By Beate Arnestad
Editor's note: Below is a compelling blog post that looks at the 26-year long civil war in Sri Lanka from the perspective of a filmmaker who met two young Tamil women planning to be suicide bombers. We do not know for sure what happened to the two women she interviewed, though there is a report both survived the war. We know even less about most of the suicide bombers' victims, many of them possibly innocent civilians from the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka. What we do know is that the war is finally over, after the loss of more than 70,000 lives and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.
For a few years I lived in paradise: in a tropical environment on an island called Sri Lanka. Every morning I woke up in my four-post bed in Colombo –watching the dawn creeping in through my mosquito net and listening to the awakening sounds of all the tropical birds greeting a new day. I had moved to Sri Lanka from Norway because my husband had been posted there.
But paradise was not perfect. There were many slum areas and stray dogs eating garbage. There were countless beggars, dirty street children and pollution. There was also an unavoidable military presence.
There was a ceasefire in effect, but the city was not back to normal. Every major street was patrolled by heavily armed soldiers. "What do they fear?" I asked.
The reply was always the same: "The terrorists, the Black Tigers, these crazy suicide bombers."
I found there was very little written on the group except that they had begun operations in 1987, that about 30% were believed to be female, and that their most famous action was the murder of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Therefore, I decided to make a documentary film and find out more about this group.
I was told that my chances of success were poor, and that the Tamil rebels, the LTTE, lived in utmost secrecy in the jungle of the guerrilla-controlled areas in the north. Nobody from the outside world could get in touch with them, but somehow I managed.
I recall at one military checkpoint, an inspector told me, "Madam, I wouldn't advise you to leave the government controlled area. On the other side, there is no one to protect you."
"I will be fine," I said with a smile.
When I got to the area controlled by the Tigers, I first saw the Tiger banner, then the cadres in their striped uniforms. The females had their long hair tied up like a braided pretzel. "We're so happy you made it safely to our side," they said. "We will look after you and you will be safe here."
The war-torn territory was full of red signs warning about landmines. There were no five-star hotels; only vacant paddy fields and the untamed jungle reclaiming what once had been buildings but were now ruins of war.
For many months, I traveled in and out of my two worlds, continually trying to convince the Tigers to accept my proposal to make a film on my conditions – which meant no censorship and no screening for their approval. I wasn't interested in talking to leaders and politicians. I was interested in those who had no other alternative but to remain in the war zone – the true victims of war. Eventually the Tigers agreed.
In order to select my main characters, I had asked the guerrillas to organize a kind of casting call for a film about suicide bombers. It was a strange experience. After interviewing 20-30 girls, I decided on Darshika, a 24-year old Catholic beauty and her best friend Puhalchudar. Their friendship was also very special as they had been living and fighting together every day for seven years.
What was the difference between freedom fighters and terrorists? And who decided? As I became more and more drawn into their world, such questions demanded consideration.
As we prepared to begin filming, I asked the girls about their morning routine. "We get up at 4am and then we exercise," they said. "Fine," I said, "We'll be there."
We quickly learned they led a disciplined, Spartan existence. They slept in a tiny room on mats on the floor. When they got up, they braided each other's hair, and then began their early morning karate session. Both had black belts and were eager to impress me with their skills.
With the camera rolling, they explained how they trained to be suicide bombers. They talked about putting on a claymore bomb vest and planning for their own deaths. They explained how once the bomb exploded, their heads would separate from their bodies and take flight – their bodies reduced to tiny pieces.
"How do they select who will take a particular mission?" I asked the girls. They explained that they usually played spin the bottle; the one who wins is chosen, but they were all were eager to be selected. They were also eager to talk.
None of the girls who had been trained to be suicide bombers the previous year were still alive. My subjects were only alive because of the ceasefire.
Eventually, I came to understand that there was no real difference between a normal Tiger cadre and those preparing for suicide attacks. They all expected to die – either in battle, by blowing themselves up, or by biting the cyanide capsules they all were instructed to swallow instead of submitting to capture.
The girls constantly tried to impress me with their toughness. I knew they were not just killing machines, so I asked them directly, "Are you not human beings. Don't you have hearts?" They were surprised at the question and replied that, of course, they had hearts, but, "We can't touch it. There is too much pain in the chest."
Darshika took me to her church; actually mere ruins of a church on a beautiful beach. She knelt in front of the statue of Virgin Mary – which had not been destroyed – and cried, prayed and asked for forgiveness. All at once, her tragic childhood story poured out; how she had seen the churches bombed and the people seeking shelter turned into a bloodbath; how no one could protect them from being slaughtered like animals. That's why she had decided to join the struggle: she would rather die fighting for a better future than being butchered. She had wanted to become a Catholic nun, and now she would sacrifice her life, just like Jesus.
Her friend, Puhalchudar, broke down when she showed us the horrific conditions in a refugee camp – similar to the one she had been displaced to. She told me that rather than a life of slavery, she would fight to liberate her people.
After this, the relationship with the girls changed. I felt almost maternal towards them. When we traveled, I gave them my soft cushions. And they would fall asleep like babies in the car. They were vulnerable children and also deadly weapons. My feelings for them were truly mixed.
I also met Darshika's mother. She must have been my age, but her life was so different. She talked about bringing up a family in the middle of a brutal and never ending war. She only had the one sari she was wearing. Her handbag was absolutely empty. Darshika had disappeared when she was 11 or 12 years old, and her mother really didn't know her anymore.
Our intention was to follow the girls for a longer period and to come back in a few months for further filming. Little did we know that this was the last time I would see them.
I went back to my normal life in Colombo. Whenever I contacted the Tigers, they said: This is not a good time to come, please call later. I called and called until I realized the girls had been transferred for good. I was told that they were planning a mission, and there was no way I could find them.
Six months later, I went with the crew to film a Heroes' Day celebration. This is the time where Tamil Tigers and their supporters gather at cemeteries to honor those who have died for their country. They decorate the tombstones with flowers and light candles, they cry and pray beside the graves. Photos of the new martyrs are displayed. There are also parades.
While looking for the girls, I saw Darshika's mother. She was also searching for her daughter. We agreed to meet in the church the next day. When I showed her footage of her daughter, her eyes filled with tears. "Seeing her is almost like being with her," she said. This was the last time I saw her as well.
A few months later, the war resumed. I returned to Norway to put together my documentary. The Tigers never responded to my calls or emails. A few months later, I got news that someone had seen the girls – and to my surprise, they were very much alive.
On the other hand, I was told Darshika's mother had been killed. After the release of the film, Sri Lankan authorities had identified her as a Black Tiger Mama. Some people believe that is the reason she was executed.
The Tigers lost their struggle. It is believed that thousands died in combat and that thousands died due to shelling and air raids. Toward the end of the war, the entire Tiger controlled population (approximately 300,000) was driven into a small strip of land by the sea. No one from the outside world had access to the war zone. It is believed that thousands again lost their lives as there was starvation and heavy fighting, and no place to hide.
By May 17th, the Tigers' battle was forever lost – their leaders killed and the entire civilian population driven into war camps. There are no words to describe their losses and sufferings.
Beate Arnestad is the filmmaker behind various documentaries, including “My Daughter The Terrorist.”