awareness follows them everyday of their life. It is perhaps for that reason the women cadres have demonstrated a remarkable ability to change and engage in various war situations from one day to another. Furthermore, Tamil women guerrillas articulate a tremendous determination to fight the Sri Lankan army whom they firmly feel, has no place in their homeland. This is an unshakable belief and one that will sustain this struggle for however long it may take to liberate their homeland. It is the strength of this conviction that allows these young women to fight and rejoice in the success of their military operations; it is the conviction that sustains them emotionally when their colleagues die in battle; it is the conviction that prepares them to make supreme sacrifices.
Since their deployment in combat situations the women fighters of the LTTE have acquired an enviable record of military experience that set them apart from other military women in the world. The scope of their experience expands in breadth from rural guerrilla warfare to urban guerrilla warfare, from semi-conventional warfare to conventional warfare, from commando raids to major assaults on military camps. The senior cadres in particular, have gained tremendous experience in all combat situations; they have learned a great deal about their own potential and the potential of others in combat; they know what is fear, what is courage; they know what is sacrifice, what is comradeship.
The emergence of a women's military structure has evolved over the from what were originally guerrilla units. Structural and functional changes have taken place corresponding to
First Battle in Mannar
Initially, in 1986, the women cadres were organised into female guerrilla units operating side by side with men. They came under a male command. Mr.Pirabakaran, who was determined that the social and military revolution caused by deploying women into combat should succeed, chose one of his most experienced regional commanders to induct women into war. He chose his highly respected area regional commander of Mannar Lt.Col. Victor. Lt.Col.Victor, a man known to be a strong supporter of inducting women into the struggle, taught the women cadres all aspects of guerrilla warfare, encouraged them to learn as many skills as possible, and, most importantly, instilled in them tremendous confidence. It was under his command that the women fighters fought their first battle.
When, on the 12th October 1986 in the early morning, the Sri Lankan army moved from the Thallady army camp and surrounded the Adampan area of Mannar on a search and destroy operation, the newly trained women cadres were prepared to face the impending military confrontation. Highly motivated women cadres had returned fron India after finishing their training and were anxious for the experience of confronting the army. Anoja, a unit leader of the first women trainees comments on the situation:
The women fighters fought fiercely during this battle and inflicted substantial casualties on the Sri Lankan troops. The women cadres retrieved fourteen bodies of Sri Lankan soldiers, caught two alive and captured several weapons. One woman fighter was injured. After several hours of fierce face to face combat the Sri Lankan troops withdrew. However, the sweetness of their success was soured by a great loss to the LTTE. Ironically, the battle that inducted the women cadres into military experience proved to be the last battle for Commander Lt.Col.Victor. A sniper bullet pierced his chest and he succumbed to the injury. Again, Anoja, who was with Lt.Col. Victor at the moment of his death comments:
Engagements in the Jaffna Peninsula
The induction of women into combat came at an appropriate time. The end of 1986 saw an intensification of military operations in preparation for major offensive on the Peninsula by the
Sri Lankan forces. The Sri Lankan troops, on several occasions, attempted to move northwards towards Jaffna from Mannar and Kilinochchi. The women fighters deployed in Kilinochchi engaged in face to face combat when the army attempted to advance from their camps.
In the beginning of 1987 the Sri Lankan Government launched a major offensive operation in the North with a strategy of taking control of the LTTE occupied areas. Several thousands of troops with heavy armoury were deployed to capture major towns and highways in the Northern Province. As the armoured columns advanced from Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Mannar towards Jaffna, fierce combats broke out at several points between the LTTE guerrillas and the Government troops. The main strategic objective of the Sri Lankan armed forces was to occupy Jaffna Peninsula and destroy LTTE positions. Additional troops were shipped to Palali army camp in preparation for a major thrust into Jaffna. The LTTE too, was geared up to face the military confrontation. LTTE guerrilla formations, including the women combat units, were moved to Jaffna Peninsula in preparation for crucial battles.
The women cadres were withdrawn from Mannar and Kilinochchi and deployed in the Jaffna Peninsula. The mode of armed struggle changed from the rural setting to the urban. Furthermore, the pressure of the impending military offensive forced the women to assume more responsibilities and to function independently. They took up key positions at sentry points around the Jaffna Fort, Navatkuli and Point Pedro army camps. The responsibility for preventing Sri Lankan troops from moving out on search and destroy operations was assigned to them.
The young women fighters on the sentry points had to play a self-reliant role. They were totally responsible for the maintenance of their bunkers and the military situation. When the bombers and mortar fire blasted and damaged their bunkers they had to dig the earth, fill the sacks and rebuild their defence structure. Helicopter strafing and sniper fire constantly harassed and endangered the young women cadres. When the army attempted to move out from their camps the women engaged the troops until reinforcements arrived. Furthermore, the women cadres on sentry points have been placed in do or die situations. On one occasion the Sri Lankan army penetrated between two sentry points, surrounded the women on sentry duty and cut them off. The women cadres, totally surrounded by the Sri Lankan troops, fought for their lives. Faced with this life threatening situation the young women, driven by pride and courage, determined to kill as many soldiers as possible before they were killed. They fought fiercely. Ultimately reinforcements came to the assistance of the women and they fought their way out of the situation forcing the army to return to' barracks. Amongst the young women cadres caught up in this deadly battle was Sothia, who later became the first woman leader of the women's military structure.
In the meantime, the LTTE continued its strategy of harassing and striking at the enemy forces. In the armed resistance campaign of the LTTE all army camps and police stations in Tamil areas were considered as legitimate military targets. Women cadres also stepped up their participation and were included in many attacks on army positions throughout the Peninsula. At Mayiliyathanai women fighters were also engaged in the attack on the mini-army camp on 2-4-1987.
A Commando Raid
On 3-6-1987 women fighters also played a crucial role in the attack on the army camp housed in the telecommunication buildings a short distance from the main army camp at the Jaffna Fort. At least 200 army men were housed in the building. An attack on this fixed position required a particular mode of military operation. A commando style raid was planned. 'An LTTE commando unit was chosen for the operation. Women too, were included in the choice of LTTE combatants to execute the operation.
The execution of the operation involved driving a lorry load of explosive into the building. The explosion caused maximum damage to the building, inflicting heavy casualties and caused utter chaos to the troops inside. The commando raiders then entered the building and inflicted further casualties, captured arms and ammunition and took three prisoners of war.
For the women in combat this was to be another mode of military experience. Within the short span of six months, since the first military battle in Mannar, the women fighters had been exposed to rural and urban guerrilla warfare, face to face battles, and now they were involved in daring and dangerous commando raid in the Jaffna city. Some of the women fighters who participated in the raid on the telecommunication camp had been involved in all the previous combats. Anoja, a senior women fighter captured a frightened soldier cringing in the corner of the room. Sothia also participated in this raid. Darani, who became an experienced women commander before she was killed at Palali in 1991, also took part in this commando So too, was Malathy the first young women fighter to die later in battle the Indian army. In this commando raid operation twenty two soldiers were killed and more than fifty seriously injured.
In Vadamarachi there were two main military camps, one at Valvettiturai the other at Point Pedro. Sri Lankan police personnel were also stationed at various police stations throughout Vadamarachi. Both the military police had a notorious record of inhuman atrocities against the civilian population. The special commando unit based at Valvettiturai terrorised the civilians by rape, arson, looting and murder. To arrest the rising tide of criminal and terrorist activities of the Sri Lankan security forces, women fighters were deployed at various sentry points around the army camps and police stations.
With the dispersal and diversification of the ME cadres in military positions and operations in the Jaffna Peninsula both female and male cadres were successful in containing the mobility of the Sri Lankan troops. Only by using the Air Force the Sri Lankan government could claim military control over the Jaffna Peninsula. The constraints imposed by the LTTE over the mobility of the Sri Lankan forces dealt a heavy blow to the morale of the troops and the ego of the racist army. The consolidation of the LTTE in the Peninsula also was a political embarrassment and challenge to the authority of the Sri Lankan Government. Therefore, the Government planned to reverse the politico - military situation by attempting to wrest control of the Peninsula from the LTTE. The nature of troop movements and heavy troop concentrations indicated that the Sri Lankan army was planning a major military assault on the Jaffna Peninsula. Only the date and place remained uncertain.
The Sri Lankan army launched its military offensive in Vadamarachi in the early hours of 26th May 1987 under the pretentious code name of 'Operation Liberation'. They deployed several infantry battalions consisting of several thousand troops to take control of the area which was regarded as the bastion of the LTTE. Helicopter gunships, fighter bombers provided aerial cover while naval gunships pounded the coastal area.
Undeniably the LTTE was outnumbered and overpowered by Sri Lankan manpower and firepower. After putting up limited resistance the LTTE cadres opted for a tactical withdrawal to wait an opportune time - a time when the initiative and conditions were favourable to them. The time soon came. Slowly and systematically soon after the offensive by the Sri Lankan army, highly motivated LTTE cadres penetrated back into Vadamarachi to adopt an underground guerrilla warfare. They were like fish in an ocean. They enjoyed the support of the entire population. The army had no way of identifying who was who. Women cadres too were prepared to strike back and inflict heavy casualties on the aggressive army of occupation.
First Black Tiger Operation
The army was not given too much time to bask in their smug confidence after forcefully occupying Vadamarachi. Every army position was a tempting target for attack by the furious LTTE cadres. Targets for counteroffensive operations were studied. The objective was to inflict massive casualties on the occupying army in retaliation for the death of hundreds of civilians and massive destruction of property during "Operation Liberation".
The Nelliady Central College was transformed into a massive army camp by the Sri Lankan military. The structure and grounds were sufficient to accommodate hundreds of Sri Lankan troops. It was located in a residential area near Nelliady town in the heart of Vadamarachi. The LATE military high-command planned a suicide operation calculated to be the best tactic to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy.
Captain Miller, a volunteer cadre from the LTTE suicide squad of Black Tigers was chosen to execute, the main part of the operation. On the 5th July 1987 the operation was carried out successfully. Captain Miller drove a lorry loaded with explosives through the main gates of the camp to a distance of 50 yards which brought the lethal cargo in close proximity to the main structure of the building. Captain Miller then detonated the explosive. All hell was let loose. Like the eruption of a volcano, the massive blast shattered the buildings to pieces. The entire town shook by its terrible impact. One hundred and twenty soldiers died instantly. Many were blown to pieces and scores of them were buried under the debris. Over one hundred army men were seriously injured.
Role of Women fighters
Women cadres took part in this historical operation providing crucial rational and tactical support. Sugi, a senior women commander who d the first rocket propelled grenade signalling the commencement of the ration, comments on the meticulous execution of the operation.
In this unprecedented military operation the young women fighters were chosen for their known courage, marksmanship and fighting ability. Only Sugi survives today. All other participants in this operation have died in battle.
The success of this operation was celebrated throughout Tamil Eelam. Captain Miller's supreme sacrifice symbolized the determined resistance the LTTE and Miller became an honoured hero.
The Black Tiger suicide operation of the LTTE was a serious blow to Sri Lankan army. The army was taught a bitter lesson in guerrilla war. The forceful occupation of territory is one matter. However, militarily holding onto the captured area is another. It is a tragedy that the Sri Lankan army has not learned from this historical experience.
Miller's operation was followed by an attack on a mini-army camp at Kurumbacity on 14-7-1987 in which women cadres also participated.
All-women Training Camp
The first batch of military trained women cadres were actively contributing to the military situation in Tamil Eelam, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula. They were continually gaining in experience and had proven it ability. The leadership too of the LTTE had tremendous confidence in women fighters. At the same time many more young women were wait-to start a military training programme. In this context Mr.Pirabakaran decided to start a programme for the military training of women in Tamil
A camp site was set up in the Jaffna Peninsula and on July 1st 1987 next intake of Tamil women started their military training programme. s programme differed from the first in one crucial aspect - it was totally organised, maintained and implemented by the women fighters of the LTTE. as the first all - women training programme. Teepa, one of the girls the first batch of trainees was in charge of the camp, while Rathi and were instructors in physical and weaponry training respectively. Included in this second batch of trainees were young women known as Suthanthira Paravaigal". These young women had, since 1984, involved in political work amongst the women of Tamil Eelam for the LTTE. In fact, military training programme was delayed because of their political activity. In 1987 their opportunity came for their full military training and induction as armed participants in the struggle for Tamil Eelam.
The historical circumstances that led to the armed confrontation between the so-called Indian Peace Keeping Forces and the LTTE are very complex. As a regional super-power India had specific strategic and geopolitical interests in the region. Prompted by imperial ambition to contain the smaller nations of South Asia within the sphere of her power, authority and influence, the Indian Government intervened in Sri Lanka covertly and overtly ever since the racial holocaust of July 1983.
Sri Lanka under the reign of pro-western J.R.Jayawardene, moved steadily towards the U.S. imperialist axis of the old world order disregarding the geo-political concerns of India. The Indian ruling elites viewed this drift with anxiety since they feared such a policy orientation by Sri Lanka would lead to U.S. penetration and dominance in the Indian ocean. This strategic concern was an important factor that led to the Indian intervention.
Furthermore, the armed freedom movement of the Tamils, demanding self-determination and statehood was also causing serious concern to the Indians. The political fall-outs of this determined struggle on the nationalist upsurgence in the Indian states, particularly in Tamil Nadu, India feared, would be disastrous for the unity and territorial integrity of the country. Allergic to the very idea of self-determination which was systematically suppressed internally, the Indian Government was determined to interfere in the Tamil ethnic conflict to contain the secessionist demand and to resolve the problem within the unitary model of the Sri Lankan constitution.
With these strategic objectives, which were primarily based on India's internal and external interests, the Indian Government set out to deal with the Tamil national conflict. At the initial stages India provided training facilities and armed assistance to Tamil armed movements under the pretext of protecting the oppressed Tamil nation. But the real motive was to destabilise the Sri Lankan state by the Tamil resistance campaign and bring J.R.Jayawardene' s administration around to India's sphere of influence. Finally, the Sri Lankan state was forced to sign an Accord on India's terms. The infamous Indo - Sri Lankan Agreement was signed by J.R.Jayawardene and Rajiv Gandhi on the 29th of July 1987.
The Accord was a conspiratorial act between two heads of Government signed without the consultation and consensus of the parties in conflict - the Tamils and Sinhalese. The Tamil people were disillusioned since the political framework envisaged in the Accord had severe limitations and failed to meet their basic demands. The Provincial Council administration proposed by India lacked substantial political authority to the Tamil region and the Sinhalese controlled Central Government was invested with authoritarian powers. Furthermore, the Accord stipulated the total disarmament of the Tamil resistance movement spearheaded by the LTTE within 72 hours as a necessary condition for the implementation of the Agreement.
Realising that the Accord was a calculated master plan worked out by both India and Sri Lanka to crush the Tamil struggle for self-determination without offering a fair deal to the Tamils, the LTTE decided to oppose it.
In the meantime, several tragic events unfolded in Tamil Edam, which led to a bitter estrangement between the Government of India and the LTTE. The martyrdom of Thileepan, the young LTTE political leader who undertook a fast unto death campaign seeking justice and fairplay by India; the suicidal deaths of twelve top ranking LTTE men who ended their lives in the custody of the Indian Peace-Keeping Forces; the murder of 18 LTTE cadres by Tamil groups trained and armed by the Indian intelligence agency RAW - these events brought about the inevitable confrontation. The Indian Government declared war on the LTTE and demanded total surrender. The LTTE was compelled to resist.
The Indo-LTTE war broke out on the 10th October 1987. The Tamil Tigers were forced to confront one of the most formidable military machines in the world. With greater manpower and superior firepower the Indian troops undertook a ruthless military campaign, callously disregarding civilian casualties, with a single-minded objective of destroying the LTTE within a short span of time. But the Indian military objective was thwarted by the ingenuity and fierce determination of the LTTE fighters, who adopted sophisticated tactics and strategies of classical guerrilla warfare suited to indigenous conditions, to confront a modern conventional army. The Indian army plunged into a protracted, low-intensity war which began to drain its blood as well as its honour.
First Battle with Indian Troops
Women's participation in the war with India has two definitive periods. The first period involved the battle for the Jaffna Peninsula which began with the outbreak of hostilities on the 10-10-1987 when India launched Operation Pawan and draws to a conclusion by the end of that year with the tactical withdrawal of most of the LTTE cadres to the jungles. This short period was dominated by both fierce offensive and defensive battles fought on the models of classical guerrilla warfare. The second phase, lasting till the end of the war in 1990, was characterised by typical jungle guerrilla warfare. During both periods the women fighters gained unique experience in the techniques of warfare against an occupation army. They also learned to cope up with extra-ordinary life situations of danger, anxiety and uncertainty and acquired tremendous strength of character that is required for an armed militant.
The Indian troops faced stiff resistance when they launched a multi-pronged thrust to take control of the Jaffna city. Indian armoured columns supported by heavy artillery, advanced towards Jaffna from five main routes. On every front they encountered ambushes, open clashes, landmines, sniper fire and suffered heavy casualties.
On the very first day of the war, the LTTE women guerrilla units confronted the Indian troops at the strategic junction of Kopay, a village 5 kilometres from the Jaffna city. As a convoy of Indian troops advanced along the Navatkuli-Kopay Road the LTTE women fighters encamped at Kopay were prepared to confront a powerful force. The women fighters were near the Kopay junction in defensive positions when a convoy of Indian troops arrived in the back of the night. Hundreds of troops jumped out of their vehicles and started to advance towards the women fighters' positions. Heavy fighting broke out. Our women cadres fought hard, putting up fierce resistance against a formidable contingent with superior fire-power. In that clash Lt.Malathy died. Lt. Malathy was the first woman fighter to die in battle. Janani, a veteran of many battles, takes up the story of Lt.Malathy's death.
The Kopay and Urumparai areas where the women fighters were stationed in strength, turned into a hotbed of LTTE resistance. These two places were on the direct route through which columns of Indian troops and tanks were advancing from Palali towards Jaffna city. The two places linked up to form an effective resistance belt. The LTTE cadres - including women fighters - put up extremely strong resistance. The 'mighty' Indian army faced the odds of urban guerrilla warfare confronting powerful-landmines, booby traps, sniper fire and sudden ambushes by the LTTE. In these battles, the Indian army suffered heavy, casualties, lost tanks and armoured vehicles. The ingenious methods of resistance by the LTTE effectively slowed down the advance of the Indian troops. In the heavy clashes that took place at Kopay and Urumparai seven women fighters were killed.
While heavy fighting was raging on several fronts between the Tamil Tigers and the advancing Indian troops the LTTE got wind of an Indian subversive master-plan. According to this plan, a specially selected para commando unit of Sikh soldiers was to make a sudden helicopter-borne landing at the Jaffna University ground and to launch a lightning attack on the residence of the LTTE leader. This operation was to take place during late evening on the 11th October 1987. Anticipating this assassination attempt, the LTTE military high-command organised a counter strategy into which women fighters were also drawn.
In this now well-known abortive military operation twenty-nine Indian troops were slain by a large contingent of female and male cadres skilfully positioned in buildings surrounding the landing field at the Medical Faculty of the Jaffna University. At around 7 p.m. in the late evening a succession of helicopter borne para-troopers landed on the campus grounds. One by one they were cut down by a barrage of LTTE machine-gun fire. Reinforcements of Indian troops and tanks despatched to rescue their beleaguered colleagues also ended up in disarray. Eighteen troops, who literally lost their way to rescue their colleagues were captured by LTTE cadres. Prominent among the women fighters in this battle were Captain Asha, Captain Ajitha and Captain Arunthathi who were later martyred in battles with Sri Lankan army near Palali in late 1990.
On the western Valigamam flank, a guerrilla unit of women fighters were deployed along with male cadres to resist and frustrate the efforts of the Indian troops to advance towards Jaffna from that sector. This women guerrilla unit engaged the Indians on several fronts and had displayed extra-ordinary courage in confronting a superior force against all odds.
On the 11th October 1987, those women fighters, having taken positions at Thoddilady junction, ambushed a convoy of Indian soldiers who attempted to advance from their main camp based at Periya Vilan. In the fierce fighting that ensued several Indian jawans were killed. Stunned by the sudden ambush, the Indian troops withdrew. But on the following day, the Indians moved forward in strength forcing the women cadres to tactically withdraw from the area.
This same women guerrilla unit engaged the Indian army at Chithankerni, Ponnalai and Kallundaiveli, causing heavy casualties amongst the Indian troops. In the ambush at Chithankerni an Indian tank was destroyed by a landmine. -
To cope with the heavy resistance waged by the LTTE guerrillas - both female and male - the Indian army inducted fresh armoured battalions into the western Valigamam sector. The LTTE cadres persisted with their resistance campaign until the sheer numbers of Indian troops and superior firepower forced them to tactically withdraw from that theatre of war.
In the meantime, as the battle for the control of Jaffna intensified women guerrilla units deployed in Tinneveli, Kokkuvil and Manipay areas continued to engage the Indian troops.
The determined defensive campaign of the LTTE in the battle of Jaffna, the ingenious tactical methods advanced to frustrate the offensive thrust of the Indian army is now recognised, even by the Indian military analysts, as a remarkable phenomenon in contemporary guerrilla warfare. What stunned the Indian army most was the courage, determination and the fighting skills of the women combatants who fought fearlessly in this campaign. This was the first time in the Indian military history, the jawans confronted the opposite sex in fierce battles and suffered badly at the hands of women guerrillas, an unprecedented phenomenon that shocked the arrogant, male chauvinistic, all powerful Indian army.
New Mode of Warfare
Most of the women cadres withdrew to the jungles when the Indian army finally took control of the Jaffna Peninsula after two months of bloody and intense fighting. But their withdrawal certainly did not mean the end of the war. On the contrary, the withdrawal signified a change of tactics and strategy and the beginning of a new dimension in the war against the Indian occupation army. Furthermore, far from being defeated the LTTE prepared for protracted guerrilla campaigns. Having entrenched themselves in the jungles the Tamil Tigers mobilised and organised new recruits, expanded their military and political structures and steadily grew into an effective fighting machine.
This period of jungle guerrilla warfare is remarkable not only for the participation of women in the guerrilla campaign but for the extra-ordinary qualities of character women guerrillas revealed under exceptionally difficult conditions and extreme mental pressure. The women guerrillas had to think quickly, make decisions and remain calm and collected in acute life threatening situations. For example, thirteen women cadres separated from the main unit of guerrillas and persistently hunted by the Indian army, roamed the jungles for five days and nights without food before they were reunited with their unit. The women fighters had only a compass for directions and two bottles of sweet cordial to sustain them throughout their ordeal. Their lives often depended on the acuteness of their hearing to detect the movements of the enemy; their eyes to observe the trails of Indian troops and their voices to remain silent at critical moments. Hunger pains had to be mastered and thirst quenched by a mouthful of cordial. Ultimately their endurance and sharp wittedness brought them to safety.
However, not all women guerrillas were able to escape the Indian troops. Some of them were caught up in massive round-ups that left no avenue at all for escape. This happened to six women fighters at Mullaitivu. In these circumstances the women fighters were determined to resist to the very end rather than surrender to the army. Two of the women guerrillas were shot dead and the remaining four fighters swallowed cyanide rather than allowing the enemy to take them alive and subject them to torture.
Camp life too in the jungle became another challenge and a different form of struggle for the women fighters. They worked and struggled to create a habitable environment out of wild virgin jungle and to transform the hostile wilderness into a enduring ally. In the early days of the jungle life women guerrillas slept under the open sky nestled amongst the bushes and trees for cover. When it rained streams of water and mud stuck to their feet and clothes. It was a monumental task to build up camps deep in the Wanni jungles. Both the male and female cadres worked day and night digging out trenches, constructing bunkers, putting up huts and tents and clearing pathways.
Water - that vital resource for human survival - was very scarce in the jungle but it was available deep underground. Adequate and secure supplies of water could only be acquired by digging deep wells. The women cadres laboured for days gouging out rock and earth to a depth of forty feet before the precious fluid oozed up through the rocky filter base in sufficient quantities for drinking and bathing. Until such time the available water was strictly rationed.
The food supply was also very limited. There were occasions in which our guerrillas had to eat only once a day. The quality and quantity of food depended on access and frequency of supplies. When army operations intensified or bombardment was excessive, supplies would be temporarily disrupted. Women cadres had to be satisfied with the available food. Quite often this meant one cup of rice and dhal cooked without salt, onions or chillies for a midday meal. The urgency of securing food supplies pushed the women cadres to trek through thick mine-infested jungles for miles to collect food supplies. Women fighters with 50kg sacks of rice, dhal, flour and other vital rations weighing on their shoulders, trekking through the jungle was a common sight.
Defending The Jungle Bases
After failing to destroy the LTTE during "Operation Pawan" in the Jaffna Peninsula, the Indian army turned its guns towards the LTTE bases in the Wanni jungles transforming the entire area into a mammoth theatre of brutal and bloody war. Massive military preparations were made with the strategic objective of flushing out and destroying LTTE guerrillas and their leadership. Thousands and thousands of fresh Indian troops were inducted into the war to carry out these operations. Special commando units with counter-insurgency training were inducted. Armoured vehicles and helicopter gunships were utilised for concentrated troop movements and offensive operations. Tens of thousands of Indian troops spanned out and were stretched over a vast geographical area from as far as Mullativu on the eastern coast to Ottusuddan in Vavuniya, extending. towards Kilinochchi. Intensive cordon-off and search and destroy operations took place on a large scale. A large number of civilians were killed in these operations but the main target - the LTTE - remained protected and active in the deep jungles.
Failing to dislodge the LTTE in these initial waves of attack the Indian military high-command planned further military operations. from June 1988 the Indian army launched a series of operations codenamed "Operation Checkmate". In these operation! the Indian army singled out the LTTE bases in Alampil jungles. Massive aerial and artillery bombardment was launched. Hundreds of tons of powerful bombs and artillery shells were rained down, day and night, on LTTE positions. Yet, this massive bombing campaign proved to be a failure. The LTTE casualty rate was astoundingly minimal. Two women cadres died from shelling during this period. The LTTE cadres - including women guerrillas - had toiled day and night, digging out the earth and building up fortress bases with an effective network of bunkers and trenches that provided adequate protective cover from this rain of explosives.
In the ground battles the special commando units trained in jungle warfare suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of the LTTE fighters. The LTTE guerrillas - both male and female - who were familiar with the terrain, employed meticulous tactics and techniques to confront and destroy the units of Indian commandos who dared to penetrate into the jungles. In these most daring and dangerous operations, women fighters played a crucial role. They engaged the Indians, in co-ordination with male cadres, in various ambush operations at Visuvamadu, Kaivel, Eranaipalai, Thevipuram, Nithikaikulam in the Mullaitivu and Wanni areas.
It was during the Indo-LTTE war the Sri Lankan Government, with the assistance of the Sinhalese army, undertook a massive colonisation project at Manal Aru (Weli Oya) driving the Tamil people out of thier traditional villages. The LTTE, while engaging the Indians in this region, planned an assault on the Sri Lankan military to disrupt on-going colonisation. On the 15-4-1989, women guerrilla units along with LTTE male cadres launched a daring ambush on a patrol of Sinhala troops in this area killing twenty one soldiers on the spot.
During the Indian military occupation women cadres in Batticaloa also participated in the resistance campaign. However, their mode of operation was different. In Batticaloa the female cadres left the jungles and moved and worked in the Batticaloa town. They engaged in extra-ordinary dangerous situations and demonstrated great courage. The young women cadre, Anita, who died on 28-11-1988 - the first women fighter to die in struggle in Batticaloa - was one such girl.
When Batticaloa was totally occupied by the Indian army, Anita moved from the jungle to the town undetected. She carried only cyanide as a weapon of self-defence. Regularly, Anita passed through Indian army check-points. In this way she carried medicine to cadres, collected food supplies, transported small arms and collected information about the army movements. One day, suddenly, as she passed through the check-point collaborators from the treacherous EPRLF singled out Anita for questioning. When the Indian army ordered her to accompany them Anita, who knew the activities and whereabouts of the LTTE cadres, swallowed a cyanide capsule and died soon after.
The Formation of An Independent Structure
When the women cadres joined the armed struggle the trajectory of their lives fundamentally changed. They were exposed to new and extraordinary experiences, which, undoubtedly influenced the formation of their thinking. By mid 1989 the increasing number of young women joining the LTTE necessitated reorganisation of the structure and management of the women cadres. The situation was conducive to call for the realisation and implementation of a particular view that the women fighters had been toying with for a very long time. The collective aspiration of the women cadres was the desire for a separate women's military structure. The creation of an independent structure, the women cadres argued, would free them from their over-reliance on the male cadres. Having their own administrative structure, managing their own affairs, making their own decisions based on their knowledge and experience, the women fighters believed, would promote the development of the women cadres. The articulation of such views was itself a clear indication of how much the women had grown in self-confidence. Mr.Pirabakaran appreciated their aspirations and unhesitantly gave his support to the women fighters.
A crucial step towards the realisation of this radical view was the appointment of Sothia as the leader of the women fighters in June 1989. Sothia herself was a strong advocate of an independent women's military structure and worked hard to ensure that the idea did not simply remain within the realm of dreams. Her own personality and history was also a great impetus to the women fighters. Sothia, over years transformed herself into an independent thinker, confident and efficient, capable of leading a women's military structure. Furthermore, she had a wide variety of experience in the LTTE which enabled her to offer advice and assistance on various matters to the cadres under her command. She was known to be a courageous, determined fighter; she had worked in the communication section and medical unit. Most importantly she was popular and respected across the entire spectrum of the LTTE.
The new women's Military Unit of the Liberation Tigers with Sothia as the leader of the Unit was inaugurated on the 26th September 1989. The selected day was the death anniversary of the LTTE hero Thileepan who had fasted to death in 1987. The new office and the training complex was given the name "Vidiyal" which translates into English "dawn" - a new dawn for the women of Tamil Eelam. The first military training programme of the women's Military Unit of Liberation Tigers commenced on the 6th October in 1989.
The building up of the new women's structure was enthusiastically and busily underway when a tragedy struck the women's unit. Sothia, the driving force behind the high morale of the women, suddenly struck down by an aggressive virulent illness. She was moved from the jungles for special medical care but she failed to recover and died on 11 January 1990 after only six months as the Women's Military Unit leader. She was 26 years old.
Despite the unexpected setback caused by the dead of Sothia the women cadres continued with their programme of developing and expanding their structure and recruiting and training women fighters. Hundreds of young women passed through the military training programme in the jungle. When the Indian army had completed its withdrawal from Tamil Eelam on March 21st 1990, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had a fully fledged Women's Military Unit.
The brilliant diplomatic offensive launched by the LTTE in the initiation of a direct dialogue with Premadasa's government in April 1989 plunged the Indian policy makers into a deep dilemma and confusion. When the parties in conflict (the LTTE and Sri Lankan state) entered into a peaceful negotiating process renouncing armed confrontation, the rationality behind the Indian intervention and armed occupation of Tamil areas lost its credibility. Both Sri Lanka and the LTTE wanted the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to withdraw. The Indians had no choice but to plead for a time-frame to withdraw its troops which had been beefed-up to over one hundred thousand in number. By the end of March 1990 the entire contingents of the Indian army withdrew from the Tamil homeland.
The talks between Premadasa's regime and the Tamil Tigers - which started with positive hopes - ran into serious difficulties by the intransigent attitude of the Government. As the Government refused to offer any substantial proposals to resolve the basic issues the talks dragged on without any concrete results. President Premadasa was primarily concerned with the evacuation of the Indian occupation army. The presence of the Indian army had sparked off widespread violence in the South instigated and organised by the J.V.P. (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna).
During the withdrawal of the IPKF, Premadasa's government ruthlessly suppressed the Sinhala militant organisation slaughtering thousands of radical Sinhala youth. The successful extermination of the J.V.P. made the Government and the Sri Lankan military apparatus over-confident and belligerent. Premadasa deliberately undermined the direct dialogue between the LTTE and the Government by promoting the so-called "All-Party Conference" with the anti LTTE Tamil groups and by advocating a "consensus" approach. The Sri Lankan armed forces, on the other side, adopted a bellicose attitude towards the Tigers, which sparked off several nasty skirmishes and confrontations between the Sinhala soldiers and the LTTE. The hostilities finally broke out into a full-fledged war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army on the 10th June 1990.
The Eelam War 2, as the armed conflict is 'characterised by military analysts, has been extremely ruthless and bloody. Sri Lankan armed forces by now have been structurally transformed into a powerful military machine. Utilising the period of the Indian military intervention the Sri Lankan armed forces were modernised. Equipped with modern weapon systems and provided with sophisticated training in counter-insurgency, warfare, the Sri Lankan military was geared into an effective war machine with increased man-power of upto 70,000 troops. Having wiped out the JVP insurgency in the South, the army was over-confident, with exaggerated notions of a "superior force" capable of crushing the Tamil armed struggle advanced by the LTTE. The Sri Lankan State miscalculated and under-estimated the military power of the Tamil Tigers, whom, it thought, were severely tamed and marginalised by the Indian army. On the contrary, the LTTE was strong in man-power and fire-power and was highly motivated by its successful resistance to one of the most powerful armies in the world.
The scenario was set for a brutal confrontation between two powerful combatants. Unlike the previous conflict, the Eelam War 2 is fierce and intense assuming different forms at different times, from guerrilla ambushes to direct conventional confrontations, from lightning raids to months of drawn-out battles. The Sri Lankan army utilised its superior fire-power and relied heavily on combined operations with aerial and naval support. Air strikes, naval bombardment and artillery shelling were blind and reckless which took a heavy toll of civilian casualties rather than securing defined strategic objectives. The remarkable military genius of the LTTE is to radically change its strategy and tactics to suit the developing military situation and to keep the initiative on its side. As the war developed and expanded to the entire theatre of the Northeast the over-stretched army encountered serious difficulties in holding onto the occupied positions. The LTTE fighters have overrun isolated camps, destroyed military convoys, wiped out defence positions in sudden, sweeping offensive raids. The casualties on the army side began to increase on an unprecedented scale undermining the morale of the forces and transforming the initial euphoria into despair and gloom.
Successful Raid on Kokkavil Army Camp
Women combatants have played a crucial role in all the major battles in the Eelam War 2. They have functioned as an integral part of the UTE' s liberation army and have proved themselves as an effective fighting force in defence of their homeland.
Initially, when hostilities broke-out women fighters were deployed for both offensive and defensive operations. At that time strategically located army camps in the Jaffna Peninsula - Fort, Palali and Elephant Pass - were under partial siege surrounded by LTTE defence positions. Women fighting units, along with male cadres, were deployed in defence barriers which encircled these military installations. Some women units were also positioned along the coastal belt in Vadamarachi to resist any possible sea-landing operations by the Sri Lankan army.
The first major battle in which our women fighters took an active role was the successful raid on the Kokkavil army camp, situated in an isolated jungle terrain in the Wanni region. This battle took place on the 13-7-1990. Women combat units consisting of senior cadres with extensive experience in jungle guerrilla warfare, participated in the attack along with male LTTE fighters. Lucia, an experienced woman guerrilla fighter who commanded a unit of the women cadres, comments on the participation of the women cadres in this attack.
"The women fighters were given a specific area to operate in with specific tasks to be completed as part of the overall plan of attack. We were all confident that we would over-run the camp and that the women fighters would successfully carry out what was expected of them. On the first day we fought from late evening till early morning. We couldn't take the camp on the first night. Next day, again in the evening we launched a fresh offensive and after heavy fighting we captured the sentry points. Then in the early morning, we stormed in an over-ran the army camp."
In this operation, seventy-two army personnel were killed, the rest ran in fear and a large quantity of arms were captured. Six women fighters died in this battle including Captain Usha, a senior woman cadre who was trained in the first batch in India.
The Siege of Jaffna Fort
As the war escalated in the Northern theatre, the Jaffna Fort army camp and the Palali air base, the two strategically important military centres in the Peninsula, became the hot bed of armed conflict between the LTTE and the government's security forces. Gradually and systematically, the Tamil fighters tightened the siege around the Fort camp and Palali air base to prevent the mobility of the forces and to curtail supplies. When the LTTE positioned anti-aircraft guns in the Fort area, the helicopter-borne supplies to the stranded troops became threatened and the battle for the Fort turned out to be fierce and intense.
The LTTE was firmly determined to capture the Jaffna Fort at any cost since it was situated in the heart of the city in close proximity to Pannai causeway that linked the Mandaitivu Island. Occupying a strategically important position, the Fort camp posed a serious threat to the civilian population of Jaffna as the military personnel in the camp indiscriminately shelled the heavily populated civilian areas, including the Jaffna Hospital, causing terror and death to the civilian masses. For the Sri Lankan State it was a vital military installation to exercise, at least symbolically, its "sovereignty" over the Jaffna population. For the Tamils, the Fort had become a symbol of colonial domination and alien occupation, a monstrous structure of repression that had to be destroyed to pave the way for liberation. Therefore, the battle of the Fort became a battle of wills, a battle between the forces of repression and resistance; a battle of historical importance in the national conflict.
The battle of the Fort was a living testimony of courage, endurance and determination of the LTTE cadres - both female and male. The women fighting units along with the male cadres had been deployed in several positions around the Fort even prior to the outbreak of new hostilities with the Sri Lankan State. The women cadres took up positions in surrounding buildings and purposely built sentry points. Their presence in large numbers contributed to the increasing pressure of the siege on troops in the Fort. As the siege became more acute and the lives of the troops became endangered the Sri Lankan military made frantic and desperate efforts to break the siege.
The entire power of the Airforce was mobilised to systematically bomb the LTTE positions. The Macbeth bombers, civilian aircrafts, helicopter gunships - everything that was available in the armoury on the Airforce was utilised to pound the areas surrounding the Fort garrison with a single-minded aim to dislodge the siege. The sky over the Jaffna city buzzed with aerial activity for twenty-four hours of the day. Thousands of locally manufactured barrel bombs blasted the metropolis area reducing the buildings and houses to heaps of rubble. From the land and the sea artillery shells pummelled the area relentlessly. Inspite of this massive bombing onslaught, the LTTE fighters held their positions deep underground in their solid bunkers.
Holding the siege tightly amidst the bombing holocaust demanded extra-ordinary grit and fierce determination on the part of both female and male LTTE fighters. It was a new mode of warfare in which the fighting had to be conducted in the face of extreme difficulties. For three months the women fighters endured this cataclysmic experience and learned to adopt to this unique condition of war.
For the women fighters personal needs were secondary to the overall demands of maintaining a tight siege. The hours of daylight were spent on maintaining sentry points, the upkeep of bunkers, organising supplies and attending to any sudden unexpected problem and requirements that might arise. Many normal daily routines could only be carried out at night in brief intervals between bombardments and sniper fire. Subsequently, the women cadres struggled in the darkness to carry out such routine practices as hair brushing and plaiting. Rifle cleaning was carried out with the benefit of the light of the early dawn. The rifle was a sleeping mate while the holster and uniform were worn like a second skin. Remaining alert while asleep became a new mode of sleeping behaviour. Bathing turned into a luxury form of relaxation on odd occasions when time was available free from long sentry watches, bunker building and trench digging.
Moving from one place to another, became a hazardous obstacle course with women cadres moving amidst sniper fire and mortar shells unleashed from the Fort and aimed directly at the mobile women cadres. Rain too, poured down to make the women cadres' lives more difficult. There were occasions in which the women cadres stood knee-deep in muddy water to maintain their vigilant watch. While moving from one position to another, they crawled through the filthy muddy drains surrounding the Fort. Regardless of these trials and tribulations, the women combatants remained firm in their determination to capture the Fort.
Resistance and Victory
While tightening the siege amidst relentless bombardment from land, sea and air, the LTTE fighters launched offensive raids on the Fort garrison in an attempt to overtake it. Women fighters also participated in these most dangerous and daring operations. One such offensive attack took place on the 5th August 1990, during which a women guerrilla unit commanded by Lt.Sangitha made a brave attempt to break-through the entrance of the Fort. This daring raid was foiled by the heavy resistance of the Sri Lankan troops. Lt.Sangitha and three other women fighters died in this operation.
As the existence of the besieged soldiers became precarious and the fall of the garrison became imminent, the Sri Lankan forces launched a massive combined operation to dislodge the siege. On the 13th September 1990, 4,000 troops with the assistance of the Airforce and Navy mounted a huge operation from Mandaitivu island to destroy the LTTE's positions. It was a bloody battle. The LTTE fighters stood firm against the continuous barrage of bombs and artillery shells that pounded their positions from every direction. Fierce fighting flared up when the Sri Lankan troops attempted a sea-borne landing across the Jaffna lagoon. The landing attempt turned out to be a major disaster as the LTTE machine-gunfire destroyed several naval craft as they approached the vicinity of the Fort and scores of soldiers were killed on the spot. One Machetti bomber was also shot down over the lagoon. As the casualties mounted on the Sri Lankan side, the army was compelled to suspend the futile attempt. Women guerrilla units along with the male cadres put a brave defence. Captain Anjana was killed by a shell blast in this battle.
The crushing, humiliating defeat of the Sri Lankan army in this battle became a determinant factor in the Government's decision to give up the Jaffna Fort. On the 26th September 1990, the anniversary day of martyr Thileepan, the Sri Lankan troops withdrew from the Fort. Since that day the "Tiger" flag has been flying over the Fort signifying the victory and heroic resistance of the LTTE in this legendary battle.
Continuous Fighting Around Palali
There is absolutely no doubt that the lowering of the Sinhala flag over the Jaffna Fort was a humiliating defeat to the Sri Lankan government, particularly for the hardline chauvinists in the ruling elite. In a frantic effort to repair their damaged image and in fear of LTTE's offensive capabilities the Sri Lankan military forces turned their attention to the task of securing and strengthening Palali military complex. The encirclement and gradual encroachment of the LTTE's military units around Palali posed a seriousthreat to the security of this strategically vital base.
Palali, with its army camp, airport runway and nearby sea port, is strategically vital to Sri Lankan military operations. The Palali base was the command centre controlling northern sea - routes and aerial activities in the Jaffna Peninsula. Politically the Palali military complex sustains the image of Sri Lankan "sovereignty" over the Jaffna Peninsula.
With the outbreak of the war the military high command's immediate pre-occupation was to totally secure this military base complex from all possible attacks by the LTTE. Maintaining the airport runway in functioning order without exposing air flights to the threat of LTTE's mortar attack assumed a matter of urgency for the Sri Lankan military high command.
The LTTE cadres, who had taken up positions outside the camp ever since the outbreak of hostilities, had brought the camp under virtual siege. Troop mobility was restricted to within the perimeters of the camp and the army base was effectively cut off from the important Kankesanthurai seaport by the LTTE cadres. Furthermore, the airport runway was well within the range of mortar and Baseelan artillery shell fire by the LTTE. The women cadres played a crucial role in maintaining this critical military dilemma of the Sri Lankan forces. They had taken up several positions around the camp and had spent endless hours digging moving trenches and constructing bunkers. They did so under constant exposure to aerial bombardment, artillery shelling, helicopter strafing and sniper fire. When the army attempted to move out from the camp and tried to break through the LTTE positions, women fighters fought hard and pushed them back inside the camp.
For a long time during the Fort battle, the armed forces based at Palali had desperately tried to expand their perimeters by breaking through crucial sentry points at vasavilan. This area had been the scene of many furious confrontations. Ultimately, following the collapse of the Fort camp, the Sri Lankan forces, in a massive concerted effort, launched a multipronged thrust and pushed through Vasavilan to occupy a large residential area and establish it within Palali perimeters. Northwards, in the coastal direction, the army also succeeded in pushing back LTTE sentry points to link up the Palali roadway with the vital coastal village and sea-port of Kankesanthurai.
The objectives behind these military operations were obvious. More troops and supplies could be transported by sea to strengthen Palali base, and the army believed, the area would be less vulnerable to LTTE attack if it expanded and consolidated.
The women cadres were deployed along an extensive front of the Pala perimeters with the military task of preventing and frustrating all movements by the army to expand further and occupy more territory. Army personnel set up sentry points in parallel positions, quite often at a distance of not more than 50 metres from the women combatants' sentry points. Mini-camps were also hastily constructed by the army with a view of consolidating their camp boundaries.
Constant battles raged along this front with the army attempting to move out and expand their areas and the women cadres putting up tremendous resistance to repulse the army's offensive operations. During this period hardly a week went by without the loss of a woman cadre from either shelling, sniping or, as in most cases, direct face to face confrontations with troops.
The women fighters who comment on the Palali situation describe it as "continuous fighting". Either the army would attempt to advance forward and try to overrun their positions or constant skirmishes would take place. Apart from that they were subjected to aerial bombardment with bombers and converted cargo planes dropping 200kg barrel bombs on their positions. Bunkers often received direct hits. But there was never any question of the women vacating their points. Bunkers were re-dug and re-built. Deep trenches had to be constructed. Empty petrol barrels had to be filled with sand for use as defence barricades. High walls made of palmyrah tree trunks had to be constructed. All this extra work drained the combatants time and energy yet it had to be completed ready for defence against the encroachment by the army. Much of the work was carried out at night to avoid heavy sniper fire and strafing from helicopters. Night work deprived the women of sleep. Apart from all this extra work women cadres on sentry points had to be on constant alert watching for any indication of troop movements.
The women cadres were constantly exposed to the dangers of indiscriminate artillery shelling. When the shells began to fall, in every direction, the women cadres had no choice but to seek protection in bunkers and trenches to escape the segments of flying shrapnel.
A Battle on Two Fronts
Apart from coping with the problems of maintaining defence positions the women fighters had to face regular military offensive operations. Much of the army's courage in these military operations stems not from their bravery but rather from pre-conceived, male-chauvinist attitudes about women. According to descriptions and reflections of experienced women commanders who spent many months at Palai, the army men had a misconceived idea that the women's positions were easy targets to overrun. Karthia, woman commander who fought many battles at Palali reflects on the situation.
The women cadres did not give in to any of these pressures and strain Indeed they fought back and taught the army that the women fighters we not to be treated lightly, but were determined fighters capable of inflicting heavy damage on the army. Them were several fierce confrontations at our female cadres demonstrated, to the amazement of the enemy force their capacity as an effective fighting force. Having suffered severe casualties in direct clashes with women fighters the Sri Lankan army realise their folly and their misconceptions about Tamil women fighters soon withered away.
One of the daring raids on an army position by women fighters toe place at Maviddapuram, near Kankesanthurai on the 3rd of November 1991 This was a mini-camp set up by the army as an extension of the Pala military complex. Women guerrilla units along with male LTTE fighter launched a sudden attack on this mini-camp, late in the evening.
Under the cover of darkness with heavy monsoon rain pouring down on them, women combatants slowly and steadily advanced towards the min camp. As they neared the camp, heavy fighting broke-out. Unable to wit/ stand the fierce assault of our women guerrillas, the Sinhala soldiers vacated their sentry posts and fell back to backline defence positions. In the fight several soldiers were killed and many weapons captured. Five women combatants including Major Sanjia, commander of the attacking unit an Captain Arunthathi, also an experienced guerrilla fighter, died in this operation.
The Sri Lankan forces at Palali made every effort, employing different tactics at different times, to overrun the defence lines of the women combatants. Our fighters faced the challenge with great courage and on many occasions repulsed the attacks. Kattuvan-Kupulan sector became the nerve-centre for such regular military incursions and fierce resistance. In a raid at Kupulan on the 19.12.1990, the army men slowly crawled, in the darkness of the night, to the sentry point and launched a sudden attack. Though surrounded and outnumbered, our female soldiers put-up stiff resistance until reinforcements arrived to their assistance. In that fighting eight women cadres were killed.
Within a few days the army singled out another position at Kattuvan, a short distance from the Kupulan point. In this battle on the 22.12.1990 hundreds of army men moved out from their positions at 5-45 a.m. in an offensive operation and advanced towards the posts of the women combatants. The battle raged for one hour. Unable to withstand the heavy fire from the women fighters, the army was pushed back to their positions. But, in victory there were losses.
Four women fighters died in this battle. Two senior women combatants with a long history of struggle against the Sri Lankan and Indian forces were killed. Captain Ajitha was killed by a bullet as she moved forward taking cover behind palmyrah trees, leading the fierce defence of the women combatants under her command. Captain Asha, another senior woman fighter well known for her tremendous courage, was killed by a shell blast injury. A young woman combatant sustained a very grave injury in an instance of great valour during this battle. Selva, fought with determination when the army started to advance. She was wounded in the leg but refused to leave her colleagues in battle for medical treatment. Shells fell to both sides of her and large shrapnel pieces and shock waves tore off both her arms at the shoulder joint. She survived this extremely traumatic injury. Today she has the same enthusiasm and determination to work for the struggle within the limits of her disability.
On another occasion, in the early part of 1991, before the women cadres were re-deployed from Palali to a different area of battle, the women's military unit lost another of its most experienced and senior women fighters. Major Darani, who had been in overall charge of the women combatants during the period of these hectic days at Palali, died at Kattuvan on 231-1991.
Major Darani went to Kattuvarf point to assess the situation after she had been informed of suspicious troop movements. Danoja, a veteran of Palali and Darani's friend, narrates the events that led to Darani's death.
Darani' s history goes back to the first batch of trainees from India (as does Danoja' s) and the first battle with Lt. Col. Victor. She participated in the telecommunication camp raid in Jaffna. Darani also fought against the Indian army and participated in the early battles of Eelam War 2.
There was continuous fighting along the Palali front where the women cadres were deployed. Yet, to the credit of the women fighters the army never succeeded in making inroads into those areas. Reflecting on their period of duty at Palali, Vedusa, a woman commander who intermittently held overall responsibility at Palali, Karthia, Ajendi and Danoja, all veterans of Palali, agree on one specific point. That is, that the Palali deployment was an invaluable experience for the women cadres. Furthermore, they also agree that the women fighters shattered cultural views of women as soft and weak. Vedusa expands:
"Our girls learned a lot from their experience at Palali. They gained not only experience in actual fighting techniques but they got used to bombing and shelling. The girls learned how to cope with the sight of war injuries, and the death of colleagues. The army was very close. Seeing the army all the time at a close distance, the girls overcame any fears they may have had about the enemy.
The army thought that they could take the girls' sentry positions very easily but they soon realised they were confronted with a fiercely determined force.
Life for the girls was very difficult. Some of our male cadres had the view that (Tamil) girls were soft and gentle and therefore could not tolerate conditions of war, the continuous battles. But the girls were resilient and very committed. Now our male colleagues know that our girls are very capable indeed.
Our women fighters have tremendous courage and they are very determined. Many of our girls refuse to leave the battlefield for treatment when they are injured. So many times, we have to force them to get treatment. They want to fight on and push the enemy out of our land."
Campaigns in the Northern Mainland
While the LTTE guerrilla formations were engaged in heavy fighting around Palali military complex, new battles flared up in the mainland of the Northern Province. The Government forces were determined to wrest control of the Wanni mainland, while the Tamil Tigers, who had extensive experience in jungle guerrilla warfare and had first hand knowledge of the geography, were resolved to push the army out of this territory. It was in this context the LTTE military high-command drew up an offensive strategy against the Sri Lankan military positions in the Vavuniya and Mannar districts. Mankulam army camp was selected as the immediate target.
Mankulam army camp was a large military complex straddling the Jaffna-Kandy road. Situated in the very heart of the Wanni jungles in LTTE controlled terrain, it was a heavily fortified camp with an extensive network of barbed wire fences and fields of anti-personnel mines. Four hundred troops were stationed in the camp. The camp posed a serious threat to the mobility of the LTTE guerrillas and a constant danger to the civilian population. Since the outbreak of Eelam War 2 Mankulam army camp had been held under siege by the LTTE sentries. All the attempts by the entrapped troops to break out of the camp were thwarted by the heavy resistance of the LTTE cadres surrounding the camp. On the 23rd November 1990 the LTTE guerrilla units launched an attack on the camp.
The women fighting units were assigned the most difficult and dangerous task of capturing particular sentry points which were crucial to the outcome of the entire operation. This task also involved cutting across barbed wire fences and clearing land-mines. Our women fighters were determined to carry out the operation though it involved tremendous risks. On the first day, the attack on the camp started with a heavy pounding of Baseelan artillery shells which lasted for hours.
At midnight, when the shelling stopped, the women fighters moved towards the particular sentry point amidst a heavy shower of machine-gun fire and mortar shells from the army. They crawled through the barbed wire and moved forward removing landmines on their way. As they advanced many fell dead and injured since the enemy mounted fierce resistance. Regardless of the casualties, women fighters fought their way through and finally overran the sentry points. Fifteen women combatants died in this raid. On the southern side of the police station another vital sentry point was also captured with a loss of a woman fighter.
The next day Lt.Col.Borck executed a daring Black Tiger operation by driving a lorry load of explosives through the entrance of the main camp. Following the devastating explosion, that shattered the main structures of the camp, the LTTE cadres entered and encountered limited resistance from the Sri Lankan troops. One hundred and fifteen soldiers died in this operation.
The second attack on the Sri Lankan positions in the northern mainland took place at Silavatturai on the 19th March 1991. Silavatturai camp was strategically located on the western coast of Mannar to provide security for planned Sinhala colonisation in the Tamil area. A major assault on the camp, the LTTE leadership assumed, would dissuade the government from its policy of aggressive colonisation of Tamil areas.
To capture the main Silavatturai army camp both geographical and military difficulties had to be overcome. Nature protected the camp with the sea on one side and open scrubby areas on the land side. The army itself had fortified the military installation by constructing a mini-camp in front of the main base. Therefore, the successful execution of the operation entailed the capture of two camps.
In the meantime, the Sri Lankan authorities got wind of an impending LTTE attack and immediately moved to consolidate the camp. Fresh troops were air lifted in, sentry positions were expanded and strengthened. Heavy aerial bombardment of LTTE positions started two days before the pre-planned date of the attack. Army camps in the vicinity prepared to move out and provide reinforcements to the threatened camp. Navy gunboats provided artillery support.
The women fighting units were mobilised for this operation. They were prepared to face the impending battle with tremendous resolve.
The first phase of the attack plan was to capture the sentry points and the mini-camp. In doing so, the main camp would be relatively exposed and unprotected. when the operation began the Sri Lankan forces unleashed a torrent of shelling and bombing from land, air and sea. Yet the women fighters were undeterred and advanced forward in defiant determination. To capture the point a special plan was hatched. The idea was to make a lighting dash into the sentry point and overpower the enemy. Women fighters and male cadres successfully carried out this heroic dash and were able to capture the sentry points. Having captured the sentry points the attack on the mini-camp continued unabated until it fell into the hands of LTTE cadres.
The fall of the mini-camp into LTTE hands paved the way for Captain Dampo to carry on with the second stage of the plan. In a Black Tiger operation Captain Dampo was to drive a lorry load of explosives into the main camp. The plan was thwarted when the heavy bombardment prematurely detonated the vehicle before it reached its destination.
Fighting at Silavatturai continued for four days before the LTTE military high-command ordered the withdrawal of the cadres from the battlefield. Nine women fighters died in this battle.
The Sri Lankan troops, under heavy resistance from LTTE guerrillas in Mannar District, also adopted unusual tactics to confront the Tigers. For example, on one occasion the army men attempted a search and destroy operation under the shield of stampeding cattle. This incident occurred on the Vavuniya-Madhu road, at Poovarasankulam, on the 14.6.1991 where the main front of the LTTE resistance lines were occupied by female cadres. As hundreds of buffaloes sped across their lines of defence, women guerrillas suddenly found an advancing column of troops in close proximity. Though surprised, they fought back fiercely forcing the army to withdraw. In this encounter five women cadres were killed.
The second year of the Eelam War 2 was marked by the intensification of hostilities and the military encirclement of the Jaffna Peninsula. This period was also characterised by major land battles which took the form of conventional warfare with heavy casualties on both sides.
The overall strategy of the Sri Lankan military planners was to geographically dismember the North and East by occupying the coastal region of Manal Aru in the Mullaitivu District, thereby nullifying the Tamil claim of a territorially contiguous homeland. The strategy also involved the naval and military encirclement of the Jaffna Peninsula to prevent the mobility of the LTTE forces from the Peninsula to the Northern mainland and to further tighten the economic embargo on the Peninsula.
Having firmly committed to a policy of military occupation of the Tamil areas with the view of destroying the LTTE's military power and to induct the State administrative machinery in the Northeast, the Government adopted an intransigent attitude towards peaceful negotiations. The entire policy orientation was based on a false premise about LTTE's military potential and its determination to resist. The Government policy makers were unable to grasp the dangers and pitfalls of extending the war deep into the Tamil territory.
Caught up in this bellicose attitude the Sri Lankan Government made a disastrous mistake in rejecting a peace gesture proposed by the LrrE at the beginning of the year (1991). The LTTE proclaimed a unilateral declaration of cease-fire and offered to participate in unconditional peace negotiations. The LTTE's peace initiative was misconceived by the Government as an attempt to seek a "breathing space" to regroup and re-organise. The military hierarchy assumed the LTTE was weak and that it was the right time to strike. The Government rejected the peace offer and proposed unfair and unacceptable terms and conditions which amounted to nothing less than total
The LTTE leadership was finally convinced that the Government was bent on a war-path and sought a military solution to the ethnic conflict. When the Government slammed the doors for peace, the LTTE had no choice but to mobilise its forces for a crucial defensive war. It was in this context major battles of the Eelam War 2 broke out.
The Battle of Elephant Pass
The battle of Elephant Pass was the most violent, bitter and bloody armed confrontation that ever took place between the CITE and the Sri Lankan armed forces. It was the first time in its military history the LTTE mobilised its fighting formations, both male and female units, in a conventional mode of warfare to confront a major thrust of combined forces of the Sri Lankan State. The battle, which lasted nearly a month, contained episodes of exemplary valour, heroism and sacrifice on the part of the LTTE cadres who fought with fierce determination to protect every inch of their homeland against the incursions of an aggressive army. Caught up in an unfavourable geographical terrain the LTTE suffered the worst casualties from heavy, relentless bombardment from the Airforce and Navy coupled with the intense mortar and artillery fire from the land forces. The Sri Lankan Government poured all its military potential into this single battle to prevent the fall of Elephant Pass base at all costs, since the base was strategically important and the loss of control of the area would trigger off serious political repercussions in the South.
The Elephant Pass occupies a strategically vital position linking the Jaffna Peninsula to the rest of the northern mainland geographically shaping itself as the neck of the Tamil homeland. Because of its strategic importance controlling the only main highway that cuts through the Northern Province, the Sri Lankan State established a military camp at Elephant Pass in the early seventies and for more than a decade utilised it as a main checkpoint for the civilian passengers. With the outbreak of hostilities in June 1990 the Elephant Pass camp was expanded and transformed into a massive military complex with a main base and four mini-camps within a stretch of land three miles in diameter. About 800 troops manned the military installation.
Since the beginning of the war the main road and railway links were cut-off by the military to curtail the troop movements of the LTTE and to maintain a rigorous economic embargo on the population of the Peninsula.
This blockade subjected the civilian masses to enormous hardships and they were compelled to trek along the narrow, dangerous waterways of the Elephant Pass lagoon.
For the LTTE, the Elephant Pass base was a "thorn in the neck of Tamil Eelam" which had to be removed surgically for the physical well-being of the homeland. Since the war broke-out the LTTE fighters slowly and systematically strengthened the defence sentry positions in the northern and southern sectors at the base to prevent any offensive thrust by the Sri Lankan troops. Several attempts made by the army to break through the siege were successfully thwarted by the LTTE fighters. In the beginning of July 1991, the LTTE moved anti-aircraft guns in close proximity to the base and cut off the helicopter-borne supplies. A full fledged siege was imposed and the entire contingent of troops stationed in the base was trapped. On the 10th July 1991, the LTTE assembled a massive force consisting of several commando units of both male and female fighters and launched a major assault on the camp.
Women combat units, consisting of several hundred hard-core fighters, were deployed in the northern and southern flanks of the base along with male guerrilla formations. On the 10th July, around 10 p.m. the assault began with the Baseelan artillery attack on the outer defence positions of the army base. At midnight, LTTE fighters, both men and women, made a lightning thrust into the defence perimeters on the southern sector using giant bull-dozers as covered vehicles. Women combatants, under the command of Gena, who is now the deputy leader of the women's military wing, fought courageously and destroyed several sentry points. After fierce fighting, which lasted more than two hours the Guest House army camp in the southern sector of the base, fell into the hands of the LTTE fighters. With the heavy losses the Sri Lankan troops fell back to rear positions. Gena explains` how the women fighters attacked the Guest House army camp on the first day of the operation.
Fierce fighting continued for four days. LTTE forces, both male and female fighting units, continued their relentless onslaught on the southern and northern sectors of the Elephant Pass base irrespective of mounting casualties. The entrapped soldiers fought for their lives heavily surrounded by a determined foe. They sent SOS signals for reinforcements as the base was about to be overrun by the LTTE.
The Sri Lankan Government realised the impending danger. The fall of Elephant Pass would be disastrous both militarily and politically. The loss of such a strategically important base would entail the loss of territorial sovereignty of the northern region. It would mean a severe blow to the Government's cherished military strategy of taking control of Tamil areas from the Tigers. It would also be a political disaster to Premadasa' s regime since the Sinhala chauvinistic forces could not stomach such a humiliating defeat. Apart from these politico-military consequences the most urgent and immediate task, the Government thought, was to rescue the besieged troops, eight hundred in number, who had been putting up a deadly struggle for survival and pleading for immediate assistance.
Massive Rescue Operation
The Government drew up a massive rescue plan. A huge force of ten thousand soldiers, consisting of several battle experienced regiments, were mobilised with all the modern weaponry, including tanks and armoured vehicles. A sea-borne combined operation with the assistance of the Navy and Airforce was worked out in desperate haste. On the 14th July 1991, around 5 p.m. in the evening the massive rescue operation was launched. Thousands of Sri Lankan troops landed on the beaches of Vettilaikerni, about twelve kilometres east of Elephant Pass.
Thus, Sri Lanka opened up a new front and escalated the battle of Elephant Pass.
Anticipating a sea-borne offensive the LTTE military high-command had already deployed a substantial fighting force consisting of male and female combat units along the beaches of Vettilaikerni and Kaddaikadu. Several commando units engaged in the fighting at Elephant Pass base, were also despatched to the new front. As the troops landed on the beaches, under the cover of naval gunfire and aerial bombardment, fierce clashes erupted along the coastal belt. With the advantage of superior firepower and manpower, the Sri Lankan army was able to secure the beach-head and on the following day the armoured columns faced severe odds as the LTTE fighters, both men and women, held their positions firmly and put up an unyielding resistance. The troops had to fight their way inch by inch.
The confrontation assumed the character of a conventional mode of warfare as the armed combatants of both nations faced each other in an open battle and fought ferociously. The Sri Lankan army had the military balance in its favour because of the superiority of manpower, weapon systems and the active involvement of the Airforce and Navy. The geographical terrain was also advantageous to the army. The stretch of land that extends from Vettilaikerni beach to Elephant Pass is a desert mass scattered with heaps of sand-dunes dotted with scrubs - an open area without any cover against aerial, naval and artillery bombardment.
Positioned themselves in an unfavourable terrain, overwhelmed by large contingents of well-equipped troops, the Tamil Tiger fighters faced extreme odds in resisting the advancing columns of the invading army. The Sinhala armed forces used maximum fire-power pounding every inch of the land with shells and bombs before they embarked on a forward movement. Irrespective of the enormous odds, Tamil Tigers, including both men and women, fought back with great tenacity putting up a heroic defence. Because of this resolute resistance, the army's advancement was slowed down to a few hundred metres a day foiling the overall strategic objective of reaching the Elephant Pass base within forty eight hours. As more and more troops were inducted into the Vettilaikerni front, the LTTE too despatched more combat units and both the combatants were embroiled in a mini-desert war.
Four Days and Nights
With the opening up of a new theatre of war along the eastern coast of Vadamarachi women combat units of the LTTE were deployed at various positions between Vettilaikerni and Elephant Pass. Ratha, a senior women commander was in charge of the women fighters at Pullaveli, a strategic location about four kilometres from the coast. Ratha explains the nature of the battle and conditions under which the women fighters waged their fierce resistance.
For four days the Sri Lankan army battered itself against the powerful forces of the LTTE cadres suffering heavy casualties. Shaken by this exceptionally solid wall of impenetrable defence mounted by the LTTE cadres, the Sri Lankan military high command was forced to re-work an advance tactic to reach Elephant Pass camp. The Sri Lankan army re-routed the direction of their advance, swinging off the Pullaveli road, south westwards along the Combaddy path.
By now the women cadres were deeply involved in desert-like war conditions with the geographical terrain as much an enemy as the Sri Lankan military forces. The blazing sun streamed down on them while the hot, white sand burned their feet.
The open spaces and sand-dunes were an inestimable geographical advantage to the Sri Lankan forces. With our fighters exposed in the open, the Sri Lankan observation posts and airforce crew radioed firsthand information regarding the movement of LTTE cadres. With such vital information at their fmgertips the Sri Lankan army was able to seize the initiative and chartered its advance route and fighting tactics. Behind the cover of sand-dunes, the infantrymen and tanks laid in ambush without the knowledge of our cadres. On many occasions our women cadres found themselves confronted by tanks and troops suddenly appearing over the top or from around the corner of sand mounds, advancing rapidly towards their positions.
Exposed and vulnerable to land attack and aerial bombardment in the open spaces, the women cadres attempted to dig trenches to take up fighting positions and to get cover from the bombing raids. Their efforts proved futile. The trenches, dug out of the dry sand, simply crumbled away as quickly as they were dug.
Uninterrupted and intense bombardment of their positions often pinned down the women cadres leading to many shell blast casualties and preventing them from moving even an inch. The heat from the sun and the explosions combined to push up the ground temperature creating stifling humidity. Regardless of the odds, they boldly faced upto the challenge and persisted with their effort to prevent the Sri Lankan forces from linking up with the Elephant Pass camp. They endured and remained nestled into the sand coping up with these critical and intense battle conditions, adapting themselves to manage their predicament. On such occasions when they were cut-off from their rear support lines, the women cadres used the night darkness to tactical and practical advantage. Although the bombing and shelling persisted in the night, the women cadres could move in the darkness without being spotted. New diversionary routes, kilometres in distance, were found. Along these long, tricky and dangerous routes the women fighters carried their dead and injured colleagues.
The participation of women fighters in the Elephant Pass battle constitutes a chronicle of heroism. Their morale was high throughout the battle though they encountered extra-ordinary difficulties. The challenge posed by the power of the combined Sri Lankan forces - Army, Navy and Airforce - created the conditions where all the shored up potential of the women combatants was drawn out making them into a unique force of women fighters. Their capacity for sacrifice was limitless, their tenacity unbounded, their determination as strong as iron, their courage exemplary and their comradeship profound.
In the historic episode of the Elephant Pass battle is the legendary story of Kohilla's gallantry. A highly motivated woman fighter, Kohilla fought fiercely in the first days of the attack on Elephant Pass base. The army's landing on the beach front at Vettilaikerni on major offensive operations, fuelled the patriotic passions of Kohilla. She resolved to fight to the death rather than allowing the aggressor to enter her beloved homeland. Trained and skilled in the use of the AK-LMG weapon Kohilla single-handedly, without any consideration for her own life, fought the invading army at the Pullaveli church battle. Oblivious to the army's overwhelming presence or fire capacity, Kohilla aimed and shot at the helicopters strafmg the LTTE cadres positions. When the bombers dived towards our battle lines on route to discharge their load of explosives, Kohilla fired at the plunging plane. In the ground battle she boldly positioned herself, unafraid of the numerical strength of the army, and opened up a barrage of bullets causing many casualties to the army and slowing down its advance. Ultimately Kohilla's heroic episode ended when a bullet mortally wounded her. She died on the 187-1991.
The incidences of individual gallantry by the women fighters are numerous taking various manifestations and forms. Their gallantry demonstrated exceptional courage, far beyond what was required of their duty. In some cases, when women fighters were motivated to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy or to provide inspiration to their colleagues, they ignored their own fatal injuries. With blood pouring from their wounds and their bodies seriously damaged by injury, the women fighters summoned up all their energy and continued to battle on for as long as was physically possible.
Another glaring example of gallantry was how the women fighters persistently volunteered for frontline battle positions. Enni, a group leader, was determined to ensure that she and her unit were not positioned on the rear defence lines of a battle plan. She, along with the fighters under her command, advanced into the enemy lines and fought a large section of the troops. With all their weapon power the army was unable to dislodge the women fighters. The army's forward advance was effectively thwarted by the skilled and spirited defence put up by this unit of women fighters for several hours until death stilled the guns of Enni and many other combatants in her unit.
The women cadres also exhibited exceptional, heroic presence of mind in the face of seemingly impossible situations. The unflappable, strong character of Thenuja - a young woman fighter - was responsible for rescuing a group of fighters, both men and women, caught up in the midst of the Sri Lankan army on a reconnaissance exercise.
Thenuja quickly grasped the dangerous situation they were in. Her calm collective behaviour reassured the other members of the group that there was a way out and they followed her advice to remain dead still, lying flat on the ground, in pitch darkness. As the army men patrolled the area our cadres laid quiet. By sheer luck they were not spotted or stumbled on by the army. When the situation was more conducive Thenuja guided the cadres and manoeuvred them out of the trap and returned safely to base.
Astounding also are the feats of courage by women fighters in the supplies and medics teams. The medics cadres moved amidst the torrential bombing and strafing to reach the frontline battle theatre. As the fighting raged, with bullets and shells flying in every direction, the women cadres, armed with their medical kits, worked with dedication, applying first aid measures to the wounded and carrying the injured for long distances to the field clinic. Such emotionally intense and physically heavy work continued for hours on end, even days. The supplies unit cadres also ran this obstacle course of bombs and shells, to deliver urgent and vital supplies to their colleagues engaged in the face to face fighting. There were several occasions in which the supply vehicles were bombed and many cadres died. Yet they carried on relentlessly amidst dangers providing supplies and bringing the dead and injured out of the battlefield.
In total one hundred and twenty and twenty three women fighters died in the battle at Elephant Pass. Hundreds were injured. Though the women fighting units suffered heavy casualties in this unprecedented battle their morale was high. They were not emotionally traumatised or demoralised by the death of their friends or colleagues. Aysha and Shirani, two women who survived this long battle opine:
It took exactly eighteen days for the several battalions of Sri Lankan army troops, who landed along the Vadamarachi eastern coast on a massive rescue operation, to reach the besieged Elephant Pass base. To advance for a short distance of twelve kilometres, the Sinhala regiments, backed by heavy armour and air cover, had to engage in fierce clashes with the LTTE and fight for every inch of the land. With heavy losses in men and material, the troops finally reached the Elephant Pass base on the evening of 3rd August 1991. The fighting continued in that area until the 9th August, when finally the LTTE made a tactical withdrawal.
Apart from the battle of the Fort, it was the longest single battle ever fought between the combatants which lasted for thirty one days. Though the LTTE suffered heavy casualties (573 Tamil Tigers were killed) in the battle, it became very obvious to the world that the organisation has built up and developed a full-fledged liberation army with highly determined and motivated fighters of both men and women, who could face up to a conventional mode of confrontation. Deprived of conventional weapon systems, adequate air defence and caught up in an unfavourable terrain, the Tigers fought with sheer will power as their armour and impressed upon the enemy that any aggressive adventure on the Tamil homeland had to be paid for heavily with blood. Over four hundred Sri Lankan soldiers were killed and over one thousand injured in the battle of Elephant Pass.
Soon after the battle of Elephant Pass the Sri Lankan armed forces launched a major offensive operation at Manal Aru in the Mullaitivu jungles under the code name of "Operation Lightning". Several thousands of battle-hardened troops, with the support of the Airforce, were drawn into this massive military campaign with the aim of "wiping out the LTTE bases in the Tiger infested territory".
Though the declared intention was to "wipe-out the LTTE bases", the real objective of the Sri Lankan regime behind this major campaign was to penetrate and occupy this jungle terrain to physically dismember the Northern province from the East. The Manal Aru area, for which the Sinhalese termed it as "Weli Oya", is strategically situated along the northern coastal region linking Mullaitivu and Trincomalee districts. For years the Sri Lankan Government was engaged in a sinister programme of setting-up Sinhala colonisation schemes in this traditional Tamil territory with an aim of changing the demographic structure of the region. The overall strategy was to de-link the North and East and to put an end to the Tamil claim of a territorially contiguous Tamil homeland. The Manal Aru operation was precisely a part of this grand design.
Fully aware of the strategic importance of this jungle terrain and also of the Government's devious designs, the LTTE had consolidated its positions in this region and built up strong bases to defend the area. Furthermore, this region of jungle territory was logistically vital for the LTTE's land routes and supply lines to the East. Because of these factors the Tamil Tigers have made Manal Am as one of its strongholds in the northern mainland.
The consolidation of the LTTE in the jungles of Manal Aru was a stumbling block for the government's design of transforming the area into a Sinhala colony and to construct a human buffer-zone, de-linking the North and East. Emboldened by the military campaign at Elephant Pass and encouraged by a misplaced notion that the LTTE was weakened, the Sri Lankan regime thought that it was the opportune moment to embark on an offensive assault on Manal Am.
On the 28th August 1991, the Sri Lankan army launched the so-called "Operation Lightning" in the Manal Aru jungles. More than four thousand troops backed by heavy armour, mounted a major assault on the southern sector of Manal Aru while the Airforce bombers and helicopter gunships gave air cover. The army units advanced from Gajapapura headquarters and launched a three frontal assault on Nithikaikulam, an LTTE controlled base area. LTTE forces, both male and female fighting units, who were already positioned along the river embankment at Nithikaikulam resisted ferociously and effectively blocked the enemy's advance. Thus began the Manal Aru battle that dragged on for twenty eight days embroiling both the armed combatants in a bloody jungle war unprecedented in its ferocity.
Women fighting units were fully involved in this historical confrontation. Positioned in the thick jungle skirting the northern sector of the river embankment, the women combatants held back the advancing columns of Sri Lankan troops. For the first four days of the battle the women combatants were merged amongst the jungle foliage, with fallen trees as barriers and shallow bunkers furrowed out of the ground for protection. Aerial bombardment from Machetti planes, Y 12 carriers and bomber crafts, artillery from Mankindi Malai army camp, ten kilometres from the battle scene and mortar fire pummelled the positions of our cadres. Yet the women cadres remained burrowed into the jungle ground fighting the army.
The ability of our cadres to withstand such a dangerous theatre of war and to fight under this hail of explosives and shrapnel, stunned and shattered the confidence and terrified the Sri Lankan troops. The proposed military plan of advancing forward crossing an open space of water through the river, held out horrendous prospects in terms of casualties for the Sri Lankan army.
Nightmare in The Jungle
After four days of intense fighting the LTTE fighters tactically withdrew from Nithikaikulam area to the adjoining jungles and established a new defense perimeter. The LTTE military high command operating with such tactical moves, drew the Sri Lankan army further into complicated, uncharted hostile terrain. As the troops advanced further into the dense jungles the fighting arena became a nightmare. Death stalked them with every step not knowing when or where camouflaged LTTE guerrillas would ambush them. Land-mines and booby traps too, added to their misfortune.
Though it was familiar jungle terrain, the LTTE fighters had to face the menace of the massive artillery and aerial bombardment which rained down on them unabated for days and nights. Inspite of the mounting casualties due to flying shrapnel from shells and bombs, our cadres dug in and put up a courageous resistance.
At the sentry points the women cadres, dressed in camouflage kit, lying low in hollowed out bunkers, waited for any unexpected or sudden incursions by Sri Lankan troops. At night, blinded by the darkness, the women cadres depended on their hearing to detect troop activity. Rustling leaves, the snap of a twig, an uncontrolled cough or clearing of the throat were telltale indications of army movement. Sporadic skirmishes at night often broke out when our cadres detected attempts by the army to carry out reconnaissance incursions.
In the daytime when jungles areas were flattened by bombs or transformed into burning balls of foliage the despatching of supply and medics cadres and reinforcements to the front line became hazardous. Subsequently, our women cadres made expeditious use of the night to fulfil their crucial work. In the pitch black jungle night, with vision reduced to a few feet, the women cadres, carrying heavy loads of vital supplies on their shoulder, silently tread the jungle routes delivering food, medicine, ammunition and other urgent supplies to their colleagues at the sentry points. The delivery completed, with great stealth so as to avoid giving away their positions, the women cadres disappeared back into the jungle night to return to their base.
Women cadres too, were involved in reconnaissance work, laying traps and mines at night to confuse and terrorise the troops. After the Sri Lankan troops had withdrawn to their rear positions for night security, the Lim women cadres, crawling flat on the ground or crouching behind trees and bushes advanced through the jungle to re-plant landmines in army controlled areas. Dozens of army men lost their legs as they unsuspectingly moved over fresh minefields to take up their sentry posts and front-line positions in the early morning.
As the troops got bogged down in the southern sector of Manal Aru in the Nithikaikulam and Periya Andankulam unable to advance deep into the LTTE controlled territory, the army high command inducted more troops from Mankindi Malai camp to break through the Tiger defence lines in the northern sector. The opening up of this new front turned out to be a disaster since the LTTE guerrilla units put up a strong resistance and prevented the troops from further incursions.
After four weeks of intense fighting the Sri Lankan army was able to occupy a few abandoned LTTE bases in the periphery and then claimed victories. While the LTTE mobilised its forces and prepared for a major counter-offensive, the Sri Lankan troops, to the surprise of the Tiger commanders, made a sudden and rapid withdrawal from the entire Manal Aru area. Thus ended the Manal Aru battle. The Sri Lankan army had failed in both its military and political objectives. In a major offensive operation that set out to rapidly dislodge the LTTE from their entrenched and fortified jungle bases the Sri Lankan army, with all its air and artillery firepower was only able to penetrate two miles over a period of twenty eight days.
The Sri Lankan army paid dearly for this gross under-estimation of the strength and determination of the LTTE following the Elephant Pass battle. The troops learned through bitter experience that the LTTE was prepared to fight under extreme conditions to prevent all efforts at dismembering the Tamil homeland. The political objectives for which the Sri Lankan army was deployed proved to be very expensive in terms of troop casualties. More than three hundred Sri Lankan troops were killed and hundreds more were injured and maimed for life in this futile military exercise. Over two hundred LTTE cadres died in this fierce resistance campaign out of which fifty six were women fighters.
Following the disastrous debacle in the Manal Aru jungles, the Sri Lankan army planned to stage a coastal operation to capture Kokkuthoduvai with the objective of taking control of the strategic coastal strip of Manal Aru. The Tigers were alerted, through their military intelligence sources, of a massive build-up of troops at Kokkilai. The LTTE forces, both men and women fighting units, were positioned in ambush along the coconut palms in close proximity to the coastal road.
At 6 a.m. on the 16th October 1991, hundreds of Sri Lankan infantry men from Kokkilai army camp moved along the coastal road that lies between the sea and the coconut palms and walked into the Tiger trap. Women guerrilla units, who occupied the frontal positions, waited cautiously until the troops moved into close range. The advancing columns, unaware of the LTTE' s presence at such a close range, were taken aback when suddenly a hailstorm of bullets from women fighters struck them down. As heavy fighting flared up at very close range with LTTE fighters occupying advantageous positions, neither the bomber aircrafts nor the naval gunboats could provide adequate cover for the land troops. With heavy casualties on their side, the Sri Lankan soldiers were compelled to withdraw in total disarray. Thirty soldiers, including three officers died and seventy were injured in this coastal battle. On our side fourteen fighters, including two women fighters, were martyred.
The Eastern Province has been the seat of tension and turmoil for several decades as a direct consequence of a racist policy of aggressive Sinhala colonisation of this traditionally Tamil region. Successive Sri Lankan regimes pursued this policy with single-minded tenacity, with the objective of structurally transforming the demographic composition of the population. This policy led to the massive militarisation of this region with the establishment of huge military bases and camps which provided armed security to Sinhala settlements particularly in the Trincomalee district. The armed forces which occupied the East adopted a ruthless policy of ethnic cleansing by systematically massacring Tamil civilians and driving them out of their traditional villages. The Tamils of the Eastern Province have suffered the worst forms of atrocities from the racist oppression and discrimination of the State.
The armed conflict in the East has been extremely violent, nasty and bloody. The armed forces reacted with savage brutality against the Tamil civilian masses whenever the Tamil Tigers launched attacks on the occupation army. Eelam War One and Two witnessed horrendous episodes of genocide in which thousands of innocent Tamil civilians were mercilessly slaughtered and the majority of the Tamil population reduced to the status of destitutes and refugees.
The strategy and tactics of war on the Eastern front have been essentially different from that of the Northern districts. The geographical structuration of the region, the demographic composition of a mixed population and the consolidation of a large number of bases and camps of the armed forces have made the LTTE to opt for classical guerrilla warfare in its resistance campaign. When the hostilities broke out in June 1990, the Sri Lankan armed forces embarked on a major offensive campaign and occupied the urban centres in the Eastern coastal belt. The LTTE guerrilla formations have been operating mainly in the rural and jungle areas.
Entrenched in a geographical terrain best suited for guerrilla war, LTTE fighters launched a series of daring raids and ambushes that took a heavy toll of casualties on the army side. All the efforts of the security forces to secure the control of the region became a fiasco as our fighters, both men and women, dominate the vast areas of the rural terrain and put up a heroic struggle to defend their homeland.
The active participation of women cadres in the armed struggle at the Eastern theatre of war began in the mid eighties when a small team of determined young women joined the male cadres in the jungles and demanded military training. The young women cadres received weapons training but their actual participation in the armed struggle, at that stage, involved dangerous reconnaissance work. With their knowledge of the population and area, they were deployed, deeply underground, into civilian, army controlled areas for information gathering. Exposed to the possibility of being identified or caught in a round up in this heavy militarised area, every day the women cadres risked their lives collecting information vital to the political and military activities of the LTTE cadres in the East.
The value of the work of these women cadres increased three fold during the period of occupation of the Eastern Province by the Indian army after 1987. The entire Eastern Province came under the control of tens of thousands of Indian troops with the Sri Lankan forces confined to barracks. Co-operating in the nefarious activities of the army of occupation against the civilians were treacherous Tamil groups. The Eastern Province became a cauldron of danger and death with disappearances, torture and murder assuming alarming proportions. Within this den of death the nucleus of anonymous, hardcore LTTE women cadres operated, playing a crucial role in securing the survival of the LTTE fighters involved in the jungle guerrilla campaign against the Indian army.
Mingling unknown amongst the civilian population the women cadres gathered comprehensive accounts of detailed, accurate information and observed the military movements of the Indian troops and their lackeys. By intelligent perception of the military situation they were able to anticipate the military moves by the Indian troops. Through their astute deduction the women cadres saved the lives of LTTE guerrilla fighters. With the knowledge of ongoing military operations the women cadres took enormous risks to evade the perimeters of Indian troop movements and to deliver the information to the LTTE guerrillas. Based on the information supplied by these courageous and dedicated women cadres, the LTTE guerrillas were able to evacuate their camps, move the wounded to safety, chart their escape route and defensive operations. When the army landed or rounded up the area -sometimes within half an hour of LTTE evacuation - they would find nothing but a deserted and vacant LTTE camp.
The women cadres showed extreme talent and versatility in this type of work. Their ability to adapt and change their behaviour and personality gave them the confidence they needed to carry all sorts of supplies and equipment and to cope without giving themselves away when confronted with complicated situations. Their fearlessness placed them above all concerns and they were prepared to die if caught. An embodiment of all such characteristics was Anita, an extremely talented and bold young woman member of this original group of women cadres in the East who swallowed cyanide when intercepted for questioning at an Indian army sentry point. (see the chapter on Indian army)
Military Training of Women Cadres in the East
The opening up of the first military training camp for women in the Eastern Province on the 13th August 1990, was, undoubtedly, the logical outcome of a long and deepening history of women's contribution to the political and armed struggle of the Tamil people in the East. For decades Tamil women in the Eastern Province have observed State sponsored projects aimed at changing the demographic composition of the East from a Tamil majority to a Sinhala majority through colonising Sinhala settlers; for decades women have watched the Tamil population chased from their traditional Tamil villages after which the area is gobbled up by new Sinhala settlers occupying the vacated areas of the dispossessed Tamil civilians; for decades they have lived in an environment of overt and covert racial hostility and violence; for decades they have watched the militarisation of their land and lived under the terror of violent domination by the racist Sri Lankan armed forces, police and commandos of the Special Task Force; for decades Tamil women have been exposed to violence, torture, murder and rape by Sinhala settlers and their military protectors.
Thousands and thousands of women have had their family life totally destroyed by premature widowhood, by sons and daughters and extended family members shot dead in front of their eyes or dragged off to army camps and Police Stations to return scarred by torture or never to return again.
With such a horrendous history of genocidal destruction forming part of their consciousness Tamil women cannot be anything other than fiercely patriotic. Subsequently, they have both openly and clandestinely resisted the Sri Lankan State's usurpation of their traditional land.
The Tamil women of the East have earned a respected reputation for their great courage, unswerving solidarity and the sacrifices they have made for the LTTE guerrilla cadres fighting the armed struggle. The danger entailed in providing food, shelter, care and information to the LTTE cadres has been a part of their lives for many, many years. Brought up in a climate of genocidal oppression and schooled in a history of political resistance and patriotism it is not surprising that the young generation of women in the East have opted for more direct and deeper participation in the armed resistance campaign of the LTTE.
In the late 1980's young women from the East moved to the northern camps for their military training. With the outbreak of Eelam War 2 in June 1990 and the subsequent expansion in the numbers of women joining the LTTE ranks, a military training camp for women in the East was considered both necessary and convenient.
With the assistance of first batch military experienced women cadres from the north functioning in the East, the women cadres selected a camp site, worked out a training programme and set the process in motion. Styled in the mould of the Women's Military Unit of Liberation Tigers the training programme aimed at not only creating skilled and courageous combatants, but to encourage the development and independence of the women cadres. The women combatants in the Eastern Province do, therefore, have their own separate training camps where they manage their own administration, food production, medical care, armoury etc.
By the time the women cadres had finished their training in the latter part of 1990 they were ready for combat. However, while they were both mentally and physically prepared for the fighting, the male cadres were not. The prospect of young women cadres engaged in brutal and ruthless life and death struggles, becoming injured and maimed, or accidentally caught alive by a merciless, racist army, was a phenomenon which the battle- hardened male cadres were apprehensive about. Traditional ideas about their own role in society as protectors of women dominated their consciousness and, as men, they felt and assumed responsibility for the women as women, rather than as highly motivated and trained comrades in arms. Nevertheless, in line with the LTTE policy of deploying women in combat on one :Ale, and the firmly articulated aspirations of the women cadres to fight on the other side, the women cadres won their case and were fully deployed into the guerrilla war. Since that day the male cadres have learned that the women fighters are not only committed and courageous combatants but they are young women capable of confronting any obstacle or problem and over-coming it. Subsequently, they have emerged as a fighting force capable of planning and executing military operations.
In the early days of their participation in the guerrilla campaign in the East, the women cadres, along with the male fighters, were allocated specific functions in an attack or ambush plan. They were totally successful in fulfilling their part of the operation. Having allayed the apprehensions of the male cadres both trust and confidence in battle contexts, between the male and female combatants, strengthened. Solidifying this comradeship were unforgettable and priceless acts of selfless courage by the women combatants.
For example, many male cadres are alive today because of the selfless gallantry of a young woman fighter. On the 3rd August 1992, LTTE cadres, women and men fighters, ambushed an army patrol between Ayathiyamalai and Karadian Am. Trapped in this ambush the desperate army men called for air support from bombers and helicopters. In frantic desperation to save the stricken army patrol the bombers pounded our cadres while helicopters unleashed a hail of gunfire. Encouraged by the air support the surviving army patrolmen started to advance quickly towards our cadres' positions.
Exposed in an open rice field, subjected to aerial attack, facing an advancing army and carrying the wounded the LTTE cadres' withdrawal from the attack location became slow and complicated. the army men continued to advance, shooting furiously at our cadres. Suddenly a young woman cadre, realising the danger and difficulties the LTTE cadres carrying the wounded were in, rushed forward with her powerful AK-LMG and opened fire on the advancing troops. The courage and firepower of this woman fighter provided enough cover to temporarily hold back the advancing troops giving the LTTE wounded cadres enough time to move out of the situation and escape. The young woman slowly withdrew firing at the shaken armymen. Sixteen army men were killed by our cadres during this ambush. Six LTTE cadres, including two women fighters, died in the attack.
As mutual confidence and comradeship grew from the battle experience the gender distinctions in the allocation of responsibilities and military duties started to melt away. Women combatants are delegated military work according to their potential and merit. While they live and function as a separate structure the deployment and allocation of military work is gender neutral. Consequently the women comrades have often assumed total responsibility for military reconnaissance work based on which attacks and ambushes are planned and executed.
The women cadres of the military intelligence unit have spent days and days in spartan conditions to meticulously study the objective of their nascent military plan. Their keen powers of observation, their eye for detail, has yielded positive results. The casualty rate of the Sri Lankan military personnel has been high as a result of the thorough ground reconnaissance work carried out by the women cadres.
Furthermore, the women cadres have not flinched in their struggle to survive the jungle life. Living under the cover of the jungle, with limited access to urban business life, supplies of food and other items assumes paramount importance. The women cadres, as part of their own administration, are fully responsible for maintaining and acquiring their own camp stocks. But the collection of supplies contains its own hazardous possibilities. Any eventuality has to be anticipated.
Therefore, during the long day and night trek for supplies, the young women fighters, in typical guerrilla style, preserve their food and water rations eating and drinking only when absolutely necessary. Surviving on only bites to eat and sips to drink the women cadres trek through kilometre after kilometre of jungle. The compulsions of their jungle life has trained them to endure long periods of time with minimal food and water intake. By developing such practices the women cadres maintain a constant level of preparation should sudden incidents throw them off their journey for unknown number of days and kilometres. Their life style coupled with their commitment to the struggle has transformed them into tenacious guerrilla fighters.
The resourcefulness and true grit of the women cadres is clearly evident by the manner in which they boldly tackle and overcome such natural obstacles as deep, wide and sometimes raging waters of rivers. Unperturbed by the waters facing them the young women cadres send a forward cadre, attached to a rope, through the river waters. After reaching the other side she firmly hitches-up the rope to a strong tree. The remaining women cadres strap supplies on their back and, one by one, holding onto the rope, they cross the swirling river waters.
The women fighters in the East are fully active in the guerrilla campaign participating in all the military operations. Their courage and ability has strengthened the armed struggle of the LTTE in the Eastern Province.
The year 1992 marked a new turning point in the Eelam War 2 with far-reaching consequences to the Government's grand design to wrest control of the North and East. The new strategy and tactics advanced by the LTTE m its offensive and defensive campaigns dealt a serious blow to the Sri Lankan military machine. A series of meticulously planned assaults on the army's defence lines, sentry positions and daring raids and ambushes by the LTTE fighters took a heavy toll of casualties unprecedented in the history of the armed conflict. Apart from the huge scale casualties in the land forces, the Navy and Air-force suffered serious set-backs with the destruction of naval vessels and aircrafts. In addition to these military debacles the sudden and unexpected killings of senior military commanders, who masterminded the Eelam War 2, in the LTTE's landmine explosion was a monumental disaster. The cumulative effects of these military mishaps generated a serious crisis within the armed forces and undermined the morale of the Sinhala soldiers. Large scale defections in the military and the reluctance of the Sinhala youth to join the army further contributed to the worsening of the crisis.
With the lessons of the battle of Elephant Pass, where the Tigers were compelled to confront the Sri Lankan forces in a conventional mode of warfare in a terrain disadvantageous for long drawn out confrontations, the LTTE military high command drew up a new strategy to radically change the military situation in its favour. The crucial element to gain the military balance, the LTTE realised, was to take the initiative in its hands and to launch a series of offensive assaults. Such a strategy would throw the enemy forces into utter confusion and deprive them of the temporal space to prepare for major military operations. Furthermore, the LTTE also realised the risks involved in confronting the army in open battles, in open spaces, without adequate conventional weapon systems.
From the Beginning of the year the LTTE forces put their war plan into action and carried out a series of operations with great success. While the LTTE fighters in the North launched a number of commando raids in relentless succession on the military defence posts and sentry positions, the Tiger guerrilla units in the East carried out a series of ambush attacks on army patrols and convoys. The LTTE's unabated assaults, resulting in a double figure casualty rate on the military in almost every attack, had a devastating impact. The army had to abandon its offensive strategies and was compelled to switch onto a defensive footing to protect its encampments.
This persistent offensive campaign of the Tigers seriously affected the logistic capability of the ground forces and severely undermined the morale of the troops in the forward positions. Thus, Pirabakaran' s new strategy during this year led to a grinding halt of the Sri Lankan military machine which was geared for a major invasion of the Jaffna Peninsula.
For the Sri Lankan armed forces 1992 was tragic year of military disasters. The army had to pay a heavy price for the miscalculations about the LTTE's military potential, its morale and its remarkable ability to re-organise and strike. Furthermore, the military planners in Colombo made a serious mistake in their strategy of territorial expansion and occupation of the Tamil areas whereby large contingents of troops have to be permanently deployed to hold onto the "conquered" territory which became vulnerable targets for the LTTE raids. Holding onto these no-man lands became extremely costly, risky and had to be paid for in blood. Several kilometres long "military fences" and defence sentry posts which were built by the army to reinforce the blockade of Jaffna Peninsula, were constantly subjected to commando raids with heavy toll of casualties on the troops.
In the year 1992 there has been innumerable incidents of raids and ambushes by the LTTE in the entire theatre of war encompassing the North and East in-which women fighters, have also participated. Here we wish to document two daring raid operations that took place at Kaddaikadu and on the eastern perimeters of Palali where women combatants played a major role.
A Daring Raid at Kaddaikadu
Both the Kaddaikadu and Palali operations constituted a new dimension in the guerrilla warfare in which the LTTE deployed a large force ofmale and female commandos in swift and daring raids on the security circle of the perimeters of the camps that were regarded by the security forces as impenetrable. The Sri Lankan army had built up massive security cordon to protect their installations. At Kaddaikadu near Vettilaikerni on the eastern coast of Vadamarachi, the armed forces bulldozed the sand into a two metre high wall for the entire twelve kilometre stretch from the coast to Elephant Pass army camp.
The "wall" or "military fence" was the first ring of the security measures at kaddaikadu army camp. In front of the bund, a short distance apart were two large fences of barbed wire. A minefield in front of the fences completed the security set up. Dotted within the bund were dozens of small sentry boxes housing four to six army men in each. Behind this extensive wall of defence the army men lapsed into a false sense of security never imaging that the LTTE would have the audacity to attack such a well fortified camp. The LTTE military high command, however, was not deterred by such measures, and planned a meticulously detailed operation.
The women combatants formed part of the fighting force deployed along the southern perimeters of the bund. Their objective was to penetrate through and breach the extensive network of security and attack and wipe out the sentry points. The operation was to be carried out with surgical precision 10 as to reduce the possibility of escalating the attack should the thousands of, troops from nearby Elephant Pass and Vettilaikerni army camps launch ail counter attack.
The operation got underway at midnight on the 1st October 1992. women cadres slithered across the white sand, under the cover of dark and their weapons on the ready. They passed over the minefield without set off a single explosion to alert the unsuspecting troops. With great resolve and fortitude they advanced closer towards the camp, cutting their w through the barbed-wire barricades, systematically penetrating deeper the security network. As they drew to within a few metres of the sentry points the women cadres, maintaining absolute silence and working cording to plan, prepared to confront the last phase of the security network the bund. Hundreds of women cadres scaled the bund and descended the troops opening fire as they launched their attack. Suddenly confronted and overcome by the LTTE cadres the shocked and confused troops fled utter panic with the LTTE cadres in hot pursuit. The troops ran for pro tion in the main camp at Vettilaikemi. The Kaddaikadu camp was coma pletely overrun by the LTTE cadres.
From Vettilaikerni main camp the troops opened fire with a barrage of mortar shells on the LTTE cadres positions. Quickly the LTTE cadres cleared the camp and appropriated the huge cache of arms and ammunition. They vacated the camp before daylight exposed them to aerial attack.
The LTTE cadres vanished with a fifty million dollar booty of arms and ammunition. Over two hundred modern rifles, light machine guns, grenades, mortar shells and a large quantity of ammunition was captured by the LTTE.
In this operation thirty Sri Lankan troops were killed. On the LTTE side three women fighters and eleven male cadres were martyred.
The Kaddaikadu operation demonstrated the ability of the LTTE to assemble a large fighting force in a short span of time and launch lightning assaults on any major military fortification and withdraw swiftly before the enemy gears itself for a counter offensive. This mode of mobile warfare constituted a strategic advance in the armed resistance campaign of the LTTE. Both women and men units have been trained and organised into mobile fighting forces capable of inflicting severe damage to military fortifications, particularly where the enemy's positions are relatively exposed. The Sri Lankan army, in its over-ambitious project of expanding further into LTTE controlled areas, ran into serious difficulties to consolidate its positions as the LTTE, taking the initiative in its hands, embarked on a series of well-planned mobile offensive assaults that brought havoc to the enemy's defence lines causing heavy casualties to the frontline troops. One such major offensive assault in the type of mobile warfare took place at Palali base.
Defence Lines Destroyed
On the 23rd November 1992, during National Heroes' Week, the LTTE forces launched a massive assault on the security perimeters of the Palali base. It was a successful military feat based on the strategy of mobile warfare.
Palali base is the largest military installation in the Jaffna Peninsula housing over five thousand security men of the combined forces - the army, navy and airforce. During the Eelam War 2, the Sri Lankan security forces have been able to occupy a vast section of the Valigamam north region and built up a massive security network to protect its airbase and naval port.
The structure of the security system is far more rigorous and extensive than that of Kaddaikadu with a complicated network of barbed wire fences, minefields, underground trenches, high walls of sand barricades, watch towers etc. Hundreds of sentry posts in close proximity occupied the entire peripheral security ring. The security system at Palali was considered to be impenetrable.
The LTTE assembled a massive force consisting of several commando units of female and male fighters and launched a swift and daring raid on the Eastern sector of the defence lines - a four kilometre section extending from Ottakapulam near Atchuveli to the coast of Thondamanaru. Within an hour of fierce encounter, the entire defence perimeter of the Eastern sector collapsed and more than one hundred and fifty posts were overrun and destroyed by the LTTE fighters. The frontline troops suffered heavy casualties and withdrew in total confusion.
The women fighting units bore the brunt of this major operation. Covering an extensive area from Iddaikadu to Sannathy, the women fighters penetrated the defence lines by clearing landmines and cutting barbed wire fences as they moved cautiously in darkness. Within thirty metres of the sentry points, hugged to the ground to avoid searchlight sweeps, a random shell from a grenade launcher exploded near the advancing women combatants. The blast shattered to pieces the right leg of one of the forward moving women fighters - Jamela. Jamela, with her grave injury, showed exceptional courage and comradeship in this instant. Well aware that silence and surprise were vital to the success of the entire operation and a low casualty rate on our side, Jamela did not utter one cry of pain or shock as a result of her badly damaged leg. After the women fighters had advanced ahead of her and the operation was well underway, slowly Jamela was removed back to base. This truly selfless woman fighter succumbed to her devastating trauma a few days later in hospital.
The women fighting units destroyed nearly ninety sentry points, killed several soldiers and successfully carried out their strategic objective thereby demonstrating their organisational ability and striking capability in this advanced mode of guerrilla warfare.
Militarily, it was a remarkable success for the LTTE. In this meticulously planned operation, the impenetrable defence structures of the Palali base were penetrated and destroyed within hours. Having inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy and having captured a large quantity of sophisticated weapons, the LTTE made a swift withdrawal before dawn, before the army could mobilise its forces for a counter-offensive. In this battle more than thirty women cadres were killed.
Having passed through various modes of warfare and having acquire, experience of different combat situations, the Women fighters of the LTTE have reached a high level of fighting capability. Furthermore, they have streamlined their organisational structure to meet the ongoing demands o the liberation war which has taken different turning points in the course of its history.
Keeping abreast with the demands of this protracted war the women's military structure continues to expand and develop. Certainly the leadership of the LTTE will make available to the women combatants - its always has - all new developments in fighting strategy, weapons systems and training programmes. Mr.Pirabakaran, who views the successful induction of women into the armed struggle as one of his major achievements, will, without reserve, promote the holistic development of the women fighters, as a part of his vision of women's path to liberation.
For him the independence of women is crucial to their liberation and the assertion of courage and self-confidence is a pre-requisite to the realisation of such independence. The women fighters will whole-heartedly endorse the leadership's position. They too show a great interest and willingness to learn and develop. Already the women's military organisation has expanded its structure to include an anti- tank unit, anti-aircraft unit, heavy weapons unit, military intelligence unit etc. Wide-ranging specialised commando training is also on the agenda for the women combatants. In the field of medics, communication, intelligence work etc., the position is the same - constant expansion and growth.
As the war of national liberation continues the women's military structure will evolve into a sophisticated institution with wide-ranging and unique facilities available for women. The women fighters of Liberation Tigers with their specific character and history in the war of liberation, have made a major contribution towards uplifting and re-defining the status and image of women in the evolving new Tamil society.