[Featured image courtesy The New Yorker.
Editor’s note: This is a direct translation of chapter 5 of Thamilini Jayakumarans’ book ‘Under the shadow of a sword’. This book is a reflection of real life experience of a female combatant in a brutal war. The launch of the book was wracked with controversy, with local politicians, including the TNA, electing not to attend the event. This was probably due to the revelations Thamilini made in her autobiography, including alleging cooperation between the TNA and the LTTE. Thamilini also speaks of the LTTE’s decision to rearm and exploit the Norwegian ceasefire agreement, and confirms high profile assassinations carried out by the LTTE, notably that of Lakshman Kadirgamar. She also refrains from criticising Prabhakaran in the book. Controversy aside, Groundviews believes Thamalini’s narrative is an important insight into the mind of a former combatant, particularly for the social forces at play which drove many Tamil women to join the LTTE, and as such, should be a tool for discussion to aid both the reconciliation and the transitional justice process.]
For more than 20 years I have been in the movement, I have sustained injuries in many battles, I know to command combat forces, I know to lift a rifle and shoot. What am I going to do when I get back home?
When I was in the movement, whenever I walk in to the village in uniform with a rifle I could see the respect people had for me, from the way they looked at me. People regarded me as a person who went to war on behalf of them and treated me as their own child. Now I am going back to the village. No uniform, no rifle, I don’t even have good clothes, because I didn’t earn anything for myself. Now anyone who sees me turns the other way, or they smile sarcastically. “This one could have swallowed cyanide, rather than being alive” I hear their voices behind me.
Now I am worthless.
“Those days she was in the movement. Now she is working for the (Sri Lankan) army. People who go there do not have a good reputation.”
I asked myself why I am starting this chapter like this. This is the reality today, isn’t it? Once as female combatants we dreamed of bending the sky like a bow. Now all our dreams have vanished, we have fallen flat on the ground of reality.
The dedication and contribution by the female combatants to the arms struggle was far beyond the norms of our society. Female combatants were isolated from the community and have grown up as a unique community just as the Liberation Tigers have grown into an isolated mega community. The community is looking at the female combatants’ with astonishment and admiration from afar.
The Tamils had to accept the method of struggle to establish a separate state that was proposed by politicians, despite diverse criticisms. The arms struggle created an environment where society was conditioned to accept the female combatants. This is why the criticism about female combatants that cropped up in the early stages of arm struggle almost disappeared at one stage.
Though females have been brought up through an oppressive ideological structure in the Tamil community, their personality and importance within the family structure has been well established. Even the less educated females who hardly went out in the community had power within the family, contributed significantly to the family savings and acted as burden bearers during difficult times. This has strengthened the role of females.
Even when females were denied basic human rights, they were able to tolerate hardship owing to the mental strength they acquired by living in oppressive conditions. This strength enabled them to pick up arms and take to the streets from the early days of this armed struggle. By the time females took up arms there had already been females in politics who laid down some ideological and political foundations. The bitter truth behind this is that we females who committed ourselves to the arms struggle assumed that we could bring about a change in society through the armed struggle, without expanding our knowledge and thinking.
The Liberation Tigers created the image of being the single most important liberation movement during my school days. Female combatants were performing valiant acts and sacrifices at the battle field. Though I joined the liberation struggle due to the political condition prevailing at that time, I also firmly believed that it presented an opportunity for me to participate in the revolution to change the way females are treated in our society. When I joined the movement as a young school girl, I had the urge and the drive, but I did not have any idea about our society or the political situation of the country.
During 1989-1992 thousands of girls joined the Movement. There were parallel training camps comprising 300 new recruits. In Jaffna, Sugi training camp at Poliganndy, Jeevan and Castro training camps in Manallaru jungle, Kilalli Sothia training camp in Thenmaratchchi, Thilaka training camp, besides 1992 Chita force, the female battalion of Sea Tigers all contributed to become probably one of the largest female combat forces, in the whole world.
Through arms training, females were able to improve their physical strength. However, whether this training contributed to a change in thinking is questionable. All those who came out of the confines of the family structure and entered the confines of the Movement cannot be regarded as having gone through a revolutionary change in their thinking. We were brought up as a trained and disciplined combat force by the Movement in the same way we were brought up at home to be a suitable female for family life.
The frame of mind of a female combatant in striped military uniform, holding a rifle is quite different. The confidence that I can look after myself, being freed from the social constraints experienced since birth, witnessing myself as a new being, a person with duties and responsibilities, a person with the opportunity to make independent decisions, and beyond that a sense of sacrifice, these are important changes that take place in a female combatants life. The feeling that we female combatants of Eelam could be able to make history, like the great female combatants of the Chinese Red Army, Palestine and Thelungana, prompted us to undergo rigorous military training. However it is regrettable that there was no proper ideological foundation within the Movement to convert these transient experiences into permanent character conversion of the combatants.
We did not have any ideological approach to cultivate an independent mindset among our cadre. We dreamed that freeing ourselves from the constraints of home, carrying a rifle, would change our society. What really happened was we female combatants were able to win battles at the warfront, but we were unable to changes the ideas of womanhood in our society. The liberation of women of the Tamil community took a leap forward with images of females taking up arms, but sadly this ended with the defeat of the armed struggle.
Only through progress in terms of education and economic prosperity, and men and women developing mutual respect for human nature beyond sexual differences, will true liberation for women be achieved. The leader of the Movement has expressed various views regarding women’s liberation in his Woman’s day messages.
Creating awareness about women’s rights, improving the living standards of women, identifying affected women in society and providing them relief and working in a broader context to transform society were the functions of the Women’s political wing [of the LTTE]. Based on these objectives the women’s political unit was functionally divided into sections. However we all ended up working towards recruiting new cadres and implementing some development work for women, because, the entire resources of the Movement were geared towards winning the war.
In 1999 the Vanni war reached its height. A separate unit was established to promote the recruitment of new cadres. A male combatant was in charge of this unit. There were both male and female officers under him. They were expected to recruit a target number of new recruits every month. To achieve this target, street dramas, cultural events and meetings with individuals were organized. Speaking at these events was an additional duty for me. At these meetings I stressed the opinion that only through participating in the armed struggle could we bring about a change in the society. However there was no programme for social change working parallel to the arms struggle.
The duties and functions of the females in the Movement started expanding. An administrative section for the female battalion was created as many other battalions and divisions were created. These divisions spread out both on the war front and within background functions, ceaselessly. Many new female commanders and officers-in-charge were appointed. With the expansion the friendship, unity and familiarity that was a feature amongst the female combatants in the early days started to dwindle. This lead to differences in discipline and function among the female combatants.
The first female military training camp was started in the mountainous area of Thinddukal on 18th May 1985. Ponnamman –one of the best trainers in the Movement provided 6 months rigorous training for the first group. Following this the second batch of female combatants were trained in Killali by female combatants. In general female combatants did not like males poking their nose into their administrative matters. From the start all matters pertaining to female combatants were directly handled by the “Thalaivar”. All female combatants had the same admiration and closeness to the “Thalaivar” as they had for their fathers at home, this is an undeniable fact.
Though males and females participated together in various activities, a very strict code of discipline was followed; any violation was severely dealt with. In this regard the Movement was a safe haven for the female cadres. In a few instances where the code of conduct was breached, severe punishment was meted out. Once in 1993 all female cadres were convened at the Sothia Camp in Kilali and in front of all, the death sentence was carried out on 3 female combatants. This was the result of them having illicit sexual relationships with outsiders while they were in one of the Vadamaratchchi camps. This punishment was carried out according to the established code of conduct of the Movement. The males involved in this affair were also executed in front of the public.
To create a close bond between the female combatants, many female commanders wanted to link various female battalions in a common “Women’s Assembly” . When they presented this idea to the “Thalaivar” he was very happy and wanted to personally express his views at the inauguration. Colonel Vidusha was the president, Colonel Durga was her deputy, I was the secretary and a senior cadre Jannani was the treasurer of this new organization. “Thalaivar” gave Rs. 50,000 to Colonel Vidusha for the administrative expenses of the organization.
A constitution for this organisation was drafted about the functioning of the female combatants. The general needs and problems of the female combatants were identified and proper remedies were found. As reports of the meetings were directly sent to the “Thalaivar” all the commanders were very cautious in dealing with administrative units of the female combatants. As females were involved in responsible position in the battle front and other activities, it became imperative to listen to the views of female commanders and officers-in-charge.
Marriage of female combatants and their participation in the Movement‘s activities after marriage created many problems. There was room for love affairs and marriage between male and female combatants within the movement. Mr Anton Balasingham was appointed as the chief of ‘Marriage Group” of the Movement by the “Thalaivar” in 1991. The very next year he resigned from the post as he was unable to do a good job in that position. He mentioned the reason for his resignation on a different occasion.
“ There are many female cadres who have reached marriage age in the Movement, there are injured cadres, there are females who have lost their limbs, our males should come forward to marry them. Our male combatants without considering our females, who fought along with them in the battle field, are looking for pretty, well employed or girls with relations abroad. I don’t have to be there to promote these marriages. I told this to the “Thalaivar” and resigned from the job” he said.
After this incident marriages among members of the Movement were given importance. Prominent commanders willingly married females in the Movement. Even among the ordinary cadres love marriages started taking place. When a member falls in love he/she has to inform about the love affair through the officer-in-charge to the secretariat. Premarital sex was considered a punishable offence. The marriage age for males was 29 years and that of females was 23 years. One of them should have contributed at least 5 years of service to the Movement.
In some marriages there was indirect confirmation of caste by the opposite party. However, many couples who married overlooking caste lived happily. In my family too my mother was caste conscious. For instance, I noticed that my mother used give a man who worked in our garden water to drink from a bottle. One day when he asked for water, I gave him water in the vessel we used to drink water. My mother was very angry; she did not speak to me and threw the vessel away. That day I realized that the caste system is a major problem in our society.
When I joined the Movement and went to work in Jaffna I was saddened to see how even the educated people were ridden with caste consciousness. Through K Daniel’s writings I understood the gravity of the caste issue in our society. I discussed with my friends that we need to fight against this caste system when we have our separate state in the future. Many combatants abhorred the caste system and they realized the importance to struggle against it. However, even though some became well trained combatants there was no change in their attitude towards the caste system, superstitions and other unwanted customs.
When older male combatants wanted to marry very young female combatants it became a sensitive issue. However the final decision in this situation was with the officer-in-charge of the female combatant. When male commanders bring recommendations for combatants under their control usually the female office-in-charge will have differences of opinion on various issues. This caused mental agony for the officer-in-charge. I was responsible for the crèche for the kids of ‘combatant families’. The first such crèche with underground bunker was created in Puthukkudiyeruppu.
At the same time, there were many seriously injured, handicapped female combatants who had passed the age of marriage. For those who were engrossed with work, who had no interest in looking for someone to marry, the Movement provided the security, the basic needs and the prestige as a combatant in the eyes of the society. I knew many female combatants did not want to marry and they just wanted to contribute towards the struggle. In this regard the Movement gave them the independence to make their own choice.
Though there were many female combatants in the war front, regional commanders were males. Female commanders with long experience in the war front were appointed as commanders for male-female combatants by the “Thalaivar”. Colonel Vidush and Colonel Durga were appointed to be in charge of warfront. There was significant growth of the female combatants within the military structure.
In May of 1992 the Women’s Front of the Liberation Tigers organized a conference at the Windsor Theater in Jaffna and came up with 10 resolutions. The main resolution was about the abolition of the dowry system. The dowry issue was a big burden for the whole society. Research was carried out and the Tamil Eelam Judicial Division drafted the “Marriage donation prohibition act” to deal with the dowry issue. However, in reality this act was gathering dust in the law enforcement ordinance.
“Thalaivar” means leader – here it referrers to LTTE leader Prabakharan
The LTTE is usually referred to as – “Movement”