Death, the name of the game
Women cadres of the erstwhile LTTE in Sri Lanka are trying to make a new life after the battle is over but with mixed results. Shanika Sriyananda reports from the ground
Her smile is infectious. The soft spoken young woman, a typical Tamil girl, is shy. The small red pottu and simple jewellery add glamour to her charm. She crushes the pink handkerchief in her palm while unfolding her story from a hardcore terrorist to an ordinary woman who now dreams of seeing her four year-old son.
" I still can't believe that I am alive", says Lakshmi, who is partly paralyzed due to a mortar that fell on their Forward Defence Lines (FDLs) where she was commanding her unit in Jaffna in north Sri Lanka.
The former Tigress of the LTTE is not a victim of the LTTE's forced conscription, though. Motivated by the LTTE's propaganda to win a Tamil homeland, she joined the outfit two decades ago. "I was so attracted to the LTTE's seminars and speeches on how Tamils were discriminated against by the Sinhala government that I was ready to die for the cause," she confesses.
When the Tigers came to her school to recruit, Lakshmi was ready to go. They took her to a training camp without informing her parents. "I am trained to shoot with any weapon," she says matter-of-factly.
Lakshmi proved her fighting skill soon and was appointed as a leader of several FDLs. In a confrontation with Sri Lankan soldiers she was seriously injured and remained semi-conscious for nearly five years.
Once up on her feet, she rejoined the LTTE and was appointed the deputy of the identity cards section. "We introduced a new ID system and I prepared Prabhakaran's ID too but couldn't hand it over to him," Lakshmi reveals.
Though marriage was initially prohibited to LTTE cadres, later it was relaxed for those who were in their late 20s. Lakshmi married a Tiger in 2007 and both fought against the advancing soldiers together in the same FDL.
They were there in the last patch of land in Mullaitivu where the final battle was fought. They surrendered as they were offered amnesty.
" I am lucky. My aunt who was taking care of my son when I was in the battle front had fled the government controlled areas with my son. I want to be with my baby soon", Lakshmi's voice quivers with longing.
Twenty plus Sangeetha, on the other hand, is a victim of LTTE's forced conscription. She was dragged into a van when she was returning from school one day. Her parents were helpless to protect her from the abductors.
Recalling the fateful incident ten-years ago, she says that the van was packed with school girls and boys. They were crying and pleading with the Tiger Police corps to allow them to go home but in vain. In a camp, they were trained for few months about weapons and military tactics.
"There was no chance of escaping and those who tried to flee were shot dead as punishment. As there was no other option, we fought. We thought of death all the time," Sangeetha says.
The ill-trained freshers were deployed in FDLs. With poor supply of food and medicine due to shrinking man power, they starved for days.
Being an experienced Sea Tiger, Sangeetha could handle any weapon and swim effortlessly. During the training, it was compulsory for the Sea Tigers to swim for hours in the rough seas as they were trained to be suicide bombers of the LTTE's Sea Tiger wing, an outfit of its naval force.
" During the final months we suffered a lot and even Sea Tigers were deployed to fight with the advancing soldiers. I knew there was no hope of victory for us and surrendered to the Army."
It is difficult to believe that these shy and humble women were turned into deadly fighters or suicide bombers.
For Lakshmi and Sangeetha and thousands of female ex-Tigers, death was the name of the game three years back. While the deadly mortars and artilleries were falling around them and with signs of soldiers surrounding them, the bitter lessons taught by their seniors about the inhuman acts by soldiers haunted their mind. Few minutes were left for them to decide their fate - death or life? Choosing the latter, they shed their Tiger uniforms and surrendered.
Nearly 11, 800 ex-Tigers surrendered to the military when the fighting came to an end in May, 2009.
Many female Tigers are reunited with their families today and are engaged in self employment programmes or working in garment factories after the completion
of the rehabilitation process. Over 400 rehabilitated ex-LTTE female cadres are now employed at a well-known apparel factory in the southern Sri Lanka.
Some 2,250 ex-Tigresses have been reintegrated into the society and only 29 are undergoing rehabilitation at the centre now. While in prison, the court recommended a one-year rehabilitation process.
Lakshmi and Sangeetha are at a rehabilitation centre at the Poontottam centre, in Vavuniya set up for female ex-Tigers. The female cadres are offered various vocational training opportunities suited to their professions, skills and preferences.
Ironically, for the once deadly soldiers, the beautician course is one of the most popular because of a growing demand for fashion, skin care, hair style and beauty products in the North. The LTTE had discouraged women from such indulgences. Some of the inmates plan to open beauty parlous when they go back home.
Brigadier Darshana Hettiarachchi, commissioner general of Rehabilitation, says that the young people are talented; they just need a helping hand to start their own enterprise and also to continue their education which many of them were denied of due to LTTE's forced conscriptions.
The female ex cadres are first introduced to a healing process that includes meditation and religious discourses to help get rid of anger, hatred and frustration. "Many suffer from post traumatic experiences. While educating them on theoretical aspects, they are motivated to mingle with the society, to be kind to people and to respect and accommodate ideas of other people," Hettiarachchi says.
The LTTE formed its women wing in 1983. Initially they were used for political propaganda. But from 1984 they were given military training. The female LTTE cadres led an artillery unit and were used as suicide bombers.
Uma has few months to go home. But she has doubts if her village would welcome her. "I worked for the LTTE police. I followed my leaders' instructions to recruit young people. I know many of them are angry with us for conscripting their loved ones," she admits.
The rehabilitation authorities have conducted several public awareness programmes for the villagers and religious leaders to set the ground to welcome the rehabilitated ex-Tigers.
"Our responsibility doesn't end after reintegration. We educate them to accommodate those who are released after rehabilitation. Still they hate them and the villagers who are resettled don't want them in their midst. We have to intervene to make safe environs for the released ex-Tigers," Hettiarachchi says.
'What am I to do when I go home?' many ask. Some put their vocational training into practice by start-up projects but most do not have the capital to do so.
The Sri Lankan government has allocated funds to grant loans with a meager four percent interest to start income generation projects. A special pay-back period has also been formulated.
Social stigma still prevails in the northern villagers. For most of them, who are in their mid 30s, with battle field scars on their bodies and no means to pay a dowry, marriage is a distant dream.
" I have wasted my youth. I have no education or skill to get a job. No one is interested in marrying me. I have lost a limb at the final battle," laments Thangala, another of those snatched by the LTTE while on way back from her school.
(The names have been changed to protect identity)