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January 16, 2008

When the Suicide Bomber Is a Woman

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For seven months, the LTTE training camp was Menake’s home, with its tents for sleeping and cement-block classrooms, surrounded by dense jungle. She lived with 150 other conscripts, all females in their teens and 20s. She was given the Tamil Tiger green-and-yellow camouflage uniform to wear.

The training-camp rules were rigid: The LTTE prohibits alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. “Unlawful sex” — anything ranging from masturbation to romantic relationships — is banned. Velupillai Prabhakaran, the cultlike founder of the LTTE, executed two of his closest aides after they were caught having intercourse. Marriage was initially outlawed by Prabhakaran, now 53 — until he fell in love with a female prisoner, an agricultural student kidnapped by his guerrillas. The rules were subsequently altered to allow senior cadres to wed. More recently, the LTTE decreed that members may marry once women turn 35 and men turn 40.

For Menake, daily life in the camp was hard and monotonous, starting at 4 a.m. with an hour-long run. “At 5 a.m., we got tea and a bucket of water to wash with,” says Menake. “Then we did push-ups.” The raw recruits spent hours learning to dismantle, reassemble, and fire their guns. “They watch you closely. Some girls were so fast they won prizes — clothes, a watch. I was always in the middle. If you were slow, you were punished. Sometimes I’d get so tired, I’d fall asleep in class. Then I had to run 20 times around the camp perimeter [about 18 miles] or do jumping jacks until I thought I’d die. You’d be so exhausted, you could hardly move.” The rest of the day was divided into sessions of intense political indoctrination and sentry duty.

Listening to Menake talk, it’s hard not to sympathize. Her fingernails are bitten down and raw. Her face is streaked with tears and sweat. Her future will be at least as grim as her past has been. And yet, had she not been apprehended, her legacy would have been that of a mass murderer. I ask her how she learned to kill.


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