Two days before Christmas in 1987, at the age of 17, Niromi de Soyza found herself in an ambush as part of a small platoon of militant Tamil Tigers fighting government forces in the bloody civil war that was to engulf Sri Lanka for decades. With her was her lifelong friend, Ajanthi, also aged 17. Leaving behind them their shocked middle-class families, the teenagers had become part of the Tamil Tigers' first female contingent. Equipped with little more than a rifle and a cyanide capsule, Niromi's group managed to survive on their wits in the jungle, facing not only the perils of war but starvation, illness, and growing internal tensions among the militant Tigers. And then events erupted in ways that she could no longer bear.
How was it that this well-educated, mixed-race, middle-class girl from a respectable family came to be fighting with the Tamil Tigers? Today she lives in Sydney with her husband and children; but Niromi de Soyza is not your ordinary woman and this is her compelling story.
|Publisher:||Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Niromi de Soyza now lives in suburban Sydney and works for Sydney University.
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My Story As A Child Soldier In Sri Lanka's Bloody Civil War
By Niromi de Soyza
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Niromi de Soyza
All rights reserved.
Concealed by the shadow of a large water tank, I sat on the heel of my right foot. The air was sweetly pungent with the smell of ripening bananas and palmyra fruit. Cicadas buzzed relentlessly as a blazing sun rose to evaporate the condensed dew in the fields we had just scurried through. The small, sparsely-populated village was luscious with its manioc and banana plantations, palm trees, and water birds in flight. But all this was lost on our small platoon of twenty-two; over half of us young women. Appreciation of beauty is a luxury of the untroubled mind.
It was two days before Christmas 1987 and I was seventeen years old. The only sound I could hear was that of my thumping heart; all I could see was the fear in the faces of the others. Sweat trickled down my back. We were silent. Our ears were finetuned to any sound of stealthy footsteps and our eyes to any sighting of strangers. Our fingers were primed on the triggers of our rifles. It seemed like a typical morning for us as Tigers, but that was about to change dramatically. By the time the sun would set on us this day, nothing would be the same again.
At first light, our sentry had reported seeing soldiers. 'Hundreds of them have just stepped out of the cover of the banana plantation,' a panic- stricken Vadhana had panted as she stood at the doorstep of the abandoned house we were occupying. There had been fear in her large brown eyes. We had barely put our weapons down after the usual dawn stake-out.
The house we were in was unfinished — floors had not been laid and, without doors and windows, the frames let the outside in. We had arrived the previous night in darkness and slept on the dirt floor. The night before that we had been elsewhere — in another abandoned house, in another village.
I had been on 2am sentry duty and there had been nothing unusual to indicate what was to come. I had stood under a mango tree with my AK-47 in hand, scanning the darkness and growing more tired as I watched the night sky. When a star shot past, I had wondered if Roshan too stood somewhere at sentry and was witnessing it. That thought sent a smile across my lips — I had seen him only two months before but already felt that I had lost him to another time, to another life. If we survived this war, no doubt we'd see each other again. Roshan had always known where to find me.
When Vadhana issued her warning we quickly gathered up our meagre belongings and scrambled out of the door in the opposite direction to the approaching soldiers. Over the past couple of months we had lost all our belongings. I now had only the shirt and jeans I was wearing (which stank of sweat and grime), my sarong (which doubled as a blanket and towel), an empty hessian sack (which functioned as a sleeping bag), my chest holster and rifle. We had lost our footwear in previous skirmishes; but we still had our kuppies, the cyanide capsules we wore around our necks. We were better prepared for death than for life.
We hurried through a banana plantation and entered a field of ploughed earth, where loose soil fell away under our feet. Wiry sunburnt men and women stopped work and gawked at us, shading their eyes with the palms of their hands.
'Everyone, move forward!' Muralie, one of our men-in-command, ordered. 'It's the only way out!'
That meant we would have to negotiate the main road we had traversed the night before, which was heavily patrolled by armoured vehicles and jeeps. We would have to find a few seconds of opportunity to make it across alive.
We moved stealthily along a single dirt track leading to the road, flanked by palmyra trees, shrubs and overgrown vines. When we came up by the side of a water tank, Muralie positioned me there: 'I want you to cover the right side, so those ahead of you can cross the road one by one.'
And so I sat on my heel, cocked my AK-47 and held it in position. Those at the front of the line poised to charge across the road.
And then we heard it. Machine-gun fire. Three bullets fired in automatic. It came from our far right, beyond the fields and houses.
We froze. A flock of parrots took flight in pandemonium. Silence followed.
I looked at Muralie as I realised that the soldiers were closing in on us from the right. I had rarely seen panic in those almond eyes. He urged us to move forward.
'Hurry! Cross the road, one by one! Be very careful!'
I was behind Ajanthi and there were a few girls ahead of her. Cautiously we moved forward along the track towards the road. My heart was pumping rapidly. Occasional gunfire sounded a safe distance away. I tried to look ahead over Ajanthi's shoulder. The barbed-wire fence on either side of the lane, covered with runners, mostly obstructed my view of the main road. Then I saw Nira step forward.
'Amma!' Nira screamed for his mother. His right hand went to his chest. Then he collapsed.
Suddenly heavy gunfire and hand grenades began to spray at us from the sides of the road.
'Get down to the ground!' Muralie screamed. 'Keep moving towards the road. We have to break through.'
We crashed to the ground.
The automatic gunfire sounded like festive firecrackers, interrupted by exploding grenades and mortars. Bullets whistled past my ears. Acrid smoke from the explosions was thickening the air and beginning to irritate my eyes and lungs. I shuffled forward on my elbows and knees behind Ajanthi. My heart felt as if it would explode out of my chest.
Then I heard more gunfire from behind us, a couple of hundred metres away. The enemy was now closing in on us from all directions and this time I knew that we wouldn't be able to escape. There was a metre-high water tank on my right and the few palmyra and banana trees that dotted the landscape on my left. There was no place to hide. Now the remaining twenty-one of us, with our few AKs and M16s, were going to have to face an enemy who was well prepared and equipped, and had been lying in wait for us since the early hours of the morning.
I saw Muralie grab his assistant Rajan's AK and run forward. Muralie usually carried a pistol. 'Idiots at the front-line, fire and break through! Break through!' he shouted, seeing us hesitate.
At the back of the line the bearded Sudharshan was yelling obscenities at us: 'Get going, you mother-fuckers! If not, I'll blow your brains out myself!'
I aimed my AK-47 at the road while keeping an eye on my comrades in front of me. One of the girls, Sadha, made a dash across, followed by Jenny. I saw Sadha fall.
The noise of exploding grenades and gunfire was deafening. There was a lot of screaming. More and more jeeps and tanks arrived on the road, bringing reinforcements. A helicopter gunship hovered low above us, strafing.
I crawled forward on my elbows, still holding my AK in position, my forefinger stroking the trigger.
One of the girls, Saaradha, screamed, 'My leg! My leg! Someone help me ...!'
Then I saw a hand grenade flying over from the left side of the road in my direction. As I scrambled on my hands and knees to get away, I realised that Gandhi was in its path, behind the palmyra tree, firing with his AK.
'Gandhi anna, duck!'
The grenade hit Gandhi and exploded. The young man's head blew into smithereens and its contents of flesh and blood splattered, drenching me. His headless torso fell to the ground like a tree trunk. I wanted to scream but no sound came from my throat. Everything felt strange — as if I wasn't physically there any more. I saw a smokescreen around me, but I couldn't tell if it was real.
By now, all those in front of Ajanthi had attempted to cross the road. Holding her AK in position, Ajanthi got off the ground and on to her knees. Briefly she turned around to look at me, just like she had at school, where I had sat behind her in the third row. Whenever she turned around to talk to me, a chalk duster would come flying at her.
'I'll see you on the other side,' she muttered hurriedly.
I nodded, completely unsure.CHAPTER 2
THE HOUSE OF MY GRANDMOTHER
Schools in Jaffna have the highest standard of education in the country,' Appa, my father, had reasoned when the decision was made to send me, at eight years old, to Jaffna, 300 kilometres north of our home in Norton Bridge, a small town up in the central mountains of Sri Lanka, outside Kandy. 'My mother has been kind enough to accept you into her home there, so you can become a doctor like your aunts and uncles.'
It was true: all of Appa's seven siblings were highly educated and successful, seemingly in control of their lives. I had often heard Appa openly admire his sisters as beautiful, elegant and intelligent women. I knew he had similar aspirations for my little sister Shirani and me. I was glad of the opportunity, even if it meant that I would leave behind my hometown.
Kandy and the capital, Colombo, also had good schools, but I knew my parents had chosen Jaffna because it was a Tamil stronghold. They were feeling vulnerable living among Sinhalese in the south of the country.
Only a few months before, in July 1977, there had been violence against Tamils all over the country, and a few hundred Tamils were killed by Sinhala mobs. The riots had begun because, for the first time ever, a Tamil political party had been elected in opposition, giving them relative power. During this time, my parents had instructed us to speak only in whispers after dusk, when the mobs mobilised, while they drew all the curtains and kept the lights off. We were sent to bed early.
I had also overheard my parents speaking of their luck that their requests for job transfers to the ancient city of Anuradhapura hadn't come through, because in this city all the Tamils on board a train had been massacred. My parents had chosen Anuradhapura because it was halfway between my father's city of Jaffna and my mother's city of Kandy, which also meant that it separated the Tamil and Sinhala strongholds of Sri Lanka. Because the adults did not discuss such matters with us, I listened in quietly. There had been a real threat to all the Tamil homes in the Up Country where we lived — groups of rampaging Sinhala thugs had already looted and burnt down a few Tamil businesses. These groups had also tried to enter the Tamil settlements within the tea estates but were deterred by the large number of Indian Tamil estate labourers guarding their commune with machetes and batons. As a result, all the Tamils living in the Up Country were spared, workers or not.
'We've been lucky this time. The Sinhala thugs weren't able to take on the Tamils in this area,' said my father to my mother. 'But next time, who knows, the Sinhalese could bring in reinforcements.'
This was the first time I became aware that my family was one of only a handful of Tamils in the area that did not live and work in the tea estates, and it worried me. Nearly all of our neighbours, my parents' friends, colleagues and some of my mother's extended family were either Sinhalese or Burghers. When in public, we spoke either English or Sinhala although I had never once wondered why. I began to notice that we were different to each other although we looked much the same on the outside.
'Appa, why don't the Sinhalese like the Tamils?' I had asked my father one day when he was fixing the chicken-wire around a newly built coop. When he wasn't at work, Appa was always doing something in the garden or around the house.
'The Sinhalese and the Tamils have no problems, it is the political parties that stir things for their own gain,' replied my father, still focused on the task at hand.
'So you could ask why, that's why.'
That was how my father replied when he did not want me to ask any more questions, so I did not persist for fear of being scolded. In Sri Lanka curiosity was not a trait encouraged among children, particularly in girls, because those in power — often males, but anyone older, or of higher caste, education or influence — were always right and their reasons needn't be explained or understood to the subordinate. Questioning was seen as defiance or challenging authority, for which we were often ignored, scolded or smacked, so we quickly learned to never challenge authority. I was lucky; my father never hit us and rarely scolded us, but he knew how to stop me from asking questions he didn't want to answer.
He had replied the same way when I asked him about the distressing scenes I had witnessed at the town's British-built railway station two years earlier, on my way to pre-school. It resembled a funeral but I couldn't figure out who had died. Day after day scores of Indian Tamil estate-labourers and their families were boarding the train while others stayed behind on the platform. Everyone was wailing — it seemed to me that these people didn't want to go wherever they were going and those on the platform didn't want them to go. I saw children being pulled this way and that and elderly people being dragged along the platform against their will. There was always someone running after the moving train and someone jumping out of it. Also at the same railway station were mass loads of Sinhala Buddhist pilgrims on their way to the holy mountain, Adam's Peak, all dressed in white, carrying waterlilies and incense, muttering chants, completely indifferent to their fellow passengers' plight. This upset me greatly — something was terribly wrong.
Having realised the only way to know the truth was to eavesdrop into adult conversations, I had perfected the art of making myself invisible right in the room where the conversations took place by pretending to be reading, drawing or catnapping. This way I learnt that Prime Minister Bandaranaike was deporting the descendants of over half of the Tamil plantation workers brought over by the British nearly a century before back to India. Many of them did not want to go because Sri Lanka was now their home, and they were being separated from their families, perhaps forever. I was relieved to know that my family was not going to be deported because we were Ceylon Tamils, not Indian Tamils, but still we were Tamils living in a Sinhala neighbourhood with the threat that the townspeople could turn on us at any time. While our Sinhala family and friends would want to protect us, this could put them in harm's way too.
So the decision was made to send me to the Tamil stronghold of Jaffna so I could begin school in the first term of 1978, and my parents and little sister would follow once my parents' requests for transfers to Jaffna were approved. If my parents felt apprehensive sending me so far away, to a place where communication was possible only by letters, they did not show it.
Soon after Christmas of 1977, Appa and I boarded the first-class observation car of the express train, Udarata Menike, in the mid morning. It was a comfortable air-conditioned journey but, except for the steam train's rhythmic chugs and shrilling whistles, it was silent. In Sri Lanka it is considered disrespectful to speak to one's elders unless absolutely necessary, so while Appa read the newspapers or sat lost in thought, I looked out at the rapidly receding cloud-topped hills, that rolling carpet of green, packed with tea bushes and speckled by white-roofed tea factories and cascading waterfalls. The tea-leaf pickers snaked their way up the hills, swiftly pinching off the tender shoots and throwing them over their shoulders into the wicker basket on their backs. I knew that as they plucked the shoots they'd be chatting away rapid-fire in the distinctive Indian Tamil accents that I would no longer hear in Jaffna, where only native Tamil was spoken. When the train wound its way out of long dark tunnels, there were children at the water spouts gushing down from the hills, smiling and waving as the train passed.
The steam train slowed down and came to a stop at Gampola, leaving the tea estates behind. As I followed Appa out of the train for the brief stop, I was hit by the smells and sounds of the platform. There were vendors of all kinds walking up and down, selling everything from handmade toys, thambili (tender coconut drink) and food. I was trying to decide between wood-apples, jambus, mangosteens and rambutans.
'Podi nangi [Little girl], please ask your older brother to buy you a malu banis,' pleaded a vendor in Sinhala. My father was often mistaken as my older brother or a young uncle. I looked at the young boy's wicker basket — it was full of freshly baked triangular fish buns.
I resumed my position by the window, enjoying the delicious bun. The railway line wound its way besides Mahaweli Ganga, the longest river in our country, flanked by luscious green vegetation. On the river bed, a lean sunburnt man was scrubbing an elephant with a coconut husk. The afternoon sun shone on the distant mountains.
'Both your grandfathers were station masters,' Appa said suddenly as the train approached Peradeniya station. 'It used to be a prestigious position in the British railways.'
Excerpted from Tamil Tigress by Niromi de Soyza. Copyright © 2011 Niromi de Soyza. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The Ambush 1
2 The House of My Grandmother 6
3 Anger and Frustration 25
4 Dead and Buried 46
5 For the Greater Good 60
6 An Act of Betrayal 74
7 A Tiger Named Roshan 94
8 A Military-Style Training Base 112
9 There's Still Time to Change Your Mind 133
10 I Knew It Wouldn't Last Forever 156
11 Experience of the Battlefield 183
12 A Break in the Hostilities 201
13 Trying to Ignore My Reality 212
14 The Last Few Moments of Life 227
15 Where It All Ends 237
16 The Dream Beyond Reach 248
17 The Jungle Hide-out 263
18 Extraordinary Days 274
19 Where Do I Go From Here? 283
20 Afterwards 298
List of Acronyms 305
Tamil and Sinhala Words 306