Women & the
Struggle for Tamil Eelam
Life as a female Tamil Tiger
guerilla relived by one of first female soldiers
Daily Telegraph, 8 May 2009
In 1987, aged 17, Niromi de
Soyza shocked her middle-class Sri Lankan family by
joining the Tamil Tigers. One of the rebels' first female
soldiers, equipped with rifle and cyanide capsule, she
was engaged in fierce combat.
December 23 1987 was a warm, clear day,
and I was hiding under a lantana bush with eight of my
comrades in a village north of Jaffna. With our rifles
cocked and our cyanide capsules clenched between our
teeth, we awaited the soldiers who had been scouring the
area for us for several hours. Our orders were to empty
our magazines into them before biting into the glass
capsules we called 'kuppies' that hung on a thread around
our necks. As a Tamil Tiger guerrilla, there was no
honour in being caught alive.
There had been 22 of us that morning - nine boys and 13
girls, aged between 15 and 26 (I was 17). Now, four of my
comrades were missing, two were wounded. Ten were
At dawn that day, Indian soldiers had surrounded our
hideout, an abandoned house in Urumpiraay, a village in
Sri Lanka's far north. As the war had intensified, our
units were being squeezed out of Jaffna peninsula. We
slept in different places each night: in open fields or
houses taken by force.
Our sentry had spotted the enemy soldiers beyond a
distant line of trees to the south, and Muralie, our
unit's second in command, decided that we should flee
north across an arterial road. The morning chill was
still in the air and the dew dripped from banana leaves
as we ran though fields and approached the road. As we
attempted to cross it, we were ambushed from both sides
in a barrage of automatic gunfire, grenades and
'Get on the ground!' Muralie commanded. 'Fire and break
Everyone was screaming. We crashed to the earth as the
gunfire grew heavier, now coming from behind as well. A
helicopter gunship hovered above, strafing. We were
surrounded. There was no cover other than a few palmyra
and banana trees that dotted the landscape.
Lying on my stomach, I shuffled forward, following
another girl, Ajanthi. My heart was pounding and thick
smoke stung my eyes. In a state of panic, a few of my
comrades attempted to cross the road. One by one, they
fell. One was on her back, screaming, 'My leg, someone
A grenade flew over from my left. As I scrambled to my
hands and knees, I realised Gandhi, our area leader, was
in its path. 'Gandhi anna, duck!' I screamed. The grenade
hit his head and exploded, ripping his skull apart and
covering me with blood and tissue.
Ajanthi got to her knees, ready to dash across the road,
then abruptly fell backwards, her arms and legs splayed
awkwardly. Blood spurted from the centre of her forehead,
soaking her auburn hair. In shock, the air left my lungs
and I could not inhale it back. Ajanthi had been my
friend since primary school and we had joined the Tigers
together. She had been hit by a sniper.
I crawled forward holding my AK-47 with both hands,
desperate to reach Ajanthi and drag her to safety. To my
right, two comrades were trying to drag Muralie, who had
also been hit, through the wet grass. His blood-soaked
body kept slipping through their hands. As I reached
Ajanthi our unit commander, Sudharshan, yanked me by the
collar, dragging me with him.
'But Sudharshan anna,' I said, stumbling to my feet. 'We
have to get Ajanthi, Muralie and the others.' 'They will
follow us,' he said.
We ran through the fields and scrambled over a concrete
parapet as rifle rounds flew from behind us, gouging
holes in the wall. On the other side, we kept running and
found five comrades. Seeing no means of escape, we took
shelter under a large lantana bush.
At sunset, confident that the soldiers had moved on, we
set out through fields, supporting the injured,
eventually reaching a gathering of huts on a narrow lane.
News of our arrival spread quickly, and a curious crowd
assembled along the sides of the lane. Most had never
seen female Tigers before. An old woman flung her bony
arms around me: 'Ayyo, my poor child! Wouldn't your
mother's heart break if she saw you like this?' I didn't
realise then how I must have looked - a starved teenage
girl with torn clothes, caked in blood, barefoot and
carrying an automatic rifle. Most villagers wanted us
gone. If the enemy soldiers knew we were still around,
they were sure to attack the village.
On Christmas Day we arrived at a hideout occupied by
another Tigers unit. I sat outside on the mud veranda,
thinking about the ambush. Since joining the Tigers,
Ajanthi and I - and another girl, Akila - had been
inseparable. The last time I had seen Akila she had been
firing her M16 rifle from behind a water tank during the
ambush. Sengamalam, one of the boys, told me that more
than 2,000 soldiers had been involved in the round-up of
our 22-strong unit, and had dumped the bodies of those
who died in the open air. My mind swum with images of
Ajanthi and Muralie, their bodies being scavenged by
I heard footsteps and looked up to see the silhouette of
three figures approaching our hut. I recognised the tall
Akila, her hair in plaits, and ran towards her. As we
embraced she told me that, after the ambush, she had
survived by hiding in the water tank for two days. 'I
wish I was dead, like Ajanthi,' I spluttered. 'How will I
face her family again?'
'We have to keep their dream of Tamil Eelam alive,' Akila
said. For me, the dream felt far from reach.
I was born in 1969 in Kandy, a Sinhala-majority town in
Sri Lanka's hill country, where I spent the first seven
years of my childhood. Although I had Tamil ancestry -
Tamils make up 18 per cent of Sri Lanka's population - my
extended family included Sinhalese, Sri Lanka's main
ethnic group. In 1978 I was packed off to the northern
Tamil city of Jaffna to live with my grandmother, whom I
hardly knew. 'So that you can become a doctor like your
aunts and uncles,' my father reasoned. 'Education in
Jaffna is far superior.' I was a confident, independent
girl, and my parents believed that I would cope well in a
new environment without them.
Though I was unsure about becoming a doctor, life in
Jaffna was idyllic. Not knowing when I would see my
family again, I began to distance myself from them and
focused on shaping my own life, making new friends and
working hard at school. My weekends were busy with music,
art and drama lessons.
Soon after, my father, an engineer, went to work in Dubai
(it was becoming difficult for Tamils to get good jobs at
home). My mother, a teacher, and sister, who was three
years my junior, joined me in Jaffna. I had been
oblivious to the deep-rooted tensions that were simmering
between the Tamils and Sinhalese, and knew nothing of the
anti-Tamil riots that had killed more than 250 Tamils in
the country the year before. But before long the growing
unrest outside my sheltered world was hard to ignore.
Tamil pressure groups were becoming more vocal in their
calls for equal rights between Tamils and Sinhalese, and
an end to what many Tamils felt were the government's
discriminatory policies. Meanwhile, Sinhala extremism in
the south was growing. There were boycotts, strikes and
skirmishes. There were reports of Tamil politicians being
shot dead, Tamil students being kidnapped.
The quest for equality had spawned a number of militant
groups, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
(LTTE), known as Tamil Tigers outside Sri Lanka. In the
late 1970s they had taken up an armed struggle for an
autonomous Tamil homeland - Tamil Eelam - in the north
and north-east of the country. To begin with, they
carried out minor attacks on government targets, but on
July 23 1983, when I was 14, they ambushed an army patrol
in Jaffna, which brought them into the national
Thirteen soldiers died that day, but about 1,000 Tamils
were said to have lost their lives in an anti-Tamil
pogrom in the south that followed. Large numbers of Tamil
men, mostly teenagers, reacted to what they saw as the
Sri Lankan government's indiscriminate persecution of
innocent Tamils and joined the insurgency, which was
rapidly gathering support.
By 1985 the situation had escalated into full-scale war
in the north and east, with the government launching a
military offensive on Jaffna to wipe out the rebellion.
From a normal happy upbringing, I now found myself living
in constant fear. Jaffna's library, where I spent much of
my free time, was burnt down by government forces.
We lived under indiscriminate aerial bombing and
artillery shelling, day and night; our movements were
restricted by long curfews. We spent many days in our
home-built bunker where I studied, listening to gunshots
and explosions, still hopeful that my exams would go
ahead as scheduled. The Tigers' television station
broadcast images of war: militant training camps, dead
bodies, Tamil funerals. The images began to haunt me, and
I felt outraged that no one was being held to account,
and that the outside world was doing nothing.
The government launched further offensives and air raids
became commonplace. Bodies were sometimes strewn by the
roadside on my way to school, or hanging from lampposts.
I was dismayed by the attitude of family and friends who
believed that they had no power to change the situation,
but didn't support the militant groups either. 'These
movements are run mostly by uneducated, low-caste youth,'
they said. 'They are not capable of solving the Tamil
problem.' But at least they were trying, I thought.
The more I listened to the militants, the more I
sympathised with the idea of an armed struggle, the more
it seemed like the only response. There had never been
any military connections in my family but I felt that if
we were going to be killed or driven from our homes, then
shouldn't we at least put up a fight? With friends, I
talked about joining the insurgency, though few felt the
same, believing that such actions would bring disgrace to
our families. Middle-class girls didn't do such
In May 1987, when I was 17, the Sinhala government
launched Operation Liberation, declaring all-out war
against the Tamil militants on the Jaffna peninsula. By
now, the Tigers had gained administrative control of the
region, restricting government forces to their barracks.
My mother decided that we would return to Kandy until the
war was over. As we prepared to leave, I made up my mind
to run away to join the Tigers. I told my mother that I
was going to Ajanthi's to say goodbye.
After I told Ajanthi my plans, she said, 'I'll come with
you for moral support', and we set off together for the
office of the Student Organisation of Liberation Tigers,
a large house near Jaffna University. We were
interviewed. They were hesitant about recruiting
middle-class girls, but finally relented. Ajanthi said
she would miss me too much if I left without her, and was
'The life of a freedom fighter is harder than you think,'
Thileepan, the leader of the Tigers' political wing,
warned us, adjusting his spectacles. 'We gamble with our
own lives and bury our friends. There'll be none of the
comforts you are used to. I'm not convinced that you are
suited to this lifestyle, but no one here is held against
Knowing my mother and sister were out, I went home and
wrote them a note explaining that I had joined the
Tigers. The following morning, naturally, my mother and
sister and Ajanthi's family came to the Tigers' camp to
plead with us to return home. 'You are about to ruin your
life. This is not for you,' my mother said, grasping my
hands, her eyes filled with tears. Ajanthi's father said
we had been brainwashed.
Thileepan sent us to work with members of the Tigers'
female political wing, the Freedom Birds, contributing
articles to their magazine. At the Freedom Birds'
headquarters, we met Akila, who at 17 was already an
active member. We immediately became friends.
A few weeks later, Ajanthi and I were selected by
Thileepan for military training, and sent to an
all-girls' camp in an outer suburb of Jaffna. As we were
the first group of female fighters to receive military
training in Sri Lanka (at this point, there were fewer
than 80 female Tigers), the organisation's enigmatic
leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, wanted to talk to us
personally. Prabhakaran was seated behind a table in his
office as I entered. The flame from a hurricane lamp cast
shadows across his round face, and his large brown eyes
Although he did not ask many questions, it felt like he
knew everything about me. 'There's hardly anyone in our
movement from your suburb,' he said. 'Most girls here
come from rural areas. They are used to hard work,
pounding rice and chopping firewood. Be in no doubt:
training is going to be harder for you.'
Training, in a village south of Jaffna, was indeed
gruelling. The days began with a two-hour exercise
regime, followed by commando training. In the afternoons
we had firing practice and lessons in explosives and
camouflage. Prabhakaran would visit often, and one
afternoon expressed his desire to recruit us into the
newly formed Black Tigers, the organisation's suicide
bomber wing. Only a week earlier the first of the Tigers'
suicide bombers, known as Captain Miller, had driven a
lorry packed with explosives into an army barracks.
Prabhakaran wanted to give women the same 'opportunity',
he said. I knew I could never do such a thing because I
didn't have the courage.
As the war escalated, civilians were being drawn into the
conflict, and a humanitarian crisis was developing in
Jaffna. Eventually, the Indian government intervened. It
was no secret that India had been fostering Tamil
militants and providing them with training and
ammunition, and the relationship between the Indian and
Sri Lankan governments was strained.
Then the peacekeeping forces arrived, a ceasefire came
into effect, and a peace accord was implemented on July
29 1987. The war-weary Tamils welcomed the Indian Peace
Keeping Forces (IPKF) with open arms, and our training
came to an abrupt halt. But Prabhakaran informed us that
our services would be required in a month or two - he was
sure that hostilities would resume by then. Like the Sri
Lankan government, he did not appreciate the foreign
So it came to pass. In September 1987, while other Tamil
militant organisations engaged in the political process,
Thileepan went on hunger-strike at the Nallur Hindu
Temple near Jaffna in protest against certain aspects of
the peace deal. Mass rallies were organised by pro-Tiger
Tamils in Jaffna and also by Sinhala extremists in the
south, both parties believing the IPKF's intervention
served only to assert India's supremacy in the region.
Fourteen days later, Thileepan died. The Tigers blamed
the Indian government for his death, and for standing
aside while Sinhalese forces violated the peace deal by
arresting some prominent Tigers despite the amnesty
provisions, and organising Sinhala settlement programmes
in Tamil areas.
The war resumed, just as Prabhakaran had predicted,
though now we were fighting not only the government
troops but the peacekeepers, too. A few thousand youths
suited only for guerrilla warfare, we were no match for
the world's second largest army. Fighting the Indians
made no sense to me.
I had joined the Tigers to make a stand against my
country's oppressive government, but now found myself at
war with those who had come to maintain peace. It seemed
that we might be destroying our only chance of resolving
the situation peacefully.
I expressed my doubts to Akila. Fiercely loyal and
single-minded, she argued that, as foot soldiers, we were
unaware of the complex politics of the situation, and
that our leaders knew exactly what they were doing.
'Believe that Anna Prabhakaran is always right,' she told
me. I decided to ignore the growing disquiet inside me
and joined the war.
In October 1987 I was sent to the battle front north of
Jaffna where, by coincidence, Akila and Ajanthi joined me
in a unit of 30 cadres. The first female Tiger had died
only a few days earlier, confirming that women were now
firmly engaged in frontline fighting. During battles we
had been trained to fire in the general direction of the
enemy, not at individual targets, and I am not sure
whether any of my bullets hit anyone. I'm glad I don't
know. I once asked the more experienced Muralie how he
had coped with the knowledge that he had shot people.
'After your second victim,' he said, 'you learn to live
The Tigers had no chance of overpowering the Indian army.
Jaffna and many surrounding areas were now under their
total control. We were being ambushed on an almost daily
basis, becoming accustomed to life on the run. Support
among Tamil civilians was waning, too. Whenever we
encountered them, they pleaded with us to stop this
By early 1988 self-preservation was now our main
strategy. Forced out of the Jaffna peninsula by the IPKF
and following an overnight boat trip, we found ourselves
in the jungles of the Vanni in the Northeastern Province,
where it was easier to lie low. I was now part of a large
unit of nearly 45 girls, with Sengamalam, one of only two
boys, in charge. We moved around the jungle constantly,
enduring primitive living conditions, while 130,000
Indian troops searched for some 2,000 Tigers on foot and
After five months in the jungle, I contracted malaria;
many others were ill with dysentery and typhoid. Akila
stayed by my side, taking care of me, bringing medication
and rice water in a rusty tin. I felt broken, physically
and emotionally, constantly questioning the purpose of a
war that could clearly never be won.
I had believed the militant propaganda, convinced that
Tamil Eelam could be achieved within a year or two, but
it was now clear that an armed conflict would resolve
nothing. 'You are free to go home any time,' Thileepan
had told me. It was time to walk away while I still
could. One morning in June 1988, at a house near the
forest where we had taken shelter following an attack on
our hideout, I approached Sengamalam as he washed at a
'I want to resign.'
He stopped drying his face with a sarong and looked at me
with alarm. 'Is someone giving you grief?'
'I just can't cope any more,' I said. 'I am tired of this
war. I'm weak.'
Calmly, he said that he was sorry, that he was surprised
I had lasted so long. 'I must warn you,' he said, 'your
life will be in grave danger - from the Sri Lankan army,
Indian forces, even rival organisations. Your name is on
their wanted lists.' I didn't care. Surrendering my rifle
and kuppie, I severed all ties with the Tigers, unsure of
what the future held or whether my family would take me
Before I left, I went to say goodbye to Akila. When she
saw me wearing a dress, her jaw dropped. 'What's going
on? You're leaving?' Consumed with shame, I could hardly
speak. 'I can't believe you're leaving me,' she sobbed.
'We have so much to achieve.'
Before I could answer, Sengamalam hurried Akila into the
forest and I watched her fade into the bright sun. I
never saw her again.
Sengamalam organised for a local boy to take me to an old
woman's hut in the nearby town of Kilinochchi. For the
next seven days, the old woman and I did not exchange a
word or a smile.
One afternoon, while I helped herd her cattle into the
shed, I saw my mother running towards me down the dirt
lane. The mayor of Kilinochchi, a distant relative of
ours, had bumped into the Tamil boy who had taken me to
the old woman's hut. The mayor was carrying a photograph
of me that my mother had sent him and asked the boy if he
had seen me. Once I had been identified, the mayor
fetched my mother. The only emotion I felt was relief, as
if I was no longer capable of experiencing happiness or
sadness. My mother embraced me and sobbed while I stood
'I thought you might have disowned me,' I said,
'You're my daughter,' she replied. 'I'd never give up on
Within two months of being reunited with my family,
during which time we never discussed my experiences with
the Tigers, I was sent to a boarding school in India,
where I completed my studies.
Although now in the country whose army I had fought only
months before, I was determined to move on, and make the
best of the second chance I had been given. On the
surface, normality had returned. My fellow students were
girls from affluent families who liked talking about
boys, movie stars and make-up. When the lights in our
dormitory were turned off at night,
I cried myself to sleep.
In 1990, with help from a relative, I moved to Sydney (my
family later moved here, too) and went to university.
After my departure from the Tigers, and with a new life
opening up to me, I blocked out any news of Sri Lanka as
best I could. These days, of course, that is
The two-year war between the Tigers and the Indian forces
came to an end in July 1989, with changes of government
in both countries. But the fighting between the Tigers
and Sri Lankan government forces continued. The primitive
but effective guerrilla organisation that I left behind
grew into a sophisticated and formidable fighting force.
As its methods became more extreme, the LTTE's notoriety
increased - not just within Sri Lanka but all over the
world. (In late 2001 it was classified as a terrorist
organisation by many countries, including Britain.)
The Tigers have carried out hundreds of suicide attacks
over the past two decades - more than all other radical
organisations in the world combined - notably the
assassination of the former Indian prime minister Rajiv
Gandhi in 1991 and the Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe
Premadasa in 1993. The guiding principle of the Tigers,
which is so difficult for outsiders to understand, is
that the greater the sacrifice, the higher the honour.
There are no bravery medals or pompous ceremonies for
living Tigers. They are recognised for their efforts, and
awarded a rank, only posthumously.
The past decade has seen several attempts to form a
lasting peace agreement between the Tigers and the
government, all unsuccessful, with the most recent deal
being torn up in early 2008. Since 2006 the LTTE's
numbers have fallen sharply, funding from the Tamil
diaspora has dwindled while government forces stepped up
At the beginning of this year, a number of crucial Tiger
strongholds were recaptured, and the government was
confident it would annihilate the remaining 1,000 or so
Tigers within months. After three decades, the civil war
- which has claimed more than 70,000 lives, including at
least 23,000 Tigers - appears to have reached its
endgame, the Tigers on the verge of a final, crushing
defeat. The Tamils are, it seems, back at square one.
In fact, the situation may be worse than ever, with the
UN estimating last month that 150,000 civilians were
trapped in the eight-square-mile battle zone, under
constant threat of bombing from government forces and
being used as human shields by the increasingly desperate
Tigers. Some human rights groups have condemned the Sri
Lankan government for practising ethnic cleansing against
them under the guise of fighting terrorism.
Although the Tigers have staged many comebacks in
history, the latest government offensive may prove fatal.
But the scars of this war will remain and until a
political solution that recognises and respects the
rights of the Tamil people is reached, I am certain that
the Tamil fight will continue in one form or another.
More and more these days, my thoughts turn to the friends
I have lost. Recently, for the first time, I typed
Akila's name into Google and found several archived
reports and court documents. Akila died on November 1
1995, in a battle against the Sri Lankan army in
Neervaeli, a town for which we had fought side by side.
With defeat imminent, she ordered the members of her unit
to bite into their cyanide capsules, and then did the
same herself. She was 24. After her death, she was
awarded the highest rank achievable in the Tigers at that
time: lieutenant colonel.
The most shocking detail was that she had been wanted for
masterminding, along with Prabhakaran, the killing of
Rajiv Gandhi. The suicide bomber and her collaborators
had been members of Akila's unit, as I might have been if
I had not walked away from the Tigers.
On the surface, my life goes on as a happily married
mother in an affluent Sydney suburb who enjoys reading,
travelling and gardening. But often, in my dreams, I am
being chased by soldiers or hanging off the side of a
cliff, unable to save myself. It has taken me a long time
not to panic when I hear a helicopter overhead.
I rarely discuss my past. Some people cannot believe that
someone with my grounded life could have done such
things. Others probe deeper, asking if I regret picking
up a gun with the intention of killing others. Of course,
some will never understand; others may consider me a
The world has changed since I left the Tigers, just as
the Tigers themselves have changed. In this age of
terrorism it is easy to dismiss all rebel groups as evil
extremists, without considering the desperate
circumstances that drive people to align themselves to
I tell people that the only reason I joined the war was
to defend my people, because I felt there was no other
choice. I was not coerced to join the insurgency. As an
idealistic 17-year-old, I believed in the power of the
individual to make a difference.
Looking back, I recognise the elements of reckless,
selfish teenage rebellion in my behaviour. Naively, I had
not anticipated how much my family would suffer as a
consequence of my actions, and for that, above all else,
I am deeply sorry. To this day, my parents have never
asked me about my time as a guerrilla. As a mother
myself, I understand why: that they must somehow have
felt that they had failed in their duty as parents.
I hope that my own children will grow up with firm,
positive views, but without the blind idealism I had all
those years ago. I will try to teach them tolerance and
empathy, that the end doesn't always justify the means,
and that violence always breeds more violence. I learnt
that lesson the hard way. Sadly, I don't think Sri Lanka
has learnt it at all.