LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) are a militant organization fighting
for a separate Tamil homeland within the nation of Sri Lanka. The homeland
they fight for is called Tamil Eelam. It consists of the northern end of the
island and a portion of the eastern coastal region. These are areas where
Tamil people form a majority. Within Sri Lanka as a whole, Tamils form a
large minority, and they have been severely disadvantaged by the
majoritarian politics of successive Sri Lankan governments since the island
was granted independence of British rule in 1948. The majority of Sri
Lankans are Sinhala-speaking Buddhists. Tamil people speak the Tamil
language and most of them are Hindus or Christians.
Strictly speaking, the war in Sri Lanka is not an ethnic or religious
war, but a war between one military organization and another. The Sri Lankan
(government) military is at war with the LTTE, and not with the Tamil
people, its spokesmen say. Likewise, the LTTE is at war with the government,
and not with the Sinhala people.
However, according to the President of Sri Lanka's current estimate, some
50,000 people have been killed in the 13-year long war. She does not say how
many of those people were civilians, how many were Sinhala, how many were
Tamil, how many were killed by government forces and those working in their
employ. But even during my brief stay in Sri Lanka, I was able to directly
observe that government forces were responsible for civilian deaths, and
that random killings of Tamil civilians by the military and the police were
commonplace. All the human rights workers with whom I spoke privately
affirmed that government forces systematically engaged in acts of terrorism
against Tamil civilians.
The LTTE ran for twelve years what is often called a "de facto state" or
"mini state" in the Jaffna Peninsula in the northern part of the island,
until government forces overran the peninsula during late 1995 and early
1996. The Tigers reportedly shifted their operations to the Vanni jungle
south of the Jaffna Peninsula, and to the eastern Trincomalee and Batticaloa
regions during that time.
I became aware of the "Tigers" in the mid 1970's, when I was a graduate
student in anthropology at the University of Chicago, studying the Tamil
language and preparing to do research in Tamil Nadu. At that time, the LTTE
was still in its infancy, and even Tamil specialists could offer little
information about it. I devoted my studies to other topics.
More than twenty years later, I had the opportunity to visit Sri Lanka
for the first time. This was early 1996, and the Tigers were hardly a
negligible presence any more. The civil war between the Tigers and the
government dominated all other concerns in Sri Lanka, and indeed all of
southern India seemed likewise to have its attention focused upon the LTTE.
I decided that the most productive use I could make of my time in Sri
Lanka was to visit "Tiger territory" and see for myself what it was like. By
then I had done some reading about the war and had begun to form opinions
about the LTTE. A colleague reading drafts of my work has opined that I was
obviously prejudiced against the Tigers from the start, that this prejudice
affected my interactions with them and my reporting about them, and I should
come clean and confess my bias to readers up front. Here, then, is my
confession. Skip to the next section if you find confessions annoying.
I am a liberal western feminist pacifist. I consider that warfare and
killing are wrong, and that armed insurrection only worsens oppression. In
addition, I have a negative image of the LTTE leader Velupillai Pirabaharan.
It is not fair to VP that I am prejudiced against him, because I have never
met him. But I can't help it. I am influenced by what I read. On the other
hand, I am prejudiced in favor of Tamil people. I have learned to expect
them to change my mind for the better, and they have never let me down.
In general, my professional aim is to understand the minds of the most
"Other" (i.e., different from me) human beings that I can make contact with.
This is an intellectually problem-fraught project, known in culturological
jargon as "othering." Why should I assume that people who live on the other
side of the world, speak a different language, do different work, eat
different foods, have different values and ideas, and worship different
gods, are significantly different from myself? Why should I assume that I
can learn more about the world by going to far away places than I can learn
by staying in my own back yard?
Rightly or wrongly, I did start with these assumptions. I spent years
studying a difficult language and adapting to an environment that initially
made me very sick toward the aim of knowing minds to which most people like
me (western, liberal, etc.) never gain access. And I do think that the minds
of Tamil people are different from the minds of the kind of people that I
was once an example of. But after years of habituation, I find my Tamil
friends not so different any more. We understand one another well. And it is
the tragedy of our friendship that as the minds of my Tamil friends became
increasingly known to me, I found myself having to move on, to penetrate
deeper into the still to me largely unknown Tamil world, toward less
familiar regions, where people still remained "other." And so to the Tigers.
After arriving in Colombo, I asked about traveling to the Jaffna area,
and learned that I would not be allowed to travel any farther north than
Vavuniya. In the short time I had, I decided to travel to the East because
restrictions on travel were less stringent there, and I was assured by my
friends that the East was a place of considerable "Tiger activity," and that
Long before setting foot in Sri Lanka, I had set my sights upon an
ambitious goal, and that was to locate and interview child combatants. I had
always wanted to do an ethnography of interesting children, and was
exploring the idea that children might in many ways be better combatants
than adults. Although I am opposed to warfare on general principles, I am
not of the view that all combatants are victims. While involvement in combat
devastates the minds of some, others reportedly enjoy and benefit from
combat experience, and live happy peaceable lives after the killing is over.
While some feel like helpless pawns, others find more personal freedom in
the midst of warfare than in more "normal" social conditions. The LTTE, like
Tamil people generally, place great stock in children, and I was curious as
to how children in the LTTE might assess their lives.
It was an unwisely chosen project, especially for an initial entree to
the Tiger world. My aim was not to collect information that would be
defamatory to the Tigers, and yet if I had reported the existence of child
combatants, this in itself would have been defamatory to the movement.
Everyone to whom I spoke just said it would be a good way to get the
confidence of the Sri Lankan military if I told them my project was to flush
out, capture, and save child-Tigers. Ultimately, I never stumbled upon any
child combatants, and was greatly relieved about this.
It was blessing enough that I was allowed to speak with adult
Tiger-combatants, to interview them, even to "observe" them for a full eight
days. Even though they were adult, I was intensely aware of the fact that
they were all children to me; that is, they were young enough to be my
children (I am almost fifty). This pre-occupation, if you want to call it
that, comes through in the text below. It is an incomplete text. I have not
even typed up half of my eight-days field notes, and as of this writing, the
five tape-recorded interviews remain untranscribed. It is all still in the
present tense, because it is all still so fresh in my mind.
If there is any value to the essay, it is in its account of the mutual
de-othering of me and them: a pacifist Western woman in dialogue with
committed South Asian guerillas. I grieve for them for I want to see them
live and flourish and not die young. May they understand and forgive my
In a town in Eastern Sri Lanka, I visit a member of a prominent human
rights organization. Just a few days ago, there has been a mysterious
explosion. A young man, visiting the home of a friend, tried to construct a
bomb there and accidentally blew himself up. The friend has been wounded and
is in hospital, in serious condition. The wife of the friend in whose home
the explosion occurred has been taken into custody. She is suspected of
colluding with the LTTE, because the bomb was constructed in her house. The
family wants me to help get her out. They say she knew nothing about the
bomb, she is in shock that all this happened just weeks after her wedding. I
am asking the human-rights worker - we will call her Jane - what I can do.
Jane says people are talking about this event because it happened so
recently. The human rights groups will help the young women.
No amount of prior reading about the atrocities of war could have
prepared me for what Jane tells me. There is too much information to
absorb,8 too many horrors one after another, and as she speaks I can see
them happening in the quiet streets of the town through which I have walked
to her house, in the verdant rural countryside through which I have come by
bus. Jane is keeping records of all human rights abuses that have been
reported to her organization during the last five years. She has hundreds of
file cards from which she is entering data onto a computer.
Each file card has written on it one reported case. She names the
military organizations that have been responsible for civilian deaths: the
Sri Lankan Army, the Special Task Force of the Sri Lankan Police, the Indian
Peace-Keeping Forces, a range of outlaw groups. Never once does she mention
the LTTE as a cause of civilian deaths. She does say they are considered
responsible for the bombing of electrical transformers in one of the coastal
towns in the east.
The army and the Special Task Force have conducted round-ups of Tamil
civilians throughout Sri Lanka. Their aim has been to capture Tigers, but
according to all reports of civilians with whom I speak, including Jane, the
round-ups have captured only random civilians and no one can say if Tigers
were among them. In one recent round-up, the people captured were killed,
and their bodies burnt at a public crossroad in the town where they lived.
A tire was filled with kerosene and the bodies lain around the tire like
spokes around the hub of a wheel, with the heads at the center. The tire was
ignited and the bodies were burnt from the center outward, from the heads to
the feet. A citizens committee went to investigate the remains of the burned
bodies. The bodies were not completely burned; some of the feet at the rim
of the wheel remained. Jane said the feet at the wheel's rim contained very
small feet. Children's feet, they must have been.
About a year or so ago, a "motorcycle brigade" (this was how they were
known) patrolled a part of the East. They killed five people whom they said
were Tigers, decapitated the bodies, and stuck the heads on stakes at
intervals along a roadside, as a warning. The Tigers attacked the motorcycle
brigade, and for a while the motorcycle brigade disappeared, while the
Tigers were seen riding about on a batch of new motorcycles. But now, says
Jane, it seems that the motorcycle brigade has reappeared.
Mortars fired by the army have landed in a school in the east, making
holes in the walls and the floor. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured.
The army disclaimed responsibility for the shelling of the school. But most
locals believe that the mortars were fired from the nearby army base. People
in the school could hear whenever mortars were fired from the army base.
They could not always hear them when they landed, except when they landed
nearby. Sometimes they were fired across the river in the general direction
of Tiger territory. Jane believes it is not possible to aim the mortars
Later I visit the school Jane has mentioned. Scores of children are
playing in the school yard. I learn from many people who live near the
school that they heard explosions at 2:30 and 4:00 on the day when I was
interviewing Tigers across the river. We heard the explosions at the same
time. Mortars landed in villages near us. The villagers fled in panic. One
of them said the next day, "When the army comes, at least we know which way
to run. But when shells fall from the sky or when planes fly overhead, then
we are completely terrorized."
Jane says that an indeterminate number of young Tamil men in the
Batticaloa area have been killed by government forces and vigilante groups,
including the children of some of her friends. Fortunately her own children
have been spared.
How would she feel if her own children joined the Tigers?
"I did not educate them for that," she says emphatically.
Preparations have been made for me to visit an area reputedly controlled
by Tigers. A young man has been asked to show me the way. We will travel on
bicycles because it is easier than walking. The young man on his bike and I
on mine set off down the road. We reach the ferry launch, where twenty or
thirty other people are waiting to cross. Armed guards search all our
belongings and demand identification. I show them my passport. I have also
brought my camera and tape-recorder. Incredibly, the guards wave me through.
Because of my color, I think. The ferry is just a float with a motor. One
could easily swim the distance it takes us across the river. There is no
checkpoint on the other side.
We ride our bikes a mile or so to the first village. At the time I am not
aware of the fact that several hundred people were massacred in this village
just a few months before. It is midday and few people are out. We ask men at
a tea stall for the person we are to contact. They say he is not there but
he will come. We are taken to an empty building with signs on the walls in
Tamil. I do not now remember the content of the signs, but one appears to be
a warning sign suggesting that it would be dangerous to cause trouble to the
Tigers. No one but us is in the office. The young man who has come on his
bike with me is looking nervous.
He says with alarm in his voice, "This is the LTTE office!" No one had
told him my intentions, I guess. Someone asks me what I want. I say I want
to meet Mr. X (my contact person). Then that I want to meet members of the
LTTE. After a while a man who looks in his fifties, unshaven in a slightly
soiled veshtie and shirt, says I should come with him. "How can I trust
you?" I ask, trying not to seem afraid. "You can trust me," he says, looking
intently in my eyes, as though this were enough. He does not fit the
physical description of Mr. X that I have been given. His breath smells of
tobacco. Tigers do not smoke.
The young man who has accompanied me across the river now asks permission
to be on his way. His relatives live in a nearby village -- he will visit
with them. And so he is gone. I follow the man with smoke on his breath
another mile down the road to the next village. He brings me to a lone
building at the corner of two main roads, where a few young men are sitting
and talking. One of them, whose name I later learn is Inpam (all personal
names in this paper are pseudonyms), greets me and asks why I have come. I
explain that I want to meet with some Tigers. I am taken into the building
and into a room empty but for one desk. One of the young men takes his seat
behind the desk. I later learn that his name is Alagar. His face is smooth
and slightly round, unlined, unscarred. His expression is patient, his
manners gentle. Neither he nor any of the other "boys" I meet assume the
officious mechanical postures of soldiers. Nothing about them causes me
They could be my students in New Zealand. I ask Alagar what his status
is. His answer - the exact words I forget - makes me think that he is some
kind of district official. He seems too young for that to me, like an
officer of a student organization, earnestly practicing for a future
leadership role. But it could be that the LTTE has many young people in
middle management positions. If they are like Alagar, that would be good. He
shows no trace of weariness or cynicism.
Alagar being the man behind the only desk in the office, I explain to him
in as much detail as I can my background and my mission. I hand him a copy
of my letter from the Vice-Chancellor of Massey. He keeps it. I explain that
I am not a journalist but an anthropologist. I can stay only a short time
now, but hope to come back at a subsequent date to stay longer. During this
visit I want to meet with some ordinary Tiger combatants, to talk with them,
to write about them. I say that in everything I have read, the Tigers have
been represented as either demons or gods, nothing in between. I want
through my writing to show the world that the Tigers are neither demons nor
"But human beings," Alagar completes my sentence.
"Exactly," I say. For this reason I want to be able to interview ordinary
combatants (catarana poralikal - the phrase comes up often later).
"I'm an ordinary combatant," he says. I think at this point I must have said
that I would be happy to interview him, as well as some others. I tell him
that I want to tape record the interviews, if permission is granted.
According to my recollection, Alagar agrees to this request. As I leave the
office, Inpam says, "We will do everything possible to help you; if you need
anything we haven't provided, just ask." His generous offer surprises and
Inpam is darker than most, almost black, with snow-white teeth. I guess
his age to be thirty. There is something wrong with his right leg, he limps
slightly (all identifying physical characteristics of combatants have been
falsified in this paper). How does one record or remember the physical
features of a person - the voice quality, the facial expression, the
gestures, the walk, the pause in the conversation at just a particular
moment - all the things that add up to make you remember that person
forever? The imprint in the heart that only one person's image will fit, the
mysterious neural pattern that answers to one person only?
Later, Inpam's offer must be withdrawn. Rajan, the real boss, will "speak
with him" if Inpam does not ensure that I am back on the ferry by a certain
hour. That will be a week after this.
But now, the hospitality is overflowing. And by now, also, after years in
Tamil Nadu, I know that this embarrassing kindness to guests is a matter of
course, and I accept it gratefully. They have found a house for me to stay
in. I think of it as having been commandeered by the LTTE for my use, and
this thought discomforts me. I ask repeatedly if I am not putting people
out. But Inpam reassures me, No, it is no trouble at all to the family. They
only hope the place will be adequate. It is just down the road, a five
minute walk from the office. Inpam takes me there. He opens the gate and we
enter the front yard. It could be no more than twenty by thirty feet, but
each inch is tended. The soil is all covered in smooth, raked sand.
A great palm tree and other smaller trees shade the whole yard. Each tree
and each plant is healthy; each one gets watered and tended every day. There
are no weeds, there is no garbage. The family has one rooster and one hen.
The rooster crows in the morning only. The hen cackles and lays an egg, and
people comment that this is what it is doing. A tiny puppy appears in the
yard one day, whining; I comment that it looks lost. They tether it near the
house and feed it. The centerpiece of the yard is a round open well, and ten
feet from it, what looks like a tree bare of branches about twenty feet
high, but at the top is a fork. Another long tree trunk is balanced between
the prongs of the fork. One end of the balanced tree trunk has a weight tied
to it. The other end is directly above the well, and hanging from it is a
long pole to which a bucket is tied. It takes less effort to draw water from
the well, using this set-up.
You can lift the bucket right over your head and dump the water on top of
yourself for a bath. It feels good. I do not even know the name of this
contraption, but guess that it must have been invented a long time ago.
Everything has been worked out and fits together. Is this what
anthropologists used to call "a culture"? I can see the attractiveness of
such a concept, and am sadly amused to find here in this place an experience
that roughly matches the ideal. The village has no electricity, and
consequently no lightbulbs, no fans, and no power cuts. Batteries can only
be smuggled in because the army knows they can be used to make bombs. On the
surface, the absence of electricity does not appear as a hardship. The
village has never had it. Children doze off in the evening as they study by
The contrast with the places I've lived in Tamil Nadu - all of them dry
and ugly - is stark. The water is good. Every evening the old farmer sits
out on the veranda and silently watches the night fall. Sometimes I join
him. Sometimes we talk, and sometimes we are silent together. The war is all
around him; it has badly affected everybody - landholders are taxed by the
LTTE as well as by various arms-bearing splinter groups (EPRLF, TELO, PLOTE
- the "L" in all these acronyms stands for "liberation;" the "E" stands for
"Eelam," the independent nation that all of them used to say they were
fighting for; only the LTTE, however, continues to fight for that cause).
Cultivation is hampered by shelling and strafing; many fields have been
abandoned. Nitrogen-rich fertilizers are not permitted because these
substances, like batteries, can be used to make bombs. All the young men who
are not members of any militia are desperate to leave; many have already
left, or been killed. Yet the old farmer with whom I sit in the evenings on
the veranda appears utterly at peace.
They lead me into the central room of the house, where a bed has been set
up for me next to a window looking out onto the veranda. I lie down on the
bed and sleep for a long time. Then I am awakened for dinner. My dinner is
set on a plate on a small table, all alone. Inpam comes in. He opens the
door to the courtyard and enters without asking permission, as though he
were a longtime friend of the family. Perhaps he is a longtime friend, but
he is greeted with reserve. Perhaps because of his LTTE-affiliation, perhaps
because of his caste. The LTTE has abolished caste within its ranks, and
would abolish it within Eelam, as well. Many of its members come from
"lower" castes; there is some residual unhappiness about this on the part of
some high-caste Tamils.
Dinner is offered to Inpam, too; he sits down by my side at the small
table where our plates are set and we eat together by lamplight. We speak as
we eat, and the conversation turns into a long argument about the war and
the LTTE - he a Tamil militant, I an American pacifist. I have come all this
way to understand the minds of the fighters, not to change them, but the
only way for me to understand them is to let them know how I feel. So I tell
Inpam my objections (some would say pacifist prejudices) to the movement:
the senselessness of killing that only leads to more killing, the devotion
to a leader who seems unworthy of such devotion.
To the first objection, Inpam responds with a passionate recitation of
injustices committed by the government, the army and the police. We argue
past one another on this point for a long time. I am trying to tell him that
two wrongs don't make a right. He is trying to tell me that the government
is so evil it must be opposed by military means; I am attacking the wrong
side. (The private conversation with Inpam was one thing; this report of it
is another. Now for this public audience I must make it clear that I agree
with Inpam on at least two points: the Sri Lankan Army must be stopped, and
the LTTE alone at this time is keeping that army in check).
My second objection (as a liberal westerner with certain prejudices) is
that the revered LTTE leader, Velupillai Pirabaharan, is only a man, what
little I have read and heard about him as a personality does not sit well
with my admittedly biased sensibilities. If the movement is pinning its
hopes on Pirabaharan to provide them with its guiding light, what will
happen to them when he dies? I respect the combatants more than their
leader, I tell Inpam.
Inpam replies that I have insulted the combatants, the movement, insulted
him personally, by making this statement. His pride, intelligence and
intensity sadden me. What will happen to him? I wonder. As the argument
becomes heated, I begin to fear that my questioning the actions of the
movement will cause them to ask me to leave. I apologize to Inpam about
arguing with him, and explain that I just enjoy arguing for its own sake. He
says he enjoys arguing, too.
The next day again, I do nothing but bathe, sleep and eat, and there is
another long conversation with Inpam. I ask him why he joined the movement.
He says that the LTTE asks each family to contribute one person, and he was
the person from his family who joined. His leg was crippled in combat, by a
gunshot wound to the knee. "So you are no longer able to fight," I conclude.
"I am able," he says, "but I am not allowed to go into combat."
The household in which I am staying is run by Valli. She is young,
beautiful, friendly, well-mannered, competent, educated, unmarried. She will
inherit this house at her marriage. Already, the house is referred to as
hers. It seems to me there is something wrong here. Why is a young unmarried
woman head of the household? Why, in her mid-twenties, does she remain
unmarried? But it would be rude to ask such questions. The answers are in
another question: Where have all the young men gone?
Trying to sort out the kin ties here is difficult - who is what kind of
sibling or cousin to whom - because there are so many coming and going. I
try to keep track in my notebook, and write down the comment, "There are
three sons in this family." When Inpam comes to visit, he asks what is in my
notebook, and I read him the passage beginning with that sentence. As I do
so, the house seems to hold its breath.
Inpam has told me that it is the duty of all able-bodied young men to
join the movement and help protect the people. They are hoping that Valli's
grown-up brother will join. They can't force him, they can only try to
persuade him with moral arguments. The LTTE is doing its best to protect the
Tamil people against the depredations of the government army. The people owe
the movement all the support it can give.
Valli's mother has been in the hospital in the town across the river
because of a bad asthma attack. Members of the family tell me that the LTTE,
whom they refer to as "the boys," were of great help -- they took her to the
hospital, got medicine for her. It was not possible to telephone for help,
her father says, because the boys took the phone away. "Who took the phone?"
I ask. Different people say different things.
Valli's mother returns from the hospital the day after I arrive. She
looks less than forty, but fragile and lost in painful thought; she stays on
the veranda, quiet and scarcely moving. I offer her "my" bed, but she
declines gently, and so do the other family members, despite my entreaties.
Valli's nineteen-year-old brother lives in the house with his family, but
attends school in town. He is tall, well built, with cheerful good looks,
like Valli. One day, while we are inside the house, he says to me quietly,
"What the boys are doing is good." And then, with an apologetic smile, still
more quietly, "But I don't want to join them." He wants to go abroad and
work and send money back home.
Last November, he tells me, the Special Task Force of the Police, which
he and the other villagers call simply "the forces," entered the village,
destroyed property, conducted round-ups, and tortured people. Valli's
brother shows me the scars on his wrists and ankles where his hands and feet
were tied. He says that with his hands and feet tied he was hung upside down
and beaten until his whole body was swollen. He shows me an x-ray that was
taken of his chest after he was beaten. No bones were broken. [They torture
people in ways that leave small evidence of torture, according to physicians
in SL who treat torture victims].
But he says that his chest still hurts, and his lower right leg is
completely numb. He says that people are also tortured by a bag being held
over their heads until they are nearly suffocated, or by being dunked
repeatedly underwater until they are foaming at the mouth. Any young Tamil
man is suspected of belonging to the LTTE, he says. When the forces
conducted a round-up in this village a few months ago, they took him and
tortured him because he was a young Tamil man. Every day, when he crosses
the lagoon to go into town, he has to go through the checkpoints operated by
He seems so healthy and relaxed. It is hard to believe that what he says
really happened to him just a few months ago. But the round-ups, torture and
massacres are all documented. Clinics in Colombo that specialize in the
treatment of torture victims report the same kinds of torture that Valli's
brother describes to me. International and local human rights groups working
throughout Sri Lanka keep careful records of the abuses and atrocities they
observe. They are not allowed to report their findings publicly on pain of
deportation, or worse. Rather than speaking out and being forced to leave,
most of them choose to continue their work of saving lives in silence. I am
able to tell this audience what these groups have told me, but if I name
them, their lives may be in danger.
Valli's mother, the woman with asthma, tells me that things are difficult
these days if you have a son in the family. She says they will give money to
help the Tigers; they are fighting for a good cause. Two days after she and
her son tell me these things, she has another bad asthma attack and must
return to the hospital. There are no medical facilities on this side of the
river. Transportation from the village across the river to town is difficult
and takes hours - there are no buses to the village, no cars, no taxis, no
phone. Before the "difficulties" (as villagers euphemistically call the war)
the village had all these things. A healthy person can manage, but
transportation of the sick into town is risky.
I ask if the ICRC cannot help, and the reply is hesitant. I gather that
the ICRC is only equipped to assist with war-related injuries, not with the
ordinary sick. I suggest that the mother stay in town with a family member
until she is completely recovered, rather than going back and forth like
this. Within a week the whole family has abandoned their house in the
village and moved into town. Before they leave their house, they tell me
regretfully that I must leave.
They say they feel unhappy that they cannot provide for me, but they must
look after their mother first. Valli's cousin, also an unmarried woman in
her twenties, tells me that they have all grown to like me very much, they
want me to write, they want me to come back as soon as I can. Valli's
mother's father puts on a white shirt and a white veshdie in preparation for
the journey. "This is my uniform," he says grimly smiling. He uses the
English word "uniform." "It is for people of this nation [desiya makkal]
- both Tamils and Sinhalese. Trousers are for foreigners."
That afternoon I am moved into another house, the one with the peaceful
old farmer. There are no young men in that house at all, the mother is dead,
the house is managed by a woman in her late twenties, also still unmarried.
She tells me her older sister is staying in town, expecting a baby. She
shows me an album filled with photographs of her sister's wedding. As she
pores over the album with me, she comments aloud on her sister's beauty and
laments her own thinness.
She is greatly excited at the imminent arrival of the new baby. It will
be the first grandchild of her father, she says. A few days later, she
brings me the news that the baby, a girl, has been born. I am surprised by
the apparent indifference with which everyone else in the house receives
this news. My mind runs over possible explanations: the birth of girl
children in South Asia is generally not a cause for rejoicing, the family is
hiding its pleasure to avoid bad luck, the current "difficulties" eclipse
Almost all the people in the Tiger office are men. I hear them called by
many names: the LTTE (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), "the boys" (in
English), "the boys and girls" (in English, to acknowledge the presence of
female combatants), iyakkam ("the movement"), pulikal (the
Tamil word for "Tigers"), vidutalai pulikal (Tamil for "liberation
Tigers"), and podiyankal (mainland Tamil for "little boys," Lankan
Tamil for "boys" or "young men").
Some people in the village say that the "difficulties" started after the
"movements" arose. All the Tamil militias, not just the LTTE, are called
"movements." But the Tamil word iyakkam is not new, nor is the thing
it refers to. Iyakkam is derived from the verb iyakku, which
means "make (something) move." Iyakkam is a group of people moving,
and trying to make something else move. It is a perfect word for
insurrectionists attacking a government, for a crowd of peasants marching
against a king's stone castle, for mercurial Tiger guerrillas raiding an
army camp burdened with fortifications.
Much has been made of the fact that Tigers (and members of other opposing
movements as well) are referred to as "boys." Sometimes this nickname has
been cited in support of the charge that the LTTE employs underaged
fighters. From an outsider's point of view, this connection seems spurious,
as Anglophone nations also refer to combatants as "our boys." Like
English-speaking people, Tamil people speak of Tamil combatants as "our
boys" to express a sense of kinship with them - pride in their strength and
beauty, grief in their loss, concern for their behavior, love for them as
one's own. Every "boy" is some mother's son. No boy is so old that the
memory of his childhood is not fresh in the minds of his kin. That Sri
Lankan Tamils are so often criticized for calling Tiger combatants "boys"
bespeaks more than anything else a concern on the part of the government
that the LTTE has the sympathy of Tamil civilians.
One Tamil women has said that the Tiger combatants are called "boys"
because when the movement was young, so were they. The LTTE acknowledges
that some of its fighters have been children. Among the first female LTTE
fighters to die in combat was a girl just thirteen. The very term "child
combatants" is highly charged emotionally. The image of the child combatant
can be heroic or pathetic or monstrous, depending on whether the child going
into the war is viewed as agent or victim or psychopath. A few pro-war Tamil
intellectuals have attempted to demonstrate continuities between the modern
Tamil militias and the stylized conventions of early Tamil war poetry, where
also combatants were described as very young boys.
When the LTTE ran its de facto government in Jaffna, it was in charge of
education, and encouraged schoolchildren to aspire to combat. The children
scored highly on national examinations, especially in the competitive field
of engineering. Critics of the LTTE have accused them of forcible
child-conscription. Tamil militants with whom I spoke, including Inpam, said
that forcible conscription would be pointless, because the conscripts would
run away at the first opportunity. One other now defunkt movement, the TNA
(Tamil National Army), created and supported by the Indian Peace Keeping
Forces, did engage in forcible conscription, with disastrous results.
Many young people have joined the LTTE against the will of their parents.
Other young people have sought admission to the LTTE, sometimes quite
aggressively and persistently, because they required shelter, food and
protection, and the LTTE offered them better options than other places. The
attraction of guns to many people, including children, has not been ignored
by the Tigers in their recruitment campaigns. In a lawless and war-torn
nation, ownership of a gun means power and protection. It is hardly
irrational to want one. Opponents of the Tigers have accused them of
"brainwashing" young children by encouraging them to join the movement and
take up arms.
People at the other ideological extreme (westerners outside of Sri Lanka)
say that insurrectionists, including children, take up arms because their
"direct political experience of oppression" endows them with a precocious
"political maturity," as well as with an almost saintly altruism, a la Che
Guevara. Such ideologues leave no room for a person to join a movement
because it is obviously the most rational course of action under the
circumstances. Those who have always had food on the table fail to
understand that the most "direct political experience of oppression" is
hunger. To insist that no young person has joined the LTTE for the sake of
food and shelter is to contribute to the oppression of those who have joined
for that reason.
There are no pictures on the wall of the Tiger office. No posters, no
signs. It is the place where members of the public come if they want to meet
with the Tiger administrators. I go there every day with my tape-recorder,
hoping that one or more of the "boys" will be available for an interview.
Usually I find myself sitting on the bench on the front veranda, along with
some of the Tigers. We talk informally. They decide they will address me as
"Auntie." This strikes me as amusing, but okay. We can think of no viable
alternatives. I call them by their names.
"Vanakkam, Auntie!" says Mani with a grin whenever he sees me.
"Vanakkam, Mani!" I always say in return, grinning right back.
When I take a photograph of an armed Tiger, Mani insists upon being in
the picture, holding an invisible rifle in his hands, aiming it off to the
distance. But when I pull out my tape-recorder, Mani's face registers
half-serious alarm, and he beats a hasty retreat.
Mani is the only one among the men at the office who does not wear a
cyanide capsule around his neck. All the others do. They keep them under
their shirts and show them to me as proof that they are members of the
movement. This is one matter about which I never hear, or make, any jokes.
Inpam is on the front porch the first day I visit the office. Two women
in saris are sitting on the bench. One is heavy-set and the other is thin.
The thin one's eyes are red. She carries a limp sleeping toddler over her
shoulder. Her younger brother was killed just two days ago. Inpam tells her
that four thousand men have been killed in the war, and she must be a heroic
mother and not grieve at the sacrifice of her kinsman. I long to convey to
Inpam my view that such words can be of no comfort, but this is not the time
for me to speak. When he turns away, the bereaved woman's lips shape silent
words; her face is distorted with rage. Slowly she leaves.
The other woman remains seated and calm. I sit down beside her and ask
why she is here. She tells me that one of her sons was in the Tiger army and
was killed; the forces suspected her two other sons of being Tigers and shot
them as well. She does not tell me why she is on the porch of the office
Inpam walks with me down the road. Another woman is following behind us,
scolding us. She says that I am being fed by the Tigers at the expense of
the village. She says she has seen "everything." Inpam ignores her. She
gestures to me to come with her, she will talk with me. I tell her I will
come as soon as I can, but after that I cannot find her.
Three Tiger women walk past the front of the office to some place near
the back. While the men wear unremarkable civilian clothing, the women are
conspicuously uniformed in trousers and shirts, an outfit that no civilian
woman would wear in this village. The shirts the Tigresses wear are men's
shirts in muted greys and greens, with tails out, belted at the waist. The
trousers have elastic at the bottom above the ankle. The Tigresses would
have bought the cloth for the trousers and shirts in bolts and hired a
seamstress to sew it to their sizes. Or maybe they sewed it themselves.
One of the Tiger women I see is wearing running shoes with heavy socks.
The others are wearing rubber sandals. Two of them have their hair cut very
short - to me they look stylishly punk; the one with the running shoes has a
braid pinned to her head. The cyanide capsules hung by black strings around
their necks are tucked neatly into their left breast pockets with only the
string showing. They glance at me out of the corners of their eyes, but do
not stop or smile. Their demeanor is stern. They seem far more serious and
formidable than the men hanging out on the porch.
A few of the men on the porch from time to time make pointedly
anti-feminist comments. Sunder asks me what work I do and what work my
husband does. I tell him that I am a professor and my (former) husband is a
middle school teacher. Sunder replies, "The man should always be bigger than
the woman; the woman should always be small." I resist the temptation to
point out to Sunder that he is shorter than me. He is just baiting me, I
guess, and let his comment pass.
But there are also pronouncements on the part of assorted male Tigers on
the veranda to the effect that women should always wear saris and long hair
(my hair is medium length; once I wear a skirt and blouse to visit the
office and am sternly told that this garb is unacceptable and I must go home
and change). When at last I have an opportunity to speak with Tigresses in
the office, the men sit outside on the porch and comment, loudly enough for
me to hear, that they think the movement will no longer be letting women
into its ranks.
By the time I meet with two of the Tigresses whom I have seen walking by,
I understand very well why they avoid the men. It is Tiger policy for male
and female combatants to keep a respectful distance from one another; in
addition, the men do not appear to welcome their female comrades. The women
quickly warm up with me. Their apparent sternness I reinterpret as reserve.
Shyness, a veil, a mask for protection, behind which they are themselves.
Some perhaps are stern as well behind the reserve. One of the three whom I
see remains silent and unsmiling through my conversations with the two
others. But Sita and Nirmala easily break into giggles, the straight face a
I ask Nirmala's age and she says, "Thirty: how old do you think I am?"
"Somewhere between sixteen and thirty," I say. "No older than thirty."
"How do you know?" she asks.
I study her face for a moment. "There are no lines," I say, "If you were
older, there would be lines."
Nirmala glances at Sita. "Good guess!" she says. "I'm eighteen. My
birthday is tomorrow at ten in the evening. Will you come?"
"Of course I will come!" I answer. "What can I give you?"
Nirmala is slight and light-skinned and her hair is cut short. She could
be any one of my students or my son's friends - other only as younger is
other, and the friendship of the young for the old is so rare, such a
treasure when offered.
Nirmala tells me I remind her of her mother. I ask her if she has any
brothers or sisters. She says she has two brothers in the movement. I invite
Sita and Nirmala to the house where I am staying, just a brief walk down the
road. They say aloud that they must have lunch first, but Nirmala whispers
to me, "We will come. You go."
I depart alone and head toward the house, glancing back toward the office
once or twice. In a couple of minutes, Nirmala leaves on her bike and
catches up with me on the road. After that, Sita comes.
Nirmala says, "Give me something beautiful. Have you brought many
beautiful things?" I say only my clothing and a few other items. I offer her
my sari, earrings - she says no to both of these. I offer her my watch - she
shows me that she is already wearing a watch. She glances at my camera.
After some hesitation I agree to give her my camera when I leave. But Sita
says no, I should not give Nirmala my camera. I offer American and NZ
dollars and they refuse. I cannot find any appropriate gift to offer them.
But when they leave, Sita gently caresses my hand, shows me a smile both
laughing and tender, and promises they will come back.
As I am eating my breakfast the following morning, Nirmala and Sita visit
me again. Nirmala carries a package wrapped in newspaper. In English I say
to her, "Happy Birthday." She gives me the package, which has bananas,
biscuits and candy in it. They have brought a set of tape cassettes with
songs about the Tigers. They play song about Pirabaharan. Sita asks, "Have
you seen him? He is beautiful, isn't he?" She quietly sings together with
Then, shyly, she asks, "Do you like our movement?"
After some thought, I respond, "I cannot have feelings for a movement,
only for human beings. I like both of you very much."
She smiles. Her hair is carelessly braided and tied up behind. We are two
women who don't bother much about our hair. I have seen her in her running
shoes and heavy socks, climbing a barbed wire fence to get into the compound
of the Tiger office, rather than going around to the gate. She scales the
fence easily, her expression happy, as though she is headed off on a hike
through the countryside, delighted with the day. Did she climb trees in her
childhood, as I did, until she was told that she was too old to be climbing
trees? I want to come with her, over the fields and into the forest.
She is the leader of the women's camp where she stays. Neither she nor
any of the other Tigers tell me what I already know about the camps, that
their location is secret, to protect them from enemy attacks.
"The girls in our camp have asked about you a thousand times," she tells
Now is my chance. "May I come there and meet them? May I come there and
"Yes. We want you to come," Sita says.
Me, eagerly: "When?"
She, invitingly: "We will come and bring you."
I am thrilled at the prospect, but the right time never comes. They would
have had to get permission from the Tiger hierarchy to take me to the camp,
otherwise they could get into trouble. Probably they did ask permission, and
probably it was denied.
Sita does give me a tape-recorded interview, however. It takes courage
for her, for any of the LTTE members, to do this. Their superior officer has
already expressed reservations about this project, although he has not
actually forbidden it, yet. Unintentionally, someone might say the wrong
thing; the tapes might fall into the wrong hands. A tape-recorded interview
is more powerful than any signed document. It is a pact of trust.
On the evening of Tuesday, I am told by Inpam that the Tigers have
successfully raided a nearby army base the evening before. On Wednesday, I
am permitted to conduct interviews with four of the Tigers I have met:
Sunder and Sivaram in the morning, Sita and Alagar in the afternoon, in that
order. All the interviews take place in the Tiger office. During the
interview with Alagar, we hear explosions in the distance. We pause. I check
the time. It is about 2:30. The interview continues to the end.
At about 3:00, I meet with Sita in the office for the interview. Shortly
after we finish the interview, at about 4:00, a second set of explosions is
heard. My interview with Sita is serious and thoughtful, not playful. But
when I ask the question, "Have you ever shot anybody?" she laughs, probably
at the audacity of my asking such a thing in a tape recorded interview.
"I shoot only those who come as enemies," she says.
Every day when I go to the Tiger office, I bring my camera as well as my
tape-recorder. The first day is a great success for pictures. (Only after I
return to New Zealand do I find the whole roll of film is blank. I loaded
the camera incorrectly). Nancy is there at the office on that the first day.
When I ask him his name and he tells me, I ask him to repeat it. "A girl's
name," says one of the other men. They have obviously been through this
Nancy becomes special to me partly because of his name - some of the
other people have to tell me their names again and again day after day
before I finally remember which name goes with which face and each person
becomes more fully differentiated in my mind. But, and in addition, Nancy
exemplifies something to me about the Tiger combatants, something all of
them teach me by their behavior, that they are not playing games, nor are
they pawns, that they have thought their decisions through, that they are
less "brainwashed" than the average American TV-viewer. They could have
fled, and they would have been well rewarded had they joined the Sri Lankan
army. Many have
fled, many have joined the army. But the fighters I meet have stayed
with the LTTE for ethical reasons. Every one of them is prepared to die so
that others can live and be free. Every one of them has been taught to
expect no reward after death.
In appearance, Nancy is a little less than six feet tall, medium build,
not heavily muscled, but muscled enough to do farmwork. Curly hair, not
overly tended. Not a handsome face, but a friendly face, nice smile,
slightly broad-nosed, and somehow I remember him now as freckled. If he
wasn't Tamil, I would color him Irish. He is dressed in what I quickly come
to regard as Tiger combat clothing: a regular men's shirt and trousers, the
trousers gray, the shirt gray and brown, probably both home-sewn. These
shirts, I notice, that most of them wear, come in different patterns, all of
them undistinguished. You would not know this outfit for a uniform, or even
for work clothing. The message it carries is minimal - something on the
order of "average guy on an average day." Nancy is barefoot (message with
trousers: "not going anywhere special"). He is carrying a combat rifle
(message with rest of outfit: "we are indisputably in Tiger territory now").
I ask Nancy if I may take a picture of him with his rifle. He says that
would be fine.
"But it's not a problem for you, to have me taking your picture like
this?" I ask. "What if my film is confiscated and the army gets hold of it?"
"They have my picture anyway," Nancy says. There is no bravado in the way
he tells me this. Resignation perhaps. "During the cease-fire, we handed our
photographs over to them."
"Then, if they have your photograph ...?"
"I won't cross the river," he says. "I'll be on this side for the rest of
A feeling of imprisonment comes over me. Of how it must feel to be Nancy.
The river and the ferry are a ten-minute bike ride away. The ferry across is
a ten-minute trip. Nancy must have been back and forth many times before the
army came. He must have friends and kin on the other side, so very close
geographically. Even to me, the thought of not being able to cross brings a
shudder of rage at the soldiers. But the river doesn't go on forever. Julie
could take a motorbike and travel north or south and around. He could take a
bus as I have. He could swim across at night. But everywhere that is not
fully controlled by the Tigers has soldiers, checkpoints. You can't go
anywhere without answering questions, showing identification. The risk to
Nancy of leaving Tiger territory would be too high. If they caught him, he
would be shot. He anticipates my next question.
"It's not a hardship. I want to be here," he says.
I take a photograph of Nancy, barefoot, holding his rifle, and Mani takes
another photograph of me standing by Julie's side.
Early Monday evening, Nancy appears at the door of a house I am visiting.
He is wearing his combat clothing, but still barefoot, and he is carrying
his rifle. If he had arrived unarmed, it would have been different. Tigers
often visit the house, play with the children, talk casually with the
adults. But seeing Nancy with his rifle, the people with whom I have been
having tea quickly withdraw and disappear into side rooms of the house.
I invite Nancy to come in and have tea; he enters and takes a seat in one
of the recently vacated chairs near me.
"Is that an AK-47?" I ask, trying to make conversation. He has come
looking for me for some reason, and I wonder what it could be.
"A related kind," he says. "There are some modifications."
I don't really care what kind of rifle it is, and Nancy is aware of this.
All my life I have disliked connoiseurs of firearms, and people who use them
to impress. But clearly Nancy has not come to the house with his gun for the
sake of making impressions.
He tells me he is going away for a few days.
"You're going to a fight?" Where else could he be going, with the rifle
"Chee chee!" he says (Tamil for "Don't even think about it!"). "Just into
the jungle for exercises."
"Don't you have any boots?"
I don't know what the Tamil word for "boots" is, and Nancy seems
unfamiliar with the English word.
"Something to wear on your feet. You can't go into the jungle barefoot.
Aren't there stones and thorns?" Me playing the protective mother.
"There are stones and thorns," he affirms.
"Well, won't they hurt your feet?" I demand.
He smiles. "They will hurt."
"I want to talk with you," Nancy says. "Not now, but when there is time,
when we're resting from work."
Recording the stories of combatants is what I have come for, and they all
now know that each of them has something of great value to me, that they can
give or withhold as they choose. They also know that my greatest interest is
in child combatants, if there are any. To meet with such a child, to learn
his or her thoughts and feelings, is my ultimate goal. But I have accepted
the improbability of my reaching this goal, because one of the most damning
charges against the Tigers is that they use children as fighters. I can only
hint at this interest with the adult fighters I have just met, but they are
asute. Besides, word has already reached them through other channels that
this is my aim.
Nancy is solemn and thoughtful. "There are very young people working in
the camps," he says, gazing downwards, as though he were making a difficult
"Fifteen, fourteen, some as young as thirteen."
In previous months, I have studied some literature on child combatants,
and have wondered about the reality. My friends in Tamil Nadu have suggested
that child combatants would be used because children are easy to control;
they fear discipline imposed by people larger than them, and in addition,
because of their inexperience, they can be made to believe anything.
Americans and New Zealanders venture similar hypotheses. The image of
deluded children being sent to die at the battlefront is universally
But there are other ways of thinking about the role of children in
warfare. They learn quickly. Their small size can be an advantage. They are
perceptive, aggressive, bold. They can adapt to any situation. And although
adults think of themselves as the teachers, the trainers and shapers of
children, children are also agents, advancing the frontiers of culture, and
dragging adults behind them. Tigers and other Tamil militant groups have
reported that children persistently demand entry into their ranks. Children
want the guns in their hands, as quickly as possible.
The well cared for six-year-old girl in the home where Nancy now visits
me says she wants to join the Tigers so that she won't have to go to school.
When I report this to Alagar, and ask what the Tigers would do with such a
child, he says, "A six-year-old child? We would raise her and educate her
with utmost love and care. We are fighting so that the next generation won't
have to fight." When Inpam visits the home, he plays gently with the little
girl, pulls her onto his lap, asks her name. She responds with delight,
enjoying the attention. I have always admired the way Tamil men know how to
keep little children happy for hours, the tireless energy they devote to
entertaining the very young. A Sri Lankan Tamil man has told me that it
should be part of every girl-child's upbringing to think that her wish is
her father's command. It comes naturally to Inpam, probably to all these
seasoned Tamil fighters, to make a little girl laugh.
Now as this little girl waits silently in a side room with some of her
kin, Nancy tells me about the not-quite-so-young children to be found in the
LTTE military camps. In the men's camps, these children would be boys. I
tell Nancy that he is grown and strong, but what use would there be for a
thirteen-year-old boy? They are as thin as sticks, some of them. How could
they endure combat?
Nancy says that they are not fighters, but they help in the kitchens,
carry food and supplies, do that kind of work. To my mind come the memories
of so many very small boys I have seen doing heavy work all day and almost
all night in so many kitchens in Madras, Madurai, all the cities of South
India. They do not run away because there is no place to run to, unless it
is another kitchen where conditions may be better. They are the cheapest,
most dispensable labor. Later I learn from other local people that boys go
to work in the LTTE camps in hopes of being admitted to the LTTE itself
after a few years; the LTTE gets many of its new recruits from this source.
And again, when I visit a local boys' orphanage, one of the teachers there
tells me that many of the boys have run away when food at the orphanage was
inadequate. Where did they go? Some of them to the LTTE.
But Nancy has not come today to talk about the kitchen-boys in the camps.
"Do you have a religion?" he asks me.
"Not really," I say. "I was raised as a Christian. You?"
"I am Catholic," says Nancy. "I went to a Catholic school." He takes from
his pocket a picture of Jesus, shows it to me. Then he takes from his pocket
a newspaper clipping.
"I had two brothers," he says. "Both of them died in the movement. My
younger brother died just three days ago." He hands me the newspaper
clipping, an obituary. His calm is similar to what my own male kin have
shown at death.
"I'm sorry," I say. "Do you not grieve?"
"No. My heart is locked like this rifle." Before dark falls, Nancy is
Nancy's visit and departure for the field take place on Monday.
The following day, Tuesday, in the evening, Inpam comes to the house for
"What news?" I ask him, as usual.
"Good news!" he announces. "Last night we attacked the army camp and
killed twenty-seven soldiers."
So Nancy had probably lied to me yesterday evening when he said he was
not going into combat.
My next question to Inpam: "Were any of our people killed, or hurt?"
"No. No one killed or seriously wounded. Just ordinary wounds."
"Our people." "Ordinary wounds." The only two phrases that matter, just
now. How strange is my rejoicing. Inpam anticipates a question that is not
even on my mind: What was the point of killing all those soldiers?
"We brought back a load of weapons. The Sri Lankan army gets these things
from Russia and America, but the only way we can get them is by stealing
them from the army."
"But now won't the army retaliate? And isn't there a good chance that
innocent people will be killed?"
Inpam is too intelligent not to see the consequences, the simple repeated
pattern of Tiger raids on the military and military retaliation against
civilians. I know he has no control over military decisions; he does not
give the orders. But he offers neither this personal disclaimer nor any sign
"We will be having a display of the weapons tomorrow in the next village
over. Will you come?"
"I'm not really interested in seeing weapons. But if you'll take me I'll
come." A date with Inpam to see the weapons exhibition.
"I'll come and get you in the morning and take you there," Inpam says. I
am not surprised when he stands me up. The next evening he tells me he had
so much work he completely forgot our appointment.
Meanwhile, I fret about Nancy. Will he come back? Has he been hurt? I am
pleased and relieved when I see him arrive at the Tiger office, driving a
motorcycle. A broad smile lights up his face, rubber sandals are on his
feet. His happiness makes me happy. But when he dismounts from the
motorcycle, I see that he is limping.
"A lot happened while you were in the jungle," I say. Nancy just keeps on
smiling. "Why are you limping? What happened to your foot?"
Nancy sits down on the bench next to me, and shows me a deep puncture
wound on the sole of his foot. It looks like he stepped on a piece of barbed
wire. No infection is evident. He should get a tetanus shot, though.
"I told you not to go barefoot!"
He is oblivious to my admonishment.
Because I am a woman, it is assumed by villagers that my interest in
Tigers centers on female combatants. To a certain extent this is true. This
is my first foray into the study of warfare. I have avoided it previously
because to my mind warfare has always been a man's game, and that explains
it right there. If you know this much, you don't need to know any more.
"Women warriors" are interesting precisely and only because they are
exceptions to the general rule. Female Tiger combatants are this kind of
anomaly. To the general public, "Tigresses" are among the three most
striking features of the LTTE, the other two being the cyanide capsules and
the suicide killings.
Sita has a sweet child-like voice and is just about five feet tall. More
often than not she is smiling, and many times she is shyly laughing. As
becomes a young unmarried Tamil woman, she seems embarrassed and almost
frightened in the presence of men, never initiating speech with them, nor
speaking back when they criticize her. She and Nirmala visit me one evening
in the second house where I have been quartered. As we are speaking, Mani
unexpectedly enters. Instantly Nirmala and Sita rise to their feet, their
backs straight, their faces expressionless. Mani ignores them and strides
past us into the kitchen, where Shami, the young woman who will inherit this
house, is cooking dinner. As soon as Mani has disappeared, Sita and Nirmala
break into hushed giggles.
I ask them, "Why did you rise when he entered?"
"To show respect," says Nirmala, once again unsmiling. "We respect all
the men in the movement as older brothers."
"But I thought you were their equals," I say. "Do they rise when
enter the room?"
"We are equals," Nirmala insists, ignoring my question. "They are our
older brothers, we are their older sisters. We show respect for one another
at all times."
This is Nirmala's military demeanor speaking. During the same
conversation, I ask her whether she will allow me to interview her, as I
have previously interviewed Sita. With a straight face, Nirmala replies, "I
am prepared to answer any question you ask," as though she had been brought
in for interrogation. Is she being ironic, as she was when I first asked her
age? Was she being ironic in her response to my questions about
gender-equality among Tigers? It is difficult to interpret such stiff
formality on the part of a kittenish girl in any other way.
Kittenish and playful, young enough to be my daughters, are these the
sinister Tigresses known to all the world for their determination to kill
Only once, in our casual encounters, do I encounter a glimpse of the
Tigress in Sita. This is when I meet Sita on the road, in the company of
another woman, but without Nirmala.
"Where is Nirmala?" I ask.
Sita looks up at me with that enigmatic serious face. This time no hint
of a smile. "Nirmala is dead."
"What?! How? Where?"
Sita is silent.
"Are you joking? Is what you are telling me true?"
"When did this happen? Why did nobody tell me? You are lying, aren't
"Yes, I am lying," says Sita. My body, tense with alarm, relaxes
slightly. But Sita still does not smile.
"Nirmala has gone very far away," Sita says.
"When will she come back?"
"She will never come back," says Sita.
We part on the road, and I am left not knowing what to believe. But a few
days later, when all the Tiger workers are going from house to house
collecting donations, I see Sita and Nirmala together, talking over a fence
to one of the household women. Nirmala is fine.
ammaadi en manacu cariyillai, nimmatiyaaka vaazha vazhiyille
penkal vaazh kanniirida kataiyai tinamum todarvataa ammaa
cirakudaitta paravaiyaaka atu tuyiril vaazhvataa
ammaadi en manacu cariyillai, nimmatiyaaka vaazha vazhiyille
Dear mother my heart is not well,
for I see no way to live in peace.
Is the tearful story that women live a daily continuing one?
Must they live in pain like birds with broken wings?
Dear mother my heart is not well,
for I see no way to live in peace.
(Refrain of song performed by Tamizhenti, middle-aged female agricultural
laborer, town of Pukkatturai, Tamil Nadu,
10 February 1996)
mannonru kandir iruvakaip pattiram
tinnen riruntatu tivinai cerntatu
vinninru nirvirin mindumannanat pol
enninri mantar irakkinravare
The earth is one, as you have seen,
its vessels of two kinds.
Hardened by fire, the strong endure.
Like all the pots that melt in rain,
the human beings are numberless,
who dying, become earth again.
Tirumular, Tirumantiram 187
(ca. 800 A.D)
When I interview Sita on Wednesday, my aim is to learn what her personal
motivation has been for joining the LTTE, and why she stays with it. The
willingness to go to death in the service of the movement - indeed more than
willingness, the positive desire to die in combat and in no other way - is a
desire I wish to understand, if not to share. Similarly, the unquestioning
devotion of LTTE members to the Tiger leader Velupillai Pirabaharan is
troubling to me as a liberal westerner; it seems inconsistent with the
secular socialism that Sri Lankan Tamil separatists envision for the
independent state that the Tigers are fighting for. Do the means justify the
ends? At what point does total obedience to the leader of the movement leave
off and self-determination begin? Finally, how total is the Tiger
combatants' renunciation of marriage and family for the sake of military
discipline? Does celibacy help them or hurt them? Or could it help some and
Viewed from some angles, the radical aspects of Tiger culture are
"explicable" within the larger frame of Tamil and other Dravidian cultures.
The pendant around the neck signifying submission to a particular discipline
(kadduppadu) is a variform of the marriage pendant signifying, for
women, the renunciation of personal freedom in the service of husband and
family. The same pendant is also reminiscent of the
(sign of Siva) worn by Veerasaivas as a symbol of their radical ownership of
this god in their persons. The adoration of Pirabaharan is in line with the
adoration (bhakti) offered to many human beings who are perceived as
harboring something divine, from great musical talent to rhetorical powers
to the strength of keeping a family together. Harboring the divine is not
inconsistent with human imperfections. Strange vessels are cherished when
they uniquely capture rare qualities. Renunciation of family is one kind of
strangeness apparent in some such vessels. The choice of suicide as a means
of resolving relational losses, and the old tradition of renouncers seeking
individual spiritual freedom and ultimate termination of selfhood all come
In Tamil culture, love takes three forms: paacam (attachment),
(devotion), and anpu (selfless love). Almost everyone has paacam, it
is a necessary part of life, but it is a bond that must be broken if any
kind of liberation is to be gained. Anpu for the people, pattu for
Pirabaharan, and the breaking of ties of paacam for kin and friends are all
aspects of Tiger culture that are fully in accord with wider Tamil cultural
The renunciation of natural death in favor of violent death may seem more
new, but is not really. The Tiger does not quietly slowly dissolve back into
the elements in the manner of a conventional organism, or indeed poem. The
Tiger combatant fights natural death by embracing a radical death and
stepping out of biological time. This approach to immortality has strong
precedents in Tamil Siddha philosophy.
I hope, through my interview with Sita, to gain a better understanding of
Tiger culture as experienced by Tiger combatants. I want to know if and how
Tiger women experience this culture differently from Tiger men. Is the LTTE
just another boys' gang? Is the Eelam War just another man's game? The main
topics about which I seek elucidation are the devotion to the leader, the
renunciation of family, and the choice to die either in battle, or by
suicide if captured.
Prior to my interview with Sita, I was skeptical of the idea that a woman
might attain liberation by joining the LTTE. But Sita convinces me that some
women at least who join the movement do achieve liberation in certain
senses. It is no trivial thing to want a place in history, as opposed to
being confined to the realm of reproduction, and Sita sees this quite
clearly. In addition, she has achieved a privileged degree of physical power
and mobility; she can operate the machinery - motorbikes, tractors, guns -
freeing her from some of the constraints of a mortal, gendered body. Most
importantly, perhaps, she is liberated from the helpless rage expressed in
the laments of so many traditional Tamil women I know.
During the course of the interview, Sita quotes a Tiger adage: Nencile
nancu ettiyavar taan tamizh iizham piriyar - "Only those who have lifted
the poison to their hearts are beloved of Tamil Eelam." The term nencile
can mean both "in the heart" and "on the chest." The poison on the chest
refers to the cyanide capsule worn as a pendant close to the heart of Tiger
combatants. But there may be a deeper meaning to this adage as well, for
during the course of the interview Sita makes it quite clear that she and
many other combatants have been motivated to join the LTTE because of
frustrated anger at the death of loved ones killed by the army. In the
interview, Sita describes how she harnesses that anger to turn herself into
an effective killer. If she comes across to me as a joyfully sweet human
being, perhaps this is because she has discovered that vengeance is sweet.
As of this writing, the tape of the interview with Sita has not been
fully transcribed. What follows is a set of notes I took while listening to
M. Do you have any brothers or sisters?
S. I have one younger sister in Jaffna.
M. How far have you studied?
S. I studied AL [completed "Advanced Level" exams, indicating readiness
for tertiary education]. My sister studied OL ["Ordinary Level" exams,
indicating completion of secondary education].
M. Where is your sister now?
S. My younger sister became a doctor in Jaffna, and now is in Kilinocchi.
She has only one leg. When she was on her way to market, in Punakari, she
was wounded, and she lost one leg.
M. Do you have any brothers?
S. In 1985, an older brother, when he was coming home from school, the
STF pursued him and shot and killed him. Another brother, in 1990, was shot
and killed in Vantarmullar University [in Batticaloa district].
M. What happened to you after that?
S. In 1990, after the troubles began, both my sister and I were in the
camp [unclear whether she means refugee camp or Tiger camp]. Because of
that, we joined the LTTE. We received our training in the camp. Now I am in
Batticaloa and my sister is in Jaffna.
M. What about your parents?
S. Father died in 1976. Mother is still alive.
M. Was your mother unhappy that you joined the LTTE? Having lost her two
sons, she would not want to lose her daughters as well.
S. Mother is happy that the two girls have joined the movement, because
our two brothers were killed.
M. Does this mean that your mother is now all alone?
S. An elder sister [cousin] is staying with Mother. Also a younger
brother is there, attending school. He is nineteen. He would not leave our
mother to join the movement. So we two girls left.
M. Do you think you will ever marry?
S. We will not marry. It is enough to fight for the liberation (vidutalai)
and happiness of the people.
M. Are you [personally] liberated now?
S. Absolutely! [taaraalamaay]
M. What was your life like before the troubles started? Were you happy?
Was your family comfortable?
S. We were living happily before. After my brothers died, I decided to
join the movement. After my brothers were killed, bitterness and frustration
[virakti] came upon me. I wanted to die as my brothers died.
M. So you don't want to marry, start a new family?
S. There is an age for that.
M. You are twenty-seven. You must have reached that age ...
S. I have no thought of that.
M. Have you ever been in combat? Have you ever been wounded?
S. I have been in combat, but I have not been wounded. I went into combat
in 1993, and in 1992. In Ampara, in 1990, I was among the first group of
female trainees. There were twenty of us. I went into combat for the first
time in 1991. Many people attained a heroic death [she uses the formulaic
phrase viiramaana maranam adainca to refer to LTTE members who died
in battle]. Only four of us now remain.
M. Have you ever shot anybody?
S. (laughs) Only if they come as enemies do I shoot them.
M. Has any of your friends been wounded?
S. My friends have attained heroic death. Only my sister has been
wounded. In the Punakari fight [17/11/93] she was wounded. She has only an
artificial leg now. Her right leg. I haven't seen her since that.
M. How is it when one of your friends dies?
S. Ayyo! Kavalai! Oh! It is painful! [Her voice is the sorrow of a
girl coming upon a fallen bird]. We are taught in training how to accept
this loss. As one friend falls, another comes to take her place. We cannot
grieve too much. If we grieve, we cannot fight. We remember that we too will
die. We all will die and this is a heroic death. But still it is hard. We
have a funeral in which each friend reads a poem or essay she has written
about the friend who has died.
M. What has been your most important experience in the movement?
S. My most important experience ... (she reflects for some moments) ...
There were twenty of us in the training camp in Jaffna. During that time,
one day, we heard the sound of a supersonic fighter. The army was shelling
the town and conducting a round-up. We had only seven training masters with
us. The rest of us did not know what to do. Those seven fought with the army
and drove them away. Then we went to another place.
M. Have you noticed any changes in your mind or heart since joining the
S. If I were at home, I could not do all these things. I have become even
more ready to die. I see the suffering of the people and I have no fear
about fighting and dying for them. Even if I die today, I will be satisfied.
When people in the movement die, it is a useful death. If I died in the
house, there would be nothing remarkable about that.
M. You live close to death. It could come today or tomorrow. Do you
really feel no fear?
S. Chee! If I were afraid, would I have joined the struggle? I am just
exactly like the men. However the older brothers are (annaankal - the
male fighters), we will be the same way. If we were in the house, we would
be confined. But now we are like men, so there is no fear.
M. Do you never wear a sari?
S. Chee! We can't go to the field [i.e., into combat] wearing saris.
M. What do you think of Pirabaharan?
S. Ayyo! [Again in her voice, a childlike sigh of sympathy].
Oru punitamaana manitan. Tiyaaga cintai.
A man of goodness, intellect, sacrifice.
M. But you are the ones who have made all the sacrifices.
S. But the ideas. Because of the love he had for the people, he left his
M. Your life is not important to you. But your honor. What if someone
tried to rape you?
M. No, I mean an ordinary person.
S. That will not happen. People respect us. Ordinary people respect us.
We are members of an army. So they call us younger sister, daughter.
M. Yes. Ordinary people will not do me or you any harm. But there are
crazy men in this world ...
S. Yes, there are crazy men ...
M. What if one of them tried to rape you?
M. Would you fight?
S. I would fight as much as I could ... ? [She does not seem to
understand why I am asking this question].
M. But what if the army comes ...
S. [The reason for the question dawning, she conveys her sudden
understanding of my intent by using an English expression]
Oh! Right, right ... They might try but I would fight and they would not
be able to do it. But otherwise, we have our things [cyanide capsules]. No
one has gotten caught in the field.
M. Is age important? For instance, is there a difference between
fifteen-year-old fighters and thirty-year-old fighters?
S. Yes. Fifteen-year-olds are less experienced. They have just joined,
just started. Every year you gain more experience, more learning.
M. What do you expect from other countries?
S. We want a separate nation. Foreign nations should accept that.
M. What if you don't achieve Tamil Eelam?
S. We will not let go until we have it. We will fight down to the last
M. What will Tamil Eelam be like?
S. (laughs) The people will be happy. We must see that the people are
happy, make them happy.
M. What kind of life do you desire for yourself?
S. I want the life of a fighter. That is the kind of life I like. I don't
want an ordinary life.
M. You don't want a life with husband and children and home and nice
clothes and all that?
S. I don't want it.
M. Why not?
S. As soon as you get married, you have to look after children. We will
raise our children and grow old. When we grow old we will die. There is a
difference between that kind of death and the death of a fighter. Rather
than that kind of death, I would prefer this kind of death. It is a heroic
death. A historic death. A sacrificial death. Having joined the struggle,
gone into battle, for the sake of the people going into battle ... we are
happy at the thought of our death in battle, because then we become part of
M. Yes, but life is one thing and death is another.
S. Life is one thing and death is another ...
M. If I had my way, I would live a normal life but have a cyanide capsule
so that I could die when I chose.
S. nencile nancai ettiyavar taan tamizh iizham piriyar
"Only those who have lifted the poison to their hearts are beloved of
Tamil Eelam." When we have the poison on our chests, we can finish off the
M. Are you of the Saiva religion?
M. Christian? But you are wearing the sacred ash on your forehead.
S. (laughs) In our movement, all religions are one.
M. When you die, after you die ...
S. But it's not like that. To come to an end, it's not like that. When we
die, we have no religion. But when we are buried they read poems as they put
some earth on us. Ordinary people also join. There is something called
strength (uruti). There is something called words of strength (uruti
urai). We speak that to the people. For the sake of the people.
M. Is there another birth after death?
S. I don't know.
M. You have friends? Are they mostly females?
S. There are males, too, but they are brothers [she emphasizes the word].
M. When you go to a fight, do you see the enemy's face?
S. We are hiding, so we can see them up close. When we fight the enemy,
how can we not see him? He is standing right there. How can we shoot him if
we can't see him?
M. You see the person?
S. We see the person.
M. He ...
S. If we see him, we shoot him. If he sees us, he shoots us. Therefore,
we have to be careful.
M. But the person's face and everything ...
S. We see.
M. Seeing it, you shoot.
M. Do they see you, see your face?
S. Yes, they have seen it. They will have seen it.
M. What do they do when they see?
M. The enemy.
S. When they come?
M. When the enemy sees you, what do they do?
S. For us, the way it is for us is, as soon as we see the enemy, our
heart changes. The thought comes that somehow we have to shoot them, and our
M. How does your heart change?
S. It ... When I see the enemy, I think of my brothers, and how they were
killed, and how they were captured and beaten, and how they did this to all
our people, and the thought comes that if I can get the enemy close I can do
whatever I want.
M. So, you get angry.
S. Yes, angry.
M. You get angry with the enemy, and you want to shoot him in that way.
When he sees you, that you are a woman, is he surprised?
S. Yes. Mmm. The enemy went out and told the people that female Tigers
had attacked and beaten and chased them. In Valicceni and Santhiveli we
attacked them. We were only girls, no boys. We chased and chased and fought.
M. When they see you, are they afraid?
M. Do they run?
M. Are you afraid? Do you run?
S. No. We chase them.
M. But if you are ten people and they are a hundred people?
S. We receive training according to the situation. Using that training,
even if they are a hundred people we will shoot them down (cuddi taan
We put one person every ten yards. Ten by ten in a hundred places,
whereas all of them are in one place.
M. In that training, do they teach you how to use a rifle?
S. We were taught in training camp how to attack a hundred people using
ten people. Because of that training, we can attack without fear.
M. Do they teach you how to operate vehicles?
S. Yes. Motorbike, tractor, car.
M. Do you get to choose whether to be Sea Tigers or Earth Tigers?
M. What is the difference?
S. Sea Tigers are taught how to swim.
M. Can't you swim?
S. Yes, but Sea Tigers are taught how to swim in the sea better.
M. Do you know about the Sea Tigers who were captured?
S. Yes. Some died. But some tried to swallow cyanide but the salt water
kept the cyanide from working, so they were captured. The newspapers
reported this, but we still don't know what happened to them.
M. Can't you try to rescue them?
S. Their mother and father must release them. We cannot do it. We can't
go there. The army went and asked their mother, and assaulted her also.
M. Why do you think the enemy has done all these horrible things?
S. The army attacks the family so that the family won't send the
children. And when they can't attack the Tigers, they attack the people.
They cannot control their tempers, so they do this. The enemy fights for his
salary. We are fighting for the people, for a separate nation, and for
liberation. They have other work to do; why should they join the army just
In Mandur, twenty-five people who were in the army died. If they hadn't
joined the army, they could have lived to serve their wives and children. If
he dies, he leaves behind a poor widow with children.
The army thinks all the Tamils are Tigers. But we fight only with the
army, not with the ordinary people. We never kill ordinary people, only the
When they see schoolchildren, they catch them and beat them, and this
causes the children to want to join the LTTE. In general, this is why people
join. Like me, my brothers were killed, and out of rage, I joined the