Two years ago, Norwegian photographer Thomas Haugersveen went to Sri Lanka to cover the civil war that’s been ravaging the country for the past 20 years. After making initial diplomatic contacts in Norway he managed to enter the area known as Tamil Eelam. It’s a guerrilla-controlled state-within-a-state, not officially recognized by the government. Just hours after Thomas wrapped up his time there and headed for home, the village he’d been staying in was attacked. Since then the fighting has intensified rapidly. Rumor has it that all the borders have now been closed. Aid workers are talking about how this could be the final leg of the war.
A Tamil Tiger.
The Tamil Tigers (aka Liberation of the Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE for short) is a military separatist group that is currently fighting a civil war against the state of Sri Lanka. Their main goal is an independent state, far removed from the oppressive powers of the Sinhalese government. They are incredibly serious. All Tamil soldiers carry a poison ampoule around their necks—they don’t believe in being taken prisoner. They single-handedly beat the Indian army in the 80s, and they’re sometimes credited for having “invented” modern-day suicide bombing (it is believed that they’ve carried out more suicide attacks than any other group in the world, including the killing of two heads of state). They’re not a huge army (unofficial numbers vary between 8,000 and 20,000 people, but we’d put it at 15,000) but they’ve made considerable progress, and they now control the northern parts of Sri Lanka—the area known as Tamil Eelam. So far the conflict has claimed 65,000 lives and spawned 1 million fugitives. (And yeah, yeah, yeah, MIA’s dad is famously affiliated with the movement.) But the Tamil Tigers are still not terribly well known in the West, and even lesser known are their female fighters—of which there are a hell of a lot, and of whom we are particularly enamored.
According to unofficial numbers, roughly 4,000 Tamil soldiers are female. Right now, northern Sri Lanka is run as a de facto Tamil state, with a Tamil police force, politicians, and judges. The progress would not have been possible without their female soldiers. While in Sri Lanka I met some of them, including Tamilvili. She lives in the village of Killinochi, a two-hour drive from the border town Omathai. Tamilvili isn’t her real name. It’s the nom de guerre she was given by the guerrillas when she left her family and friends behind to join the fight. When I met her she was on a reconnaissance errand, staring out over a minefield. She’s no longer part of the fighting troops, but she still had her Kalashnikov hanging from her shoulder. She lost a foot after stepping on a land mine and is now being retrained as a war photographer. I was there teaching a class in photography, and that’s how we got to know each other. “I’m proud of my sacrifice, and I’m happy I can keep working for the cause, even if I can’t fight at the front,” she told me. It’s a bit hard to reconcile that sort of fearless dedication with the way the kids behave in my class. The girls flirt with the guys while they all hang out just like kids at school would anywhere else. At certain moments, I can look at them and see typical young women, not trained killers. I guess they’re both things at once.
Tamilvili at her post by the minefield in Tamil Eelam.
Sri Lanka is a conservative, patriarchal society. But Sudar, a spokesperson at the LTTE peace secretariat, tells me that women are an incredibly important part of their organization. “A female troop once defeated one of our most notorious enemies, the Sri Lankan Special Forces,” he told me. “There are also rumors that one female troop conquered a group of Green Berets, but that’s not correct. It was a troop that had been trained by the Green Berets [officially, the US does not provide Sri Lanka with military aid]. We don’t make a distinction between men and women—we simply make a distinction between people who can fight and people who can’t. Women are usually just as useful to us as men in a fight.”
The process by which Tamil Tigers are trained is engineered to weed out anybody who wouldn’t be handy in a scrap. Tamilvili talked me through it. First, new recruits go through a “spy check” to determine that they aren’t double agents. Once they are approved, they are required to lose the life they previously knew—including their official identification papers. “We ask all new recruits to put aside their personal opinions and backgrounds,” she told me. “That way we create a great fellowship. From the first day on, the LTTE is your life. We don’t get paid either, but sometimes we’ll get pocket money.”
After the soldiers receive their new names (Yarlmathy, Thamilini, and Verlini are the most popular), they’re sent to army training. Basically, it’s six months in hell—whether you’re a boy or a girl.
Anbu holding photos of his dead daughters, Thamarai and Painkathir.
“The day starts out with two hours of running, followed by extreme physical training. The warmest part of the day is used for tactics and theoretical training, and afternoons are spent at the shooting range. Our main weaponry assets are handguns, so that’s what people are taught to use. At 4 PM the recruits have two hours off before it’s time for evening and night training. That’s when we focus on guerrilla attacks, signal training, and reconnoiter in the dark.” Trainees are required to jump from buildings that are 16 feet high, climb trees that are upward of 100 feet tall, and swim through swift, strong rivers while fully clothed and armed. A lot of recruits drop out, are hurt, or are killed. Snakebites are one common cause of death. “We’re in the middle of the jungle after all,” Sudar told me. “Our medical staff has antidotes, but they don’t always make it on time.”
After three months of basic training, specialized training begins. Most women will continue training for the armed troops, but some will be given political or administrative chores or get schooled as computer technicians. Some will end up as civil servants, in which case they usually get more traditional tasks, like manning the kindergarten. And last but not least, some of them become suicide bombers.
Selvy lost her eye for the cause a few years ago. “A grenade exploded next to me and I caught some shrapnel in my eye. I was lucky, a lot of the soldiers in my troop were killed or injured worse than me. I still have one eye.”
The Tigers think of their suicide soldiers, aka the Black Tigers, as “military trump cards.” As Sudar tells it, “Let’s say we’ve got a target. We’ll need to use at least 100 soldiers to defeat our enemy, and maybe 50 soldiers will be killed on each side. But if we use a Black Tiger we will have reduced our losses to one or two, while the losses for the enemy will remain the same. It’s simple mathematics. We want to create losses for the enemy that are as big as possible and reduce our losses to an absolute minimum.” I ask him about civilians killed in these attacks and he tells me that the Tigers don’t kill civilians: “Our enemy isn’t the Sinhalese people. They will be welcome to live on our land once we get it. But anyone who raises a weapon against the Tamil Tigers is our enemy.”
A female unit in basic training.
Later I meet Anbu [not his real name]. He has lost two daughters in the war. Each of them, code-named Thamarai and Painkathir, was killed in a fight against Sinhalese troops. “It was their own choice,” he said, “Now they’re martyrs. They died for our people. I could not possibly be more proud of them than I already am.” The fallen soldiers are honored in the biggest room in his house, and Anbu and his wife pray for them several times a day, kneeling in front of portraits of them in their green Tiger uniforms. “They chose to risk their lives so that we should have a better life,” Anbu told me. “They died for us—for our cause.”