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January 16, 2008

When the Suicide Bomber Is a Woman

menake in the prison interrogation room

On the day before she set out to blow up the Sri Lankan prime minister, Menake went shopping for a sequined top to hide the vest full of explosives that would turn her into a human bomb. It was the cyanide necklace that gave her away.

Photo Credit: Mahesh Bhat

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The LTTE is considered one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations in the world, using extortion to raise upwards of $30 million a month from Sri Lankan expatriates. It also maintains a fleet of suicide boats lined with explosives and a burgeoning air division. The planes, smuggled into the country in parts and reassembled in remote jungle bases, were first used to bomb the main airport in March 2007, causing foreign airlines to halt flights to Sri Lanka.

Last August, when I learned that the Sri Lankan government had a failed female suicide bomber in its custody, I wanted to talk to her. I negotiated with the government for months — the Sri Lankans trying to determine if I was a security risk (was I an LTTE sympathizer?), our communication breaking down repeatedly as fighting in the north heated up. Finally, last December, I received the answer I’d been waiting for: an agreement to give Marie Claire an interview — the first they’d ever allowed.

It’s a sunny, hot day when I arrive at the prison, a former fortress that seems to attract the heat. Menake is brought up from her isolation cell behind a massive steel door to meet me in the interrogation room at the Anti-Terrorism Division Headquarters in Colombo.

Dressed in a simple maroon tunic and pants and green plastic flip-flops, Menake takes a seat opposite me. (For security reasons, the government asked that her last name not be used.) The blacked-out windows make the space uncomfortably warm. In her unventilated 7’ x 5’ cell in solitary confinement, Menake has no access to water or a toilet unless she can persuade hostile prison guards to unlock her cell and escort her to both. She sleeps on the bare, tiled floor without a mat or sheet.

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