JAFFNA, Sri Lanka – Saroja* was feeling frustrated with her life. To cheer herself up, she decided to watch some speeches by the “great leader” on YouTube. But it didn’t work. Instead, she cried herself to sleep.
Saroja is a former combatant with the the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers.
The LTTE – founded and led by Velupillai Prabhakaran – waged an insurgency against the Sri Lankan government, hoping to create an independent Tamil state in the northern and eastern part of the country. Tens of thousands of people lost their lives over the course of the war, which lasted 26 years until the LTTE were defeated by Sri Lankan government troops in 2009. Prabhakaran and his fighters never got their independent state.
Sitting underneath a palm tree in a courtyard in a small port village at the northernmost tip of Sri Lanka, Saroja pulls out her phone to show an old photograph of her in a military uniform with a bob cut. Today, with her pink painted fingernails and her long, brushed hair, she no longer resembles her old guerrilla self at all. Only the long scar across her cheek hints at the battles she fought.
“Those were the happiest seven years of my life,” she said.
For Saroja, joining the LTTE in 2002 wasn’t just about fighting for a Tamil state: it provided her an opportunity to be on par with men. In traditional Tamil society, women’s roles were mainly confined to the household; they were expected to be subdued and obedient to elders and their husbands.
Joining the LTTE meant that Saroja could do things she would otherwise never normally have been allowed to do. As a female LTTE combatant she took part in major battles, climbing the ranks from being a regular fighter to a combat instructor, teaching men and women alike.
“There was absolute equality, and all the women had to undergo the same things that the men did. Men couldn’t look at a [female] trainer differently and say: ‘You’re a woman.’”
Following the LTTE’s military defeat in 2009, Saroja’s life changed drastically. She was detained by the Sri Lankan military and spent about a year and a half in a “rehabilitation center.” In 2009, the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation set up 22 rehabilitation centers throughout the country with the goal of ensuring sustainable peace, reconciliation, social cohesion and enhancing the employability of rehabilitates. The centers were catered for both men and women former combatants.
But though Saroja received some vocational training in tailoring and cake icing during that time, she said that she did not learn enough skills to be able to sustain herself economically after the war.
Seven years have passed since Saroja was released, and the only employment she has found was at a garment factory. But the job required her to live in a rented apartment on her own and, as a single woman, she didn’t feel safe. She decided to quit and return to her family home.
Moving back into her parents’ house, the former fighter was confronted with new family dynamics. During the conflict, her parents had been proud of their combatant daughter; but now they were ashamed because she had broken social norms. Her brothers were controlling.
“They say: You can’t talk to a man, you can’t go out after six o’clock,” she said.
“It’s very hard to live in such a structure: I can’t change them to suit me, so I have to change to suit them.”
Saroja’s story is typical of what many female LTTE combatants have been through. A report published in 2011 by the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit that researches violent conflict, estimates that about 3,000 female LTTE fighters who were either captured or who had handed themselves in at the end of the war were sent to military-run rehabilitation centers.
The former combatants and experts News Deeply talked to shared the impression that the rehabilitation centers had failed at preparing former fighters to adequately reintegrate into society.
“It’s clear that ex-combatants face an enormous number of problems and have done from the beginning, when they surrendered or were captured,” Alan Keenan, International Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka senior analyst, told News Deeply.
Annalakshmi*, a 46-year-old former LTTE officer from northern Sri Lanka, was wounded by an artillery shell in 2002. Her husband, a fellow officer, died while in custody after being captured by government forces in 2009. After the war, she took a loan in order to start a chicken farm with the support of an NGO. But she didn’t know enough about raising animals: The chickens soon died and she lost her income.
“The basic sense you get is that [at the rehabilitation centers] their time was largely wasted, and they weren’t really learning any skills that proved to be economically useful afterwards,” Keenan said.
“They come back into a situation where the economy is pretty devastated, and they have all this social baggage from being ex-combatants, particularly if they’re women.”
Saroja said that the people in her village were reluctant to accept her again because the army frequented her parents’ house to check up on her. “I still have to go back and forth to the army base. So I still experience harassment because of the CID [Criminal Investigation Department],” she said.
Keenan said Saroja and Annalakshmi’s experiences weren’t uncommon; rather the opposite.
“[Former LTTE combatants] are ostracized because they bring with them surveillance from the police. So if I’m a person in Jaffna and I meet with an ex-combatant, I’m probably being watched by the police when I do so. And obviously that’s not good for me in many ways,” Keenan said.
Back in her home village, Saroja was getting ready to go home as the sun was about to set. Before she left, she explained that because of her past and the scar on her face, her parents hadn’t found a husband for her yet.
“But one day, I’ll have children and I’ll tell them about this scar. And they’ll know that their mother is a fighter.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the former combatants interviewed for this article.