The girls wear guerrilla belts,ride motorcycles and handle AK 47s and rocket-propelled grenades.They are the women cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE)who insist they are freedom fighters and not terrorists, writes SHAHANAAZ HABIB.
IF captured during battle, A. Barathy, 23 and P. Tamilvily, 24, have no qualms about swallowing the cyanide capsule they each carry with them around their neck.
“If we are caught, we will immediately take the capsule because otherwise we will be forced to disclose our secrets,” says Barathy, who adds that she would rather die than betray the LTTE movement.
During battles, the Tigers each carry one or two cyanide capsules, but Tamilvily says with a confident laugh that one is really potent enough to do the job.
The two girls from Jaffna joined the Tigers once they were old enough because they felt it was their duty to help liberate their “homeland”.
Barathy was only 15 when the Sri Lankan army came to Jaffna, a Tamil-majority area north of the country and “chased” the Tamils out.
“I cannot forget that day. I was displaced with my family from my native land and we had to live in a refugee camp. I could not continue my studies because there were no facilities in the camp and my father who is a farmer could not work because he had no land. That is the main reason I joined,” she says.
Hundreds of thousands of families were displaced from Jaffna, and women were raped, which fed the young girl’s determination to fight the “enemy who occupied our land”.
But she had to wait another three years until she turned 18 before she was allowed to join the movement. When she did, her parents were not keen on her move because they feared for their daughter’s life.
“But at the same time, they were very proud of me because every Tamil person has the duty to sacrifice himself or herself for his or her homeland. Since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, the Tamils have not had rights,” she says with conviction.
Tamilvily also suffered the fate of being displaced from Jaffna. Now the deputy head of the Women Tigers political wing, she recalls how horrified she was when, in 1995, the Sri Lankan forces told the people seeking refuge at St Peter’s Church to stay there, only to turn around and bomb it later.
“More than 400 people were killed there. And there were people being arrested for no reason. So I decided to join the Tigers,” she says.
Compared to Barathy, Tamilvily had an “easier” job convincing her parents to let her join the militant movement, although it was still tough. Her brother, a Tiger cadre, helped champion her cause to her parents.
The girls say they have an “enjoyable, full life” being female Tiger fighters. Camp, they say, is like one big family and they train hard, play hard and work hard and also get to learn English.
“We like it very much. We are always joking with each other. There are funny things. And during the weekends, we have programmes like dancing and drama,” says Barathy.
But don’t be fooled. Despite their “light” moments during times of peace, these women have undergone a year and half of gruelling combat training and can handle any weapons their male counterparts can. They have also fought in the front line against the Sri Lankan army many times.
Barathy’s first real battle was in 1998. “Fortunately I was not afraid. Our woman commander led us to fight with the enemy in the front line. In 1996, Kilinochchi had been captured by the Sri Lankan forces. So my only feeling at that time was that this is our nation and we have to chase the enemy out from our nation because they had killed most of our Tamil people,” she says.
As it was her first battle, she used only the AK-47, which she describes as a simple weapon to handle.
Tamilvily who also fought in that battle says generally the fighters do not know when they would have made their first kill on the field.
“It is hard to tell. We are shooting and shooting and we can see them falling. But whether they are dead or not, we do not know,” she explains.
Their efforts paid off as LTTE managed to recapture Kilinochchi in 1998 – two years after it had fallen to the Sri Lankan army in 1996.
For 20 years, the Singhalese majority Sri Lankan Government has been fighting the Tamils in the North and East of the country who seem bent on creating a separate Tamil state.
The Tamils who felt “systematically” oppressed by the Singhalese in language, jobs and education after the country’s independence rose up in an armed struggle (Tigers) to fight for their rights in areas they now call their “homeland”, which is the North and East of the country – roughly one third of Sri Lanka.
To pursue their objective, the male Tigers movement was formed in 1970 while the women Tigers came into being in 1985.
Barathy attributes the 15-year gap to the old society traditions where women used to be deemed too “soft” to fight and were considered second to men.
“Nowadays, this backward idea has been changed. Women have equal status. After our leader allowed women cadres to join the movement and women Tigers have made many achievements even at sea, the Tamil society has accepted that women can do like men,” she says.
During training, say the girls, there is no difference between female and male Tiger cadres. They are all trained to handle the same weapons and artillery.
Basic training (which is for six months) is held separately for women Tigers to give the girls who had just joined and had “come from society” time to adjust and adapt to their changed role.
This prepares them for advanced training, which is a mixed programme for male and female cadres. After one to one and a half years, the group is ready for combat.
During training, the cadres say, they eat more than normal and take some “special food” for energy. This includes marmite, eggs and two cups of milk.
On the battlefield, they say, there is no gender discrimination. “We are the same. There is no competition between the women and male cadres.”
Despite their hard work and commitment, the cadres do not get paid for being fighters.
“We are not the military so we have no salaries. We are only freedom fighters. We are volunteers. It is not a job. It is a duty,” stresses Barathy who staunchly defends this policy.
The movement, she says, takes care of all their needs – from food, clothes and slippers to watches and motorcycles. But if a cadre is married, she says, the LTTE would provide for the needs of the family, including education.
The same applies if a Tiger cadre's parent is old and weak and has no other children to provide for him.
Over the 20-year ethnic conflict, between 65,000 and 70,000 people have died. Barathy says 17,000 were Tigers, of which 3,000 were women.
“Any cadre who sacrificed himself in the battlefield is a martyr. They gave their lives for liberation,” she says.
Averse to use of the term “suicide bomber”, both Barathy and Tamilvily insist the word “suicide” is not apt for the Tigers who strap bombs onto their bodies and explode them at target areas.
“Suicide bombers means you are prepared to kill people (civilians). But we only have the Black Tigers who wear bombs on their bodies and walk to the battlefield and destroy targets such as army camps, navy ships or military complexes,” she reasons.
The Black Tigers are the elite squad of the LTTE and are revered in the movement.
Barathy says almost 200 Black Tigers have become martyrs this way. Of this, over 75 were women.
The first female Tiger and martyr is one “Malati” who was killed in battle on Oct 1, 1987. A huge painting of her in combat gear hangs near a road in Kilinochchi and the day she died is commemorated in the Tiger-controlled areas as “Women's day”.
Due to its militant ways, the LTTE has often been condemned internationally as a terrorist movement, which is something all Tigers dismiss as rubbish.
“We are only freedom fighters. We are only a liberation movement. We are not terrorists. We do not kill the Singhalese people or the Tamil people. We are only killing the armed forces in the battlefield,” intones Barathy.
She claims to like Singhalese people whom she believes “are just like us Tamil people” and worries about the “poor” Singhalese soldiers – the very people that she and the rest of the Tigers are fighting.
Odd as it sounds, Barathy the Tiger woman justifies this by saying the soldiers have no choice as they are from the grassroots and had joined the army because they were poor and needed the salary.
“We are very, very sorry for this group with low jobs,” she says.
But she is not as sympathetic with the middle class Singhalese who have high jobs or are politicians.
Currently, there has been an 18-month ceasefire between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government in an attempt to forge peace. But even during times of peace, there is still plenty for the Tigers to do, the girls contend.
“Our movement is not established for fighting. It is for liberating our people so we have a lot of work, like resettling displaced people, reconstruction and rehabilitation. There are 19,000 war widows and we have to rehabilitate life for them,” says Barathy.
Thus she hopes that Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will give a “permanent solution to our problem”.
Sharing this hope for the future, Tamilvily says she wants Sri Lanka to become peaceful, for the people to have their rights, freedom, and normalcy, and to be happy.
And what of “normal” things like boyfriends and marriage for Tiger women?
There are many older women cadres who are married and have children, and they go home to their families during weekends, says Tamilvily.
“Yes. I do want to get married one day. But marriage is just one part of life. More important is we want to get liberation for our people first,” she says, cheekily remarking that the Tiger girls have “many, many boyfriends”.
“All the male cadres are our brothers and friends,” she cheerfully explains.
Out of their camouflage uniform, the female Tigers’ casual wear is usually trousers, a shirt and their distinctive black guerrilla belt. Worn over the shirt, the belt marks them out in a crowd as a Tiger fighter.
“There is no special meaning for the belt. But when we wear it, it gives us morale, makes us look neat and smart and it is a form of identification,” says Barathy.
In a country where precious gemstones abound, the Tiger girls are bare of even earrings and make no apologies for this.
Making girls wear jewellery is a “backward idea”, says Barathy, adding that Tamil society expects girls to be adorned with jewellery and that the ones with the most jewellery would be highly respected.
It is up to the Tiger women, she says, if they wish to put on jewellery during festivals when they wear sarees.
But Barathy insists she will not wear jewellery “because we (Tiger women) have forward ideas and thoughts on freedom. A woman may be educated and a doctor in society but she may not have the freedom of ideas and like to wear lots of jewellery because she is in society and it is expected of her.
“But for us, we are leaders, we are the guides for society. We want the young women to learn from us to go forward,” she says with conviction.
Did you find this article insightful?