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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 look on Menake’s face turns to wild desperation. She wrings her dupatta in her hands. “I beg you, can’t you get me out of this country?” she pleads, almost hysterically. “I want to live. To live the life I might have had before, if I wasn’t going to kill myself.”

Of course, it’s the life she had before that brought her to this point. Home was an impoverished fishing village in northeast Sri Lanka. Her alcoholic father drank more than he fished, and he often hit his wife. Menake was 3 when her mother died from one of his frequent attacks. When Menake was 7, her father raped her repeatedly for four days during a drunken binge. Finally, her grandfather rescued her, and her father disappeared. She never saw him again.

Rape is something many female suicide bombers have in common. Considered spoiled goods and unmarriageable in their patriarchal cultures, they view becoming human bombs as a form of purification by fire. Dhanu, Prime Minister Gandhi’s assassin, was also allegedly raped by soldiers from the Indian Peacekeeping Force when it was posted in Sri Lanka for three years.

When Menake was 15, her grandparents died. Her uncle and aunt reluctantly took her in, making it known that she was a burden. Two years later, in 2000, faced with a shortage of fighters, the LTTE levied a human tax — Tamil families were ordered to give a member, male or female, to the organization to be trained for combat. Menake’s relatives gave her up for the cause.

“They just said, ‘She is yours,’” Menake tells me. “I cried. I begged [the LTTE] not to take me. I told them I didn’t want to die so young. But a woman officer told me, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you. Your relatives said you came here of your own volition.’”

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