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January 16, 2008

When the Suicide Bomber Is a Woman

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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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She is clearly surprised to be sitting in an armchair — albeit one that is aged and leaking foam rubber — rather than the usual hard seat in front of the interrogator’s desk. When tea is served to me, she appears so unnerved she has to be coaxed into accepting a cup. The hospitality makes her suspicious. In the past, interrogators have threatened her with beatings, rape, and torture.

Menake is hesitant to talk about her life in the LTTE. “Maybe there are Tamil Tigers inside here,” she says nervously, through an interpreter. It’s not an unreasonable fear — the terrorist organization has successfully infiltrated Sri Lanka’s army and police force. As she speaks, three miniature security cameras, monitored by two technicians at computers behind a screen, capture her every word and movement. “I’m frightened if I talk to you, they will find out and kill me. My life is at stake. Maybe one day I will walk out of here, and then what will happen to me?”

The irony of a suicide bomber fearing for her life is not lost on either of us. “I was fed up with life before I was caught,” Menake says, her voice so low I have to strain to hear her. “But now, I feel I could lead a normal life. I want to live, not die.”

“Do you know the legal penalty for trying to assassinate someone?” I ask, expecting a hardened reply. To my surprise, she begins to cry, burying her face in her lavender-colored dupatta, a shawl which conservative Sri Lankan women use to cover their upper torsos. “The punishment is jail for the rest of my life,” she murmurs. She also knows she may hang — capital punishment was reinstated in Sri Lanka two years ago after a government crackdown on suicide bombers.


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