Photo by Ama Koralage

With the end of the war 15 years ago, thousands LTTE fighters surrendered to the government and were sent to rehabilitation camps, which they refer to as detention camps. The government considers over 11,600 former combatants to be rehabilitated and reintegrated. Out of nearly 12,000 rehabilitation programme participants, there were 594 children, 9,374 adult males and 2,032 adult females.

A report on the rehabilitation of female cadres by Hasangani Edema, Kelsey Rowe, Eric Smith and Cassandra Zavislak pointed out that before the war, Tamil women were marginalised in society. They were expected to follow the ideas of modesty, silence, poise and restraint. Their mobility was limited because they were always being watched by the male population. These gender constructions were deeply entrenched in Tamil society and gave little freedom or power to women.

Women played a major role in the LTTE accounting for over 20% of LTTE forces and 25% of suicide bombers; some reached the highest levels of leadership within the LTTE. While in most cases joining a party to the conflict was the only way of survival, in some cases female soldiers joined the LTTE to obtain equal rights and liberties and to flee or fight oppression. Women initially joined the Tamil Tigers in support roles, becoming combatants in 1985, the report said.

Many joined because they identified with the LTTE’s ideologies of liberation; others held significant grievances against state forces for sexual harassment. When the LTTE began requiring one person from each family to join the cadres, many women joined to take the place of their younger siblings. Some women took on roles as suicide bombers, using society’s perception of them as less dangerous and carried out suicide bombings targeting key political figures in India and in Sri Lanka, the report said.

The government’s Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration (DDR) programme was meant to  ease the former fighters’ transition from wartime to peacetime but many aspects of the programme posed problems for female cadres.

Women experienced reintegration differently. Some, particularly those who joined with support from their families, returned to their communities and were celebrated by family and friends for their contributions to the LTTE. Many others faced barriers to community and personal acceptance. Among the women who have gone through reintegration training, the military’s regular check-in visits restrained their mobility, affecdet their job prospects and strained their relationships. Female cadres reported that visits by the military generated fear among family and community members. Used for surveillance, the check-ins were framed as contributing to social reintegration but increased distrust and stigma between the community and former cadres. Some women were pressured into marriage or experienced sexual harassment because they were cadres, the report said.

The military check-ins have made the women less employable as the frequent visits exposed their identities as former combatants.Surveillance caused people to be wary of association with the cadres and the stigma of former cadres being “uncontrollable” also made them undesirable as employees and wives. Tamil women continued to attract sexual harassment because of their status as prior cadres. Former female cadres highlighted visits “at anytime” and “under any pretext” by military officials for the purpose of surveillance. There were allegations that soldiers used rape or the threat of rape as a means of gathering intelligence, the report said.

Two former LTTE cadres in Jaffna spoke to Groundviews about why they joined the movement, their experiences with reintegration and their hopes for the future.

Sundari (not her real name) is 40 years old. She has an 11 year old daughter. Soft voiced and smiling, she wears her hair in plaits and is dressed in a blue salwar kameez. A deep scar runs down her arm, the result of a battle wound. At first she is nervous to speak but gradually gains confidence. Sundari has requested anonymity to avoid renewed visits from the CID. Separated from her husband, she survives on the work she can find as a labourer and from selling chickens and eggs from her poultry business. Sundari has filed a case for maintenance from her husband who is now married to another women.

How were you treated by the community and the military after your return from the camp?

I came back to Jaffna and lived with relations so there were no issues from relations or the community. After my release in 2010 I was given a card. My name was taken by the CID and police. They regularly came to interview me until 2017. They closely monitored my movements and if I left the area they wanted to know where I was going. Later I had to go to the military camp to sign. Although I have had no visits since 2017 I am still afraid that they may come again. I was given Rs.25,000 from the government. Some international NGOs also helped. I managed to get an incubator and raised chickens to run a poultry business. I also work as a  labourer. The economic situation is challenging. I can manage the basic things but we eat less food, sometimes with just one curry.

Why did you join the LTTE and what was your fighting experience?

I joined the LTTE in 2002 when I was18 years old and I had finished my O’levels. I was doing some sewing work. I was interested in the movement so I joined. I did not go to fight but I became a trainer and a leader of a regiment. In 2007 I became interested in fighting so I asked to be sent to fight. I saw a lot of fighters dying in front of me, girls trained by me and younger than me. When I saw the dead bodies I felt I had to fight for them and fight for justice. In 2009 I was injured by a bullet in my neck. I was treated in a LTTE hospital and returned to fight. At the end of March I got caught to a shell and injured my chest, backbone and hand. On May 18, I came to Mullavaikkal and surrendered to military. I was sent to detention camp. In April 2010, I was released and came to Jaffna to my family. Every week CID came and asked me the same questions in a different way.

What are your hopes for the future? 

We have lost our country so we have no country. The LTTE could have found us a Tamil country where we would not have to suffer. But as a citizen here I want to vote and keep my name in voter list. I will spoil my vote. I have no hope. What I did in the past is the past but I suffer for it. My life has no satisfaction. I don’t have a good life but I am thinking only about my daughter and living for her. I want her to have a good education and not to suffer.

Suganthini, 44, has a 10 year old son. She is separated from husband living with her mother and son, working as a labourer. Her wages are not sufficient to look after her son’s education. There is a shrapnel in her head so that when it is hot, she cannot work outside.

How did you manage in the camp?

I was in the detention camp for six or seven months. I couldn’t find my mother anywhere. Before joining the LTTE I volunteered with the ICRC so they searched and found my mother. We had only one spare set of clothes. We got food. Some friends got bread which had stapler clips so we said we wanted healthy food and our food was reduced as punishment. Then we asked to be able to cook our own food so we did that. My parents visited once a month. I was released in May, 2010. The same night I came home the CID came to my house. The six people from my area were asked to come the next morning to the camp so I went with my parents. We received some dry rations but that’s all we got. The IOM and ICRC gave me a sewing machine.

What happened after you were released?

In May 2010 I returned from detention. For one year the CID came to get my signature. After that I was asked to go to the camp. I always went with my sisters or my mother. If I don’t go for any reason, the CID came to house. When I went to sign there were Tamil speaking officers who were trying to get me to join the military. After two years we got land and housing support from government.

Why did you join the LTTE?

I worked as a volunteer for the ICRC. I joined the LTTE in 2004 when I was 24. Some people supporting the LTTE visited my home and spoke to my parents. A friend and I decided to join. In 2006 I faced my first fight. In 2007 I was severely injured in my neck and hands. After that I surrendered to the military.

What are your plans for the future?

I don’t know what will happen. I am not afraid to say I am an ex-combatant or that I was in a detention camp. I have some fears about the CID. Although they have not come for two years, the fear is there. Last year my name was added to the voter list. I haven’t decided whom to vote for. If there a common Tamil candidate comes forward, I will consider it but no one can really make a difference. I don’t worry about the past. I am always thinking of the future and not about the past. I am suffering because of the economic crisis. I have shrapnel in my head so I can’t go out to work when it’s hot. When I got pregnant my husband left so now I have to look after my son and think about his security. Children in school are taking drugs and addicts who need money are robbing people. These are the challenges I face.