Jagath Weerasinghe, Untitled, 2007. Acrylic on paper. Courtesy the artist

Cowering behind the tree’s foliage, Mugil thought of her husband Divyan, who would be on the field somewhere, driving the cadre around. How he could be working she didn’t know. No one seemed to know whether they were coming or going. Several Tiger high commanders had surrendered to the army, and it was nerve-wracking to keep track of who was trustworthy and who was playing double agent. The counterattacks, too, seemed vastly disproportionate. One time, Mugil counted the army shoot sixty rounds in reply to a single round of fire from the Tigers.

Her parents were still in PTK. She had been meaning to find out if they were safe; they were also looking after her two sons, whom she hadn’t seen in weeks. Maran was three and wouldn’t miss her, but Tamizh was barely two. He would bawl if she were gone for more than a few days.

How much might these girls’ parents worry about them? Mugil could still hear them screaming and there was nothing she could do. Through the rain-drenched leaves, she watched an army boy snap off the girls’ cyanide capsules from around their necks. Another shorter man rammed the butt of his rifle into a girl’s hip. As she clutched it and crumpled to the ground in pain, he kicked dry leaves and sand into her face. The front of his boot hit her nose. Writhing in pain, the girl folded her hands toward him. But he was already unzipping himself and pushed her on her back. Mugil looked away. The girls were only as old as she had been when she joined the Tigers, perhaps younger.

* * *

One afternoon in 1993, when Mugil was thirteen, her school cancelled the after-lunch classes. Some athletic-looking men and women, wearing long untucked black shirts and trousers, walked into her class. They advised the students to get good grades, and joked about the rotund headmistress. Mugil stared at them in awe, knowing they were the Liberation Tigers.

When they’d lived in Point Pedro, Mugil had only heard about these people. Her father had owned a press there, and he printed pamphlets and notices for the Tigers. He also drove his minivan for them, distributing printed material and other goods to Jaffna, where most of the Eelam groups were then based. He didn’t talk about it after they moved to PTK, but Mugil knew that her father had also worked for the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, another militant group. In the late eighties, he had escaped to India for a few years when the LTTE was rooting out and killing those loyal to other militant Tamil groups. Her mother had even ordered the children not to speak to anyone about their father’s job or his whereabouts. A middle-schooler then, Mugil had been amazed that there were people even her father feared.

Having moved to PTK, Mugil understood his feelings. There was a perfection to the Tigers, a confidence and sincerity that commanded respect even from people much older than the combatants. When her family reached the Vanni, starving, confused, and petrified, the Tiger cadres led them to safety. They taught them to build underground bunkers in their home premises and held survival drills in her school. Despite the government’s blocking supplies of essentials into the Vanni, the Tigers had managed to smuggle Coca-Cola there. They had guns attached to their hips, but they spoke respectfully even to children. The girls rode motorcycles and wore jeans; they could stand up to any man. A few months into her life in PTK, Mugil started to wave to the older girls when they passed by on bicycles or motorbikes; when the akkas waved back or smiled, it made her day.

The Tigers were young, but it was clear to Mugil that they had seen blood and war and knew how to deal with the Sinhalese and Indian soldiers, who seemed to want to eradicate all Sri Lankan Tamils. They would lay their lives down to protect their community. Some people whispered that the Tigers also took lives as easily, but Mugil agreed with those who said that there was no other way this fight could be won. It had to be all or nothing. You couldn’t create a separate country by requesting the existing government cede it—otherwise, the old satyagraha politicians would have already created an Eelam.

The first Tamil to openly demand a separate nation was not a Tiger. It was C. Suntharalingam, the country’s first minister of commerce and trade—a moderate nationalist—whose fury was stoked by a 1956 law that made Sinhala the country’s only official language. In protest, this Tamil politician fumed in a letter to the prime minister in 1957, saying the Tamils had been “tricked and betrayed,” and that to “save themselves…from Sinhala colonisation” they had to establish “an independent Tamil Ilankai.” The Sinhalese-dominated parliament paid no heed to Suntharalingam’s anger. In the seventies, the government ratified a republican constitution that declared the Sinhalese the original inhabitants of the island, and their greatest duty the protection of Buddhism. Multiethnic Sri Lanka, with its Tamils, Muslims, Christians, Burghers, and Veddas, was declared a Sinhala–Buddhist country. Tamil politicians condemned this ethnic oppression by holding fasts, protest marches, sit-ins, and blockades. But the state struck them down.

Mugil knew about Suntharalingam and the peaceful protests, but to her all that was a pointless prelude to the real story—the part where she learned about the massacres of Tamils, the denial of the jobs and college places they had come to expect. She didn’t know, and didn’t care to know, that Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism was initially a reaction to proselytizing Christian missionaries and Westernization. That when the majority locals felt threatened by British culture, they set up more Buddhist vernacular schools and printed more Sinhala text books. Literature, mass media, and political meetings all began to spread the message of Sinhalese superiority, of the need to defend the indigenous culture of the Sinhas, the lion race. The first victims of this new chauvinism were not actually the Tamils, but the Sinhalese Christians; the Muslims were next, then the Indian Tamils who worked in the central tea plantations, and, finally, the biggest minority, the Sri Lankan Tamils.

Increasing state persecution of Tamils in the seventies inspired the formation of a few small insurgent groups, including the LTTE in 1976. They impatiently challenged the elderly political leadership, but had few recruits. After the July 1983 riots, however, hundreds of enraged young people became radicalized. By the time Mugil was a teenager, the LTTE had emerged as the strongest and most ruthless of the militant groups.

The Tigers were not just real-life heroes to Mugil; they were also the only ones who seemed to be in control. Even Mugil’s father, after coming to PTK, started to print pamphlets and run other mysterious errands for them. “Be loyal to Prabhakaran,” he said. “He will take our people far.”

When she finished, one of the Tiger women patted her on the back. “The song is about a twelve-year-old. You are thirteen.” Then, in unison, the Tigers said, “One from every family!”

That afternoon in 1993, the Tigers in Mugil’s classroom played some music on a stereo they had brought along. Mugil and most of her classmates had heard the songs before, blaring from speakers on Martyrs’ Day or the Tamil New Year. One song described the strong palmyra tree of Jaffna standing upright in all storms except when uprooted and burned by dark hands that resented its growth.

As Mugil hummed to herself, an akka ordered her and another girl to come to the front of the class. They were asked to perform to a song that rang through the room: Panirendu vayadhinile tholil thuppaki potukkittu—Just twelve, she holds the rifle over her shoulder. Mugil marched, danced, and carried a wooden ruler over her shoulder, trying to imagine being on the front line, battling for the freedom of her people, facing the bullets calmly. When she finished, one of the Tiger women patted her on the back. “The song is about a twelve-year-old. You are thirteen.” Then, in unison, the Tigers said, “One from every family!”

That evening at home, Mugil swept the yard, burned the fallen leaves, and put the rice on the stove before Mother came home from the neighbors’. “What is happening here?” Mother teased. “Who are you? Where is my daughter?”

“Only one of your children is leaving,’ she said. ‘You have three others. You won’t even know I’m gone.”

Mugil didn’t bother asking her sentimental mother to take pride in her decision to join the Tigers. Instead, she kept it straightforward. She told Mother that she should not miss her. “Only one of your children is leaving,” she said. “You have three others. You won’t even know I’m gone.”

A resounding slap left Mugil’s cheek burning. “Are you mad?” her mother yelled, as expected. “You are a baby! You don’t know anything!”

And so it went all evening until her father came home.

Even before he had stepped inside, Mugil ran to the door, and said, “Appa, I’m joining the movement.” She was sure her father would take her side. Worldlier than her mother, he also understood the Tigers better than anyone she knew. When his friends’ son had signed up recently, Father had compared it to the Catholic tradition of giving up one child to God’s service.

But now he was silent. Mugil was his firstborn; her loudness and spunk energized him, and made him laugh. One of her sisters had polio, and the other was a touch-me-not, easily startled, her eyes wide with a fear of everything from pressure-cooker whistles to cycle bells. “Lost causes,” he called them. The last one, his only son, was barely seven. Of all his children, it was Mugil he had been hoping he wouldn’t lose, even though he had always known she was the most likely to leave.

Her father quietly acquiesced while her mother never stopped berating her, but no one asked Mugil why she had chosen the movement. And so in the tradition of so many youngsters who joined the Tigers, Mugil left a note at home one day, writing about her desire to go to battle with her generation so that her elders and the children of the future would have a country they could call their own.

Seven girls from the class—including Mugil—had signed up for the movement. Excited, they didn’t know how much to pack. Mugil suspected that she would not see her parents for a long time and nicked a black-and-white family photo taken in one of the photo studios in the Jaffna market. It captured her parents looking nattily dressed, perhaps for a wedding at the Nallur temple. Baby Amuda sat on her mother’s lap and Mugil, in a silk paavadai-sattai, stood morosely in front of her verti-clad father. The family appeared awkward, unsmiling, but the fact that they had bothered to get this picture taken, and gone to a photographer’s studio, meant there had probably been something to celebrate.

None of the girls admitted missing home, though they spent most of their nights swapping stories about their parents’ consternation when they announced their decision to become Tigers. Their day started at five in the morning, with a giggly rush to the toilets, and then a run around the grounds. They got three meals, and eight raw eggs per day, and sometimes ice cream, juices, and Coca-Cola in the evenings. The trainers were tough, but during break time they told stories about their favorite fights and their beginnings as fighters. “We are not just your older sisters but your entire family now,” the akkas said. “You can come to us for anything, okay?” Training was grueling, but at the end of the day, when the girls returned to their dorms and helped apply balm and hot compresses to each other’s bruises, they felt like a unit.

After the ten-day program, all twenty girls in her batch were asked to fall in line under the harsh sun and their superiors cropped their hair. Newly bobbed, Mugil felt she had truly come into her own. Her parents would never have let her wear her hair this short. Some women fighters who were more attached to their hair snake-coiled plaits high on their heads. That was pretty, Mugil thought, but then what was the difference between a commoner and a combatant? She did not have the patience for the time-consuming hair coil. The bob suited her, she decided, and drew attention to her large black eyes. Through the seven years she was a cadre, the prickly hair on her nape would unfailingly remind her that she was different from other women, braver, with greater purpose. The haircut was her oath as much as the words of loyalty she chanted before she went into battle.

She specialized in GPS operation and navigation, and most of her work was with the Malathi unit. The trainers lectured about shooting, how to cock a gun, how to squeeze the trigger, at what range to fire, which rifles recoiled and by how much, how the elbow had to absorb the impact and come back to position. It was mathematics—angles, multiplication and radii. But the girls asked each other the toughest question at night: Do you think you could kill someone? Some girls said perhaps, if the target were not looking them in the eye. They were relieved to be a unit; they would be jointly responsible for the deaths of anyone they killed. They rationalized that they would only shoot or blow up people who wanted their community eliminated. Azhikkaravanai azhikkarithile pilaye illai, the senior akkas would say: it is not wrong to destroy those who seek to destroy you.

Mugil tried to remember those words a few months later when she joined one of three female units that ambushed an army camp and brought five prisoners back to the LTTE Mullaitivu base. The seniors interrogated the soldiers for a few hours, then called one girl from every unit. Mugil was told to bring a short-barreled rifle.

Sunlight poured into the room from the holes in the cadjan roof. Five young Sri Lankan soldiers were in a row on their knees, wrists tied behind their backs. They looked beaten, their uniforms torn. Their heads drooped.

A senior commander looked at Mugil and said, “Shoot the first guy on the left.” She was taken aback; she was only five months into the force and had yet to shoot anyone point-blank. She hesitated and looked at her first supervisor, hoping this was a mistake.

“Did you hear me?” the commander bellowed. She jerked forward and stepped tentatively toward the soldier. Surely he was much older than her, perhaps twenty-one. He looked up at her, his eyes widening at the sight of her gun. He turned to the commander and shook his head. “No, please, no,” he said softly in English. The other soldiers were shuffling backwards on their knees, huddling together. Mugil stood frozen in front of the soldier, looking at his head, unable to lift her gun. He turned to face her and looked her straight in the eye. She wanted to turn back and run. He was summoning every Tamil and English word he knew: he had an infant child, he was from a poor family, from a tiny village in the South. He begged her to have mercy, cried that he did not hate her. “Job,” he was saying. “Job, poor, no money, please, Miss. No.” The commander did not speak, but Mugil felt his glare bore into her back. She lifted her gun, and the soldier shut his eyes tight, still crying but tucking his head into his neck. She pulled the trigger.

Later, she would wonder if she too had closed her eyes.

“Good, next one also,” the commander barked. She moved a step to her right and toward another soldier. He shut his eyes immediately. She heard the body of the first soldier fall to the ground. She shot the second one. Blood dripped down his nose. She realized she was holding her breath. “Next!” she heard. The third soldier was right there. She stepped nearer him and shot a third time.

But new faces did not replace the face of the first soldier in the sunlit room. She would never feel remorse for the killing of anyone, except him.

Back in her room that night, the first supervisor came to see Mugil. “You were brave today,” she said. “Remember, if you had not killed them today, they would have gone back and someone else would be sent to kill you and all of us. On the field next time, it will be easier.”

Mugil didn’t believe her that night, but it did become easier. In her seven years in the fighting force, she never held her breath again while pulling the trigger. But new faces did not replace the face of the first soldier in the sunlit room. She would never feel remorse for the killing of anyone, except him.

Over the years, her body, too, was injured in the course of her efforts to harm others. She suffered a broken rib; a dislocated knee; many burns; shrapnel in the abdomen, ankle, forearm; torn ligaments; a smashed toe. Each put her out of action for a few months as she healed, but nothing stopped her from returning until 2000, when her spine was hurt. The Tigers removed her from the fighting unit. She was twenty.

“It is time for you to become responsible, Mugil,” Mother said, when Mugil went home.

Mugil wished her mother would not speak to her as if she were still a child. “If you mean plait my hair, wear flowers and bangles and prettily wait for a husband, you should know better,” she replied. “Housework is not what I was born to do.” Too much had changed. She could not go back to sitting in the kitchen. Her life had another purpose, and the movement had helped her pursue it. She couldn’t and didn’t want to erase the past seven years of her life. The LTTE seemed to echo her thoughts. They offered her a new job: map reading. She would go with the unit into the field, but she would only navigate and provide GPS coordinates for targets. Even as a navigator, she continued to cut her hair. She grew it out only after her wedding five years later. Her mother could not have been happier. “Finally, you’re getting to be a girl,” she said. “No one to tell you how to wear your hair anymore.” Mother’s joy only doubled when Mugil gave birth to two boys, Maran in 2005 and Tamizh in 2007.

Mother did not expect Mugil, now a mother of two, to continue working for the Tigers. But in 2008, she was asked to join the Films and Communications Division; Colombo newspapers referred to it as the propaganda wing. Her team—eleven people, including an LTTE spokesperson—taught map reading, made documentaries and films, took pictures on the front lines and during functions, wrote pamphlets, sent reports to their websites based abroad, and issued press releases. Mugil’s first job was to photograph the bodies of dead fighters on the battlefield, track down the parents, and deliver the news.

At first, she loathed the role—she wanted to fight for her people, not take pictures of corpses. But as the years passed she came to take pride in the work. She believed she was still like a cadre, going to the battlefield, taking the same risks, but making sure she returned alive, with pictures. The closer she got, the better. She accompanied a unit or was driven to the location after the coordinates had been radioed in. If a cadre lost his or her life, she took a frontal shot, two side profiles, and a wide shot. If the body was shredded or burned beyond recognition, she would try to find an identifying mark. If the combatant’s ID was found on or near the body, she would catalogue the guerrilla name and code. Then, as soon as she could, she would find the fighter’s real name and address and take the photos to the families for identification. She would console the mourning mothers with a short speech she’d perfected with repetition: your child was very brave, he/she had killed a dozen before succumbing to wounds, you have to be brave to honor the memory of your child, we will avenge this death. If the deceased cadre was a girl, Mugil would sometimes add that she wished she could have died in the girl’s place.

More often than not, the family would ask for the body. In the gentlest way, Mugil would explain that the body hadn’t been found or that it had been blown to pieces. If the body had been brought back, however, the logistics of shipping it for a family funeral were simple. The next step was to print the photos and display them on designated walls, in schools, offices, on trees. (Her father ran one of the printing presses that did this, so Mugil even knew how to work the machines.) Then came the elaborate funeral, which the local community body would organize and pay for. The fighters would be immortalized in graves that the LTTE would maintain. No death is futile, she’d heard Annan say in his annual speeches, if it inspired another to pledge his life for the Tamil homeland.

It was an unpleasant job, but Mugil believed the process brought the bereaved families solace. As she told them, everyone dies, but there is honor in dying for a reason. On Martyrs’ Day, the pictures were printed en masse; even from a distance, Mugil could pick her photos out from those of the other photographers. She thought she had a knack—maybe it was an eye for composition or a respect for death—that made her work stand out from the rest.

Mugil did this job for three months in mid-2008, and by October found that she was taking more than ten pictures a day. Her memory cards were full, even the backups. Barring the one in her pocket, she had exhausted her entire supply of batteries. She seemed to shoot pictures of nothing but dead new recruits. This was unprecedented. And without a satellite phone and only a stunning silence from her seniors, tracking down all the families of the dead was proving impossible.

In early October 2008, one of the seniors in the political wing asked her to put her media work on hold and navigate the GPS for a group of new recruits. Mugil was torn. Was she back to being a cadre or just filling in? The Tigers didn’t generally mix combatant and non-combatant responsibilities and political wing heads giving military instructions felt stranger still. She also didn’t understand why they would ask an unfit, limping ex-combatant to lead a young unit. Finally, she assumed it was a one-off mission, coiled her hair on top of her head, and went to join her new unit.

The nine girls in Mugil’s charge were about the same age as she had been when she joined the Tigers. They had hastily snipped bobs, and they held their guns as if they were aiming to shoot their own feet. Mugil felt a thick uneasiness in her stomach.

She had felt like this before. Three men from the Tigers had come for her brother Prashant when he had turned fourteen. Mugil had pleaded with them, saying that her husband, father, and she herself had all pledged themselves to the Tigers. Could they not spare Prashant for a few more years? “How can you speak like this after having been a fighter yourself?” the men had argued. They had continued to turn up for months, quietly eating lunch at her house, making jokes or napping till Prashant returned from school. Mugil would come home every day expecting to find her brother gone. But he left in stages instead of all at once. Prashant began to frequent the LTTE engineering department, hanging out with the men there, and learned to make bombs, smart mines, and cheap satellite phones. Whenever Mugil objected, her brother’s retort was that she had joined when she was thirteen. Later, when he was around nineteen, he finally and officially joined the engineering department.

Age had never mattered, Mugil knew. Vanni natives of five feet or more, boys and girls, became conspicuous if they didn’t join up. Sooner or later, they would give in to sweet talk or peer pressure. Since the 2002 ceasefire, the Tigers had even begun forcibly conscripting recruits. When parents rushed to the movement offices to retrieve their sons and daughters, Tiger leaders wrung their hands about a shortage of cadres.

In 2008, the movement numbered somewhere between five thousand and eleven thousand Tigers, according to some estimates. The Sri Lankan military, on the other hand, had 200,000 soldiers, and was recruiting more. As the pressure grew, many families in the Vanni, even those right under the Tiger leaders’ noses in PTK, hid their teenagers, keeping them from school and in some cases even refusing to let them leave the house. White vans—that dreaded symbol of the unknown—scooped boys off the street. Families arranged marriages for girls barely thirteen to save them from conscription. But the Tigers persisted. They had photographs of almost every family that lived under their authority in the Vanni. They would cross-check the photo with the members of the household, and if anyone, especially an able youngster, were missing, they would take a hostage until the errant youth reappeared.

Some months before she’d been called to fight again, Mugil had read about a Tiger spokesperson denying allegations of child conscription. The United Nations had reported that between 2003 and 2008 some six thousand under-fourteens had been recruited—kidnapped from their homes and schools and sent to the front line, sometimes with barely ten days of training. The Tiger spokesman argued that what the UN condemned was only a call for more volunteers. It was everyone’s duty to fight, he said; he himself had joined as a teenager. Mugil identified strongly with that.

These children were being sent to face a real army when they could barely lift their guns.

Even though she’d joined in her teens, Mugil had always considered her recruitment voluntary. She believed that being in the Tigers had given her the kind of experiences a girl like her could only dream of. She’d undergone intense training before she was sent off to fight. She grew into the organization, and the akkas and her fellow trainees were her closest family. She had little time or opportunity to complain. The movement touted a future Tamil homeland, but in the Vanni, they were already citizens, protected and provided for. People like her received monthly salaries of 8,000 to 10,000 rupees and stayed in quarters built specifically for them. When she had her two sons, Mugil sent them to the movement-run crèches, where they were fed and cared for while she went about her work. The Tigers clearly valued her decision to serve with them, and she was grateful every time they considered her qualified for a mission. She’d heard that before her time, people were even allowed to resign from the force. She would not contemplate leaving, though. After all they did for her, when her house was on the land they protected, how could she? How would the men and women she had sworn to protect treat her if she threw up her hands one day and said she was too old or too wounded to go to the battlefield?

But the new recruits under Mugil’s command, their eyes fixed on the ground, were not what the movement needed. When she was told to keep a close eye on them, that some of them had repeatedly tried to run away, Mugil allowed doubt to enter her mind. They were shivering, their faces pale with hunger and fear. They huddled close, as if they were surrounded. Some of them didn’t even have standard-issue uniforms or cyanide capsules. Their hair had been cut short not to ease movement but to deter them from escaping. If they deserted the LTTE, they could be spotted anywhere. The bob had become a sign of imprisonment, rather than personal freedom. They didn’t want to be there and it was written all over their faces.

These children were being sent to face a real army when they could barely lift their guns. And they were being led by her, a half-able fighter uncertain of her orders. It didn’t seem to fit the larger cause. Was this how the Tigers had been fighting in the last few months? Was this how they expected to win? With scared children? They were girls born into the war and its terrors, not its beginnings or causes. In the last decade, they had only watched loved ones die or disappear overnight, their older brothers leave on boats to foreign lands, their schools and roads shut down every few months. When they heard the distinct whistle of a shell, they were primed to run to their bunkers and crouch in the darkness. They did not see why they should fight, Mugil thought, and it was useless to tell them.

* * *

Mugil had fallen asleep on the tree and woke up coughing furiously. Remembering where she was with a start, she slapped both her hands to her mouth.

It had rained all night. She had not heard from the high command for more than twenty-four hours. The seniors had banned use of the walkie-talkie a few days earlier; there was a suspicion that the army had tapped into their frequency or that there were traitors among them. She had been sent to guard the line with the girls for as long as possible; they would get the next orders to her somehow. Looking down, she wasn’t sure what she could do anymore.

Below her, the carnage was over. Five naked girls, their bodies twisted in the last moments of struggle, lay still in the mud. No one had told these girls this could happen.

The soldiers who had raped them had left. Mugil swung down from the tree, looked at her compass, and walked away.

Excerpted from The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War.

Rohini Mohan

Rohini Mohan is a political journalist based in Bangalore, India. She has won prestigious recognition for her work, including the Charles Wallace Fellowship 2013; the ICRC Humanitarian Reporting Award 2012, New Delhi; the Sanskriti–Prabha Dutt Fellowship 2012, New Delhi; and the South Asian Journalists Association award 2011, New York. She has written for Tehelka, The Caravan, Outlook, The Hindu, and the New York Times.

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