Growing up in the conflict years in Sri Lanka hasn't been easy for Jayanthi, a member of the women's corps of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Born into a poor family in a village outside the eastern town of Batticoloa, she "joined" the LTTE when she was just 14. That was 12 years ago and many battles have passed through her eyes since.
She and her friend Sunitha look like two ordinary village girls, save for their LTTE uniforms - checked blue and white trousers with tunics tucked into them. Their hair is severely tied back into buns, oiled in South Indian fashion. It could be a scene from rural Tamil Nadu or Kerala but the uniforms jolt one back to reality. In Kokkadichi Cholai village, the war is not too far away and there are plenty of bombed out houses to remind you.
Just about 18 months ago, the tranquil fields 25 km outside Batticoloa resounded with the boom and crash of artillery. The Sri Lankan army bombed any and everything on this side in its attempt to quell Tamil dissidence. The Tamils retaliated with mortar fire. Hundreds died in this small patch of land and a cemetery to the "martyrs" is a stark reminder. Just outside is a statute of three Tigers who died while trying to stop the army tanks' advance into the area.
Jayanthi and Sunitha have never known what "normal" life is. They have spent the better part of their adult lives with the Tigers. They are their family, parents, friends; in fact their entire world. They have lived in self-contained communities, often in groups of up to 100, in houses captured from villagers across the eastern and northern parts of the island nation. Indeed, if the stalled peace talks with the government of the island nation fail, it will be back to arms for them.
They are two of an estimated 5000 women Tigers on the island. Since the conflict began in 1983, an estimated 20,000 female cadres have been killed. Clearly, they are the more deadly of the species. While the truce was declared in early 2002, the Tigers have recently boycotted the peace talks in protest connected with rebuilding the minority Tamil areas. Sri Lanka's prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has tried to get the Tigers back to the talks table by promising them a regional interim administration.
Jayanthi talks shyly at first of her "social work" during the last several months of peace. She seems to be at a loss for things to do, like thousands of others of her ilk. The high command has ordered them into nearby villages to "work for a more just social order". This is a far cry from her days as a combatant. When she speaks, she seldom looks directly at you; instead her eyes flit from side to side as if on the lookout for the enemy.
She cycles to a different village every day. Her activities vary from educating village women to organizing them into self-help groups and from getting money and labor for rebuilding civic amenities to "gently" coercing those who still have money to pay for the LTTE's upkeep. Nobody tangles with them even in peacetime. The LTTE may have laid down arms and you certainly don't see any gun-toting people around but they have not surrendered them. They are at hand in their strongholds.
One of the top priorities for these retrenched cadres is providing safe and adequate water to the Tamil people. A rice-and-fish based economy needs a lot of water to get by and most of what they have is brackish sea water. Years of war deprived them of freshwater from inland. Maapillai, a farmer
in the village, says, "The war has completely destroyed the economy. We need basic inputs such as water, seed, fertilizer and pesticides in order to rebuild our lives." All this poses quite a challenge for the former fighters for Tamil independence. Used to speaking from behind a loaded gun, they now have to negotiate. They have to get used to a totally different way of life. Demobilization comes with its own set of problems. An identity crisis seems to be one of them. The Tigers also feel the massive aid of more than $4.5 billion promised by various donors will be spent largely on the Sinhalese dominated areas and the Tamil areas will get a pittance. A look around makes it amply clear that the latter really ought to get preference in the allotment of aid. Hence the LTTE's current boycott of the peace talks. The donors will not release any money till the peace talks are concluded.
"We sometime look at women who never fought and wonder what it would be like to be one of them, to have a husband and children," says Jayanthi. It's an alien life and were the LTTE high command to decide to resume the war, a life that they may never know. Amorous liaisons between LTTE cadres
are strictly discouraged with separation or worse. The women live together and are kept in line by group leaders who are responsible for every aspect of their lives, much like parents. "But then, how can we? Our comrades (male) died for a cause and it would be a betrayal to marry and have children. We must carry on their work."
So this formidable force of female LTTE cadres has been redeployed for the betterment of the same people for whose "independence" they fought. In addition to social service, they maintain law and order as there is no police force in the Tamil areas. "We have laid down (but not surrendered) our weapons. We need to build bridges with the local population, especially our Tamil brothers and sisters," sums up Sunitha.
They are effective all right. The fields are green with paddy. Coconut trees are laden with fruit. Other crops are coming up, as seeds become available. But fear of the LTTE still lurks in the villages. Nobody dares dispute things with them knowing well that the organization is intact and their weapons are at hand. The houses they have occupied (by evicting residents) are never claimed back. The LTTE of course says these were donated but a reputed Catholic priest in Batticoloa says they belonged to old people who were packed off to relatives or to people who had fled the war-affected region.
A women's organization in Batticoloa, Suriya Women's Development Centre, has another story to tell. It takes up the case of battered women in the eastern region and runs camps for them. Its administrator Vasuki Jeyasankar says the incidence of abuse of women is almost non-existent in the LTTE-controlled part of the region. That Tamil women are better organized shows in the fact that there are four women's groups in the Tamil areas and one each in the Muslim and Sinhalese areas of the eastern region. On the average, they get about one complaint a day from the "freed" areas of the region. Maybe the fearsome reputation of the female LTTE cadres keeps women safe, though this didn't seem to be on their agenda. "The LTTE seems to be fairer to women," she says.
It's been about a year and a half since both sides stopped fighting. In the interim, it has been a process of socializing the LTTE cadre - particularly young combatants - and helping them assimilate into normal society.
However, the on-off peace talks will not let them forget that they were part of a formidable fighting force, until an agreement is signed. With women leading the way, albeit tentatively, this is sure to be a slow but steady process.