by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
1987 was an eventful year in the modern history of Sri Lanka.It was the year of the Indo-Lanka accord signed by Indian Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Junius Richard Jayewardena on July 29th. It was in the aftermath of the accord that war erupted on October 10th between the Indian Peace keeping force(IPKF) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The year began with a significant development occurring within LTTE ranks. On January 5th 1987 the LTTE supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran gave the slip to his Indian monitors in Thiruvaanmiyoor, reached the Tamil Nadu Kodiakkarai coast and crossed over by sea to Maathagal in the Jaffna peninsula.
Prabhakaran based in Tamil Nadu for several years after July 1983 had decided to return to Jaffna by late 1986. He had realized that his continuous physical presence in Tamil Nadu gave Indian authorities an avenue of exerting pressure on him.Prabhakaran wanted to deny New Delhi this leverage.Since his movements were keenly monitored by the “Q”branch (intelligence division) of the Tamil Nadu Police the tiger leader kept his plans very secret.
Initially without using the usual wireless communications,Prabhakaran sent trusted loyalists like Dinesh(Thamilselvan),Imraan and Pandian to Jaffna and passed an oral message in confidence to Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias Kittu about his plan to return. Other than Jaffna commander Kittu,none of the other LTTE regional commanders were informed of this.Kittu too kept the matter to himself without telling any of his deputies. However the Jaffna commander arranged for a safe house in the Chavakachcheri area for Prabhakaran to stay when required.
It was the practice then for Prabhakaran to venture out of his residence in the Chennai suburb of Thiruvaanmiyoor in a vehicle with another or two accompanying vehicles with bodyguards.His wife Madhivadhani however went out in a single vehicle only. The Police intelligence operatives monitoring their residence soon familiarized themselves with this procedure.
It had become routine for them to let Madhivadhani’s vehicle proceed in and out without bothering to follow and keep tabs. But when they saw two or three vehicles going out they promptly began monitoring them knowing that the LTTE leader would be inside one of them. Thus when a single vehicle exited the residence on January 5th the “Q”branch officials simply relaxed thinking Madhivadhani Prabhakaran was going out on one of her regular trips to worship at temples.
Prabhakaran and Madhivadhani Prabhakaran
What they did not know then was that Prabhakaran had launched “Operation five” on that day. Instead of going out in the usual manner the LTTE leader had driven out of his residence in a car used regularly by his wife. After proceeding some distance he got into another vehicle and sent the car back home so as to not alert the Indian officials monitoring the LTTE leaders residence.
So secretive was Prabhakaran in this that he had not told even his wife Madhivadhani about his plans.Political adviser Anton Balasingham and senior deputy “Baby” Subramaniam knew of his intention to return to Jaffna but did not know any details of his plans or scheduled date of departure.
Prabhakaran reached the Kodiakkarai coast(point Calimere or cape Calimere)after nightfall on 5th where Ragu also known as “Kundappaah” was waiting. Five boats were waiting in readiness. Prabhakaran clandestinely got on aboard one vessel and the five boat flotilla sailed away. None of the “Ottis” or boatmen realized Prabhakaran was a passenger.These were times when Prabhakaran regarded the number 5 as lucky and 8 as unlucky.
Kittu received the leader at the Maadhagal coast. It was when LTTE cadres greeted Prabhakaran as “Thalaiver” that the Ottis realized how priceless their prize cargo was. Prabhakaran was whisked away to Chavakachcheri under cover of darkness. LTTE wireless operator Kiruba relayed the message “Operation five success” to his counterpart Nalan on the Indian coast.
To strike a personal note it was I who broke the story then (on Jan 7th or 8th) that Prabhakaran had returned to Jaffna. I was then the Colombo Correspondent for the Indian English daily”The Hindu” and newsmagazine “Frontline”.When the news of the return became known Indian and Sri Lankan officials were highly excited and wanting to know from me as to how I got the scoop.
The successful conclusion of “operation five” resulting in the return of Prabhakaran to his native soil galvanized the LTTE further. The war began escalating.The LTTE engaged in a number of attacks including the horrible massacre of Aranthalawa and terrible bomb blast in Pettah. The security forces also intensified their attacks. Aerial bombardment,strafing and artillery attacks on “semi-liberated”Jaffna peninsula became a regular feature. It was also widely expected that a full-scale military offensive to wrest back Jaffna would soon commence.
“ENEMY AT THE GATES”
Having launched debilitating attacks on rival militant organizations and then banning them the LTTE was now tasked with the responsibility of defending Jaffna. The areas under LTTE control in the peninsula were in a beleaguered state. With aerial and artillery attacks increasing the people of Jaffna were encouraged to construct bunkers to take shelter in. People were exhorted to help and support the tigers to safeguard their soil. Fear mongering about possible atrocities against civilians by the “invading” army was on. Jaffna was engulfed with the ominous consciousness of being besieged “Enemy at the gates” (Padalayil Pahaivan) was the dominant feeling.
It was in such an atmosphere and environment that the author of “Tamil Tigress” dubbed by me as “Sharmila”realised her long sought goal of obtaining arms training as a regular member of the LTTE. The desire to fight against what she regarded as oppression and aggression had been in her mind for quite some time.
“Sharmila”s inclination and resolve to fight against perceived injustice had its roots in her childhood life in Hatton. The seventies of the last century saw the Sirima-Shastry pact being implemented rather ruthlessly by the United Front Government of Mrs. Bandaranaike. Tamils of recent Indian origin were uprooted and repatriated in large numbers to India.Families were divided.Wailing and weeping among relatives torn asunder was a frequent occurrence in the railway stations and bus stands.
These sights made a deep impression on a sensitive child like “Sharmila”.She felt terrible injustice was being done to Tamils. Then came the 1977 anti-Tamil violence that shattered her hithero cloistered life. 1978 saw her being moved to her paternal grandmothers house in Jaffna. In Jaffna society “Sharmila” was an outsider and rebelled against its Patriarchal nature. The “rebel”in her found inspiration in Subramaniya Bharathiyar’s concept of the “puthumaippenn” or “Nouveau Woman”.
In Jaffna incidents such as the emergency of 1979 and stationing of army under Brigadier “Bull”Weeratunga, burning of the Jaffna public library and “Eezhanaadu” newspaper premises in 1981 affected the girl. Even as she entered teen-age the military presence in Jaffna was expanded and intensified. There was constant friction between the security forces and Jaffna civilians.All these affected her.
The July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom brought in its aftermath a sea change in the life and psyche of the Sri Lankan Tamil people. “All things changed utterly”.Youths flocked to militant movements to take up arms and fight for Tamil Eelam Liberation. As militant groups proliferated the visible presence of armed Tamil youths assumed massive proportions in Jaffna. Tamil militancy became inter-twined with Tamil civilians in everyday life.
A young girl with the heart and mind of “Sharmila” could not remain immune from the prevailing mood and atmosphere. The spirit of adventure in her longed to join the militant movements and take up arms and fight. Although at that time large numbers of girls joined movements like the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front(EPRLF), Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) or Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization(TELO)”Sharmila” had set her sights on the LTTE.
One reason for this was due to a close relative Pratheeban being an LTTE member. One of the exciting happenings in her life as a 14 year old in 1984 was when the former LTTE Jaffna commander Raveendran alias Pandithar was brought to her house by Pratheeban to watch a video.The TV in the “safe house” where Pandithar was staying had malfunctioned. It was a thrilling experience for her then.
The motivation to join the LTTE also stemmed from the image and aura surrounding the tigers. The LTTE was then perceived as a disciplined fighting force. Among the different Tamil groups it was the LTTE alone which conducted operations against the armed forces continuously and kept the spirit of resistance alive. The LTTE was gradually capturing the imagination of the Jaffna middle classes. Besides the LTTE’s colourful Jaffna commander Kittu and his dashing handsome comrades etched themselves indelibly on the psyche of the teen ager who was imbued with notions of romantic adventurism.
The continuous suffering of Tamils at the hands of the security forces motivated “Sharmila” further. People known to the family were being killed or injured due to aerial bombardment and artillery shelling. It was however the “Kumudhini” boat massacre of May 15th 1985 which had a profound impact on her.
The “Kumudhini” was a passenger ferry plying between Kurikattuvan pier in Pungudutheevu and Neduntheevu known as Delft.The boat left Delft on May 15th at about 7.45 am with 72 persons comprising passengers and crew on board. While the ferry was sailing, a fibre glass boat with six sailors in civils suspected to be from the Nainatheevu/Nagadeepa naval detachment accosted “Kumudhini”at mid sea.
They climbed on board and asked the passengers to come out one by one. Thereafter they were either shot at or hacked with knives. 36 people were killed and 22 injured. Some bodies were thrown overboard.The names of 23 murdered persons were released by Amnesty International.
Jaffna was agog with sorrow and fury as the details of the massacre were known. Irate mobs went around the town demanding offices, businesses and schools be closed. Young “Sharmila”s school was also closed and she saw an infuriated mob at close quarters. She was shocked by the gruesome massacre of innocents. The “Kumudhini” boat massacre was arguably the turning point in her life which made her decide to take up arms and fight.
The first opportunity to link up with the LTTE in some way came when Veluppillai Ratnasingham alias Murali addressed the students of her school Chundikkuli Girls College in 1986. Murali born in Aavarankaal,puthoor on October 10th 1957 was the head of the LTTE’s Student wing known as SOLT (Students organization of Liberation Tigers)
Murali an old student of Arunodhaya College in Alaveddy had lerft Sri Lanka in the late seventies for Germany. Thereafter he moved to Britain.He was in London when the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom occurred. Murali was emotionally shattered by some of the scenes he saw on TV and wept uncontrollably.Being acquainted with Anton and Adele Balasingham then in London, Murali used that contact to go over to India and join the LTTE through the help of the couple. Murali was in the first batch of tigers to get trained by India. This was in Uttar Pradesh.He returned from India and was placed in charge of SOLT by Kittu.
Initially the SOLT office was in Kalviyankaadu and Murali operated from there.Later a new SOLT office was opened opposite the Jaffna University in Thirunelvely which became his permanent office and abode.
Murali figured in the “flashpoint of tension” which triggered off the fighting between the LTTE and TELO in 1986.Murali and another LTTE senior cadre “Basheer Kaka” were travelling on a motor cycle through Kalviyankaadu when they were abducted at gun point by the TELO and detained. The coordinated attack on the TELO by the LTTE was for the ostensible purpose of rescuing Murali and Kaka.
Murali functioning from the SOLT office near the Jaffna campus used to interact with undergrads. Murali was quite popular with the varsity students until the embarassing Rajaharan affair.
A dissident university student Rajaharan had gone missing and the LTTE was suspected. The Jaffna undergrads staged strikes demanding that the LTTE release Rajaharan.Former LTTE deputy –leader Gopalswamy Mahendrarajah alias “Mahathaya” accompanied by Murali addressed the protesting students and flatly denied any LTTE involvement in the student going missing.
Even as Mahathaya was disclaiming responsibility the missing Rajaharan made a dramatic appearance. He accused the LTTE of abducting him and detaining him forcibly. Rajaharan stated that he had escaped from LTTE custody and made his way there. Mahathaya and Murali had “muttai” all over their faces as they hastily retreated amidst hoots,jeers and Bronx cheers.
Despite the discomfiture suffered at the campus “SOLT”Murali was a popular figure among secondary school students in Jaffna. He went around addressing school students as a group and also individually. He was a good speaker and exercised a charismatic hold over some students.Murali also had artistic ability.
The “Tamil tigress” authors first encounter with Murali was at the Jaffna university where she had acted in a play put on the boards at the campus theatre. When she met Murali then her eager request was that she be recruited into the LTTE and sent for arms training. Murali refused and asked her to complete her “A”levels.
On another occasion “Shankar” the LTTE chief of the tiger base near the Jaffna “Kachcheri”or secretariat came to “Sharmila”s home in Rakka lane with her relative Pradeepan. When she begged of Shankar to admit her into LTTE ranks he too smilingly refused saying she was too young.
It was after Murali addressed Chundikuli girls college Advanced level students in mid 1986 that “Sharmila”joined the SOLT. Four students responded to his appeal. Two were from the AL second year and two from the AL first year. “Sharmila” and her best friend Ajanthi(real name) were the two first year students.
Though membership in SOLT gave her an institutional link to the LTTE “Sharmila” was by no means satisfied. Her real aim was to become a full fledged “tigress” and obtain arms training. SOLT membership was only the first step for her.
The duties allotted to her in the SOLT were too tame from her point of view.“Sharmila” and the other three SOLT members from her school had to distribute LTTE literature particularly the magazine”Kalathil” (in the battlefield)to students; they also had to talk with fellow students and convince them of the need to support the liberation struggle.They also had to help organize student participation in demonstrations, processions and functions.
Getting a foothold into the elite Chundikuli Girls College through the quartet was a feather in Murali’s cap who visited the school frequently thereafter.
During her stint with SOLT she often requested Murali to let her obtain arms training.Murali however refused and urged her to pass her “A”levels join university and become a doctor. He knew that her parents wanted her to do well at the exams and enter the medical faculty.
At that time the LTTE in Jaffna had a women’s division functioning as part of the tiger political wing. The women’s division was under a senior cadre whose nom de guerre was “Gayathri” .She herself was a subordinate of LTTE political wing head or political commissar Rasiah Parthiban alias Thileepan. Gayathri a graduate of Jaffna university had under Thileepan’s direction started the women’s division.Wearing spectacles with thick lenses Gayathri had a kind,matronly air about her.
The women’s division was generally referred to as “Suthanthirapparavaigal” or “birds of freedom”. This was because of a journal published under that name by the division. The “Birds of freedom” members used to engage in house to house propaganda and discuss politics with the women of the house. They also helped collect funds for the LTTE. The “Suthanthirapparavaigal” also helped cook meals, render first aid and help nurse injured cadres.
Many of the “Freedom birds” also wanted to get arms training and become regular fighters. They were however put on a waiting list and kept in limbo. So they remained with the LTTE as part of the political wing and occupied themselves by cooking and transporting meals to those male cadres manning sentry posts.
Malathi – pic by Shan Sundaram – free-tamil.com
There is a mistaken impression that it was Adele Balasingham who pioneered the “Freedom Birds” in Jaffna. That was not so. Adele came into the Jaffna scene in a big way only after 1990 when the LTTE was in control of the greater part of the north after the Indian army departure. Earlier she had some interaction with LTTE women cadres based in India.The Jaffna based girls and women of the LTTE of an earlier vintage have not had contact with Adele Balasingham.However Adele Balasingham in later years helped streamline and re-structure the women cadre units
Though some of the duties of SOLT members and Freedom birds overlapped they worked as different entities within the LTTE. As far as “Sharmila” was concerned her intention was not to join the “Freedom birds” but to get arms training and become a full –fledged tiger fighter.
Her ambition to be an armed fighter was further fuelled by the course of events within the LTTE. For the first time in 1986 the LTTE had trained a big batch of women cadres in Dindigul near Madurai in Tamil Nadu. This batch underwent the full rigorous training course followed by male cadres.
The women cadres of the first batch consisted of four categories. One consisted of the three girls who had been abducted by the LTTE in 1983 along with Madhivadhani wife of Prabhakaran. Some girls including Madhivadhani Erambu were on a fast to death campaign in 1983 after the July violence demanding that all displaced varsity students be accommodated in the Jaffna university.
The tigers who opposed such non –violent protests abducted four fasting girls when the condition of one started deteriorating. They were taken to India and housed at the residence of Balasingham. Prabhakaran fell in love with Madhivadhani the prettiest of the four and married her. The other three worked in the LTTE office and were later recruited into the LTTE and given arms training as part of the first batch.
The second category consisted of girls who had joined the other groups like PLOTE,TELO and EPRLF in 1983 and had later broken away. The third category comprised girls freshly recruited by TELO, EPRLF and PLOTE in 1986 and brought to India. They were stranded as these groups had virtually ceased to function after the LTTE onslaught and intimidation.
Though Prabhakaran was generally not in favour of incorporating cadres recruited by other groups into the LTTE he did make an exception with regard to these women. They were given an “amnesty”of sorts and an opportunity to join the LTTE and get arms training. The fourth category was cadres directly recruited by the LTTE from the Eastern province and northern mainland of Wanni.
The first batch of woman cadres with full-fledged arms training in Dindigul were sent in four contingents to Mannar where they were placed under the command and control of Mannar LTTE commander Marcelline Fuselaus alias Victor. The four contingents were headed by Theeba,Sugi,Jeya and Anoja. Incidently Theeba had been ranked as first in merit of all the Dindigul trainee batch members.
After Victor’s death the Mannar command was taken over by Harischandran alias Radha. The girls continued to function under Radha and his deputy Shahjahan. But in March 1987 Kittu was injured and lost a leg in an ambush while returning from the home of his wife to be Cynthia. With the conflict escalating and Jaffna becoming increasingly threatened the bulk of cadres in Mannar were transferred to Jaffna along with Radha and Shahjahan. The women tigers also relocated to Jaffna.
The arrival of woman tiger cadres in Jaffna was of great significance. The sight of these uniformed fighters nicknamed in lighter vein as “Guerillees” (derived as feminine of guerilla)inflamed the passion of many girls wanting to join the LTTE. The “Kalathil” magazine also carried many pictures of “Guerillees”.
The “Tamil tigress” author whose long cherished ambition was to become a “guerillee” was now fired up fully. She renewed her efforts to become a full fledged member. Besides with the security situation becoming dangerous her family was planning to move out to Colombo. She had to join the LTTE before that. Also with the LTTE itself enlarging its ranks to defend Jaffna “Sharmila” felt that the time was ripe for her to press her case.
Persistent efforts to convince Murali finally paid off. Murali was now willing to let her join but wanted her to meet with Political commissar Thileepan before that.So “Sharmila” and Ajanthi went to the SOLT office in Thirunelvely for their historic meeting with Thileepan. The date was May 6th 1987.
After Thileepan arrived at the SOLT office the “interview” began. Both Murali and Thileepan interrogated the two “Chundikulippettaigal” intensively with many probing questions.Most of the queries were aimed at gauging their level of motivation and sense of commitment to the cause. At one stage Murali seemed convinced but not Thileepan.
The LTTE Jaffna political commissar pointed out a procedural snag. He said that several members of the “ Suthanthirapparavaigal/Freedom Birds” who had engaged in lots of political work for years were on the waiting list to get arms training. Compared to them these two girls had no political experience he said. Thileepan said he wanted at least two years political experience from the potential recruits.
Thileepan in 1986
So Thileepan advised both to resume studies and complete their AL while working as volunteers for the political wing and gain two years experience.
Murali then pointed out that they had worked actively for SOLT and proved they had the political acumen and dedication. So Murali now urged Thileepan to accept them.
Thileepan then pointed out that both were bright students and could have a university education. “Why don’t you graduate and then join”?he asked. “Sharmila” then replied saying studies were not important when the Tamil people were facing great danger. She pointed out that Thileepan himself had abandoned his medical studies and joined the LTTE.Likewise they too wanted to sacrifice studies for the sake of the people said the “Tamil Tigress” author.
Now Thileepan changed track. He started warning the girls about the difficulties and hardships they would face as LTTE trainees and cadres. He pointed out that both of them were from comparatively privileged upper middle class background and had had a delicate upbringing. “There wont be any servants to look after your needs or take care of you” he said. “You will have to look after yourself”.Speaking further Thileepan said that they wont be able to wear fashionable clothes, wont get to sleep on comfortable beds, not get good well-cooked food, may have to walk barefoot on hard ground etc. They will have to do many things they would not like , said Thileepan. He told them not to romanticize about guerilla life and to be prepared to undergo hardship and suffering.
Despite Thileepan trying his best to dissuade the girls both friends remained adamant. They remained steadfast in their resolve to join the LTTE and obtain arms training.Finally Thileepan relented.
He said that both were accepted but asked them to go home,think carefully and inform their parents in writing of their decision and then return.He said it was all right if they had second thoughts and changed their decision. They could stay back, complete their “A’levels and then join if they wished.
Ajanthi alias Nirmala
But the two friends were determined.They took their leave and whizzed out on their cycles. Ajanthi did not want to go to their home on Swartz lane as she did not want to face her mother. So both of them first went to their classmate Viji’s house on Temple road,Jaffna. There Ajanthi wrote a letter to her parents and gave it to Viji to be handed over. Meanwhile a tearful Viji was trying hard to persuade both into changing their decision.
“Sharmila” then went to her home on Rakka lane. She knew that her mother would not be at home as she had gone to see her mother in law (Sharmilas grandmother) who had left her 3rd cross street house due to the shelling from Jaffna fort and was now staying with her daughter on Rasavin Thottam road. This was a farewell visit as Sharmila’s mother had plans of leaving Jaffna with her daughters the following day.
When the author of “Tamil Tigress” went home only her sister “Shirani” was there. So “Sharmila” wrote a melodramatic letter to her mother saying that she was no longer her daughter but a daughter of her people and that she was leaving to fight and save the people. She then removed all her jewellery and placed them in a bag along with the note on the Kitchen bench. Being a bookworm she then collected some of her best books ,put them in a bag and left. When the younger sister asked where she was going the elder sister replied she was going to her friend Viji’s house.
The girl who once sang “Una Paloma Blanca”and won a prize at a singing competition sped away on her “Flying Pigeon” to Temple road. From there both she and Ajanthi went to the SOLT Office on their cycles.On the way Ajanthi cried on having to miss saying “Good night” to her mother. But despite the sadness both girls were unwavering in their decision of turning their backs on their comfortable existence and seeking a brave,new life for them and their people.
LTTE woman cadres Theeba,Tharssini, Sumathy and Vadhana
When they reached the SOLT office Murali and his assistant Rajan were waiting for them. Both were asked to choose a new name as a nom de guerre. Ajanthi chose her mother’s name “Nirmala”. The “Tamil Tigress author chose “Shenuka”the name of the daughter of her favourite teacher.Ajanthi warned her that this name would be mispronounced by most people. This did happen and many started calling her “Saenuhaa”.
Then Murali took Nirmala and Shenuka to a house on a lane near the University and left them in the care of a widowed woman with three daughters. One door had shut and another had opened. A new “Guerillee” experience had begun to unfold for the girl now known as Shenuka.
NEXT:Enemies change as Conflict transforms
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org