The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka are the world's most effective guerrilla army, now close to victory after 12 years of civil war. Crucial to their success have been their lite suicide squads of young women and children

IN THE fortress-city of Jaffna, a white, scrubbed place of churches, palms and liquid brightness on the edge of a lagoon in northern Sri Lanka, there is a sinister, inescapable image. You see it everywhere: on the walls of schoolyards, where children play on see-saws made of broken AK- 47 rifles; outside cinemas; and in the neighbourhood behind the bombed- out church, where every third shop sells freshly varnished coffins. It is a poster, showing, in silhouette, a Tamil guerrilla walking along a path, hand in hand with a young boy and girl. The artist intended that it should be inspirational, no doubt, but to Western eyes the effect is depressing. The shadowy, skeletal warrior, you think, is Death himself, leading the children straight to their graves in Jaffna's red-earthed cemetery.

But the Tamils like to see martyrdom dressed up like this, in lurid, B-movie allure. All over the Tamil rebels' capital, on the main squares and crossroads, or looming up in the palm trees, you see large wooden cut-outs of men and women commandos. They might easily be mistaken for advertisements for some gory war film. In fact, they are shrines for fallen Tamil guerrillas.

For 12 years now, the Tamils have been defending their stronghold in northern Sri Lanka against repeated assaults by up to 100,000 government troops, backed by air power and naval gunships. Their casualties have been enormous, but not in vain: for they have succeeded in carving out for themselves a de facto homeland (which they call Eelam) on the northern tip of the island; and, following two months of intensive talks, the Colombo government has just announced that it is prepared to concede some form of autonomy to the Tamils. In a world full of long- running civil wars and secessionist guerrilla campaigns, the Tamil rebellion has been remarkably effective.

It has also been remarkable for something else. For the past four or five years, most of the Tamils' fighting has been done by an army composed largely of young women and schoolchildren. One of the bloodiest civil wars in recent history has been waged by boys and girls as young as 14: youngsters raised with a death wish and obsessed with martyrdom.

It was in 1986 that the Sri Lankan government's forces first began to notice young women guerrillas through their field binoculars. At first they were amused. According to one of the Tamil women, the government soldiers, using their walkie-talkies, "constantly tried to intimidate us by saying that soon they would come... They threatened that they would take us alive... We got used to their nonsense and ignored them."

Since then, thousands of Tamil women have become guerrillas. With their long black hair braided tightly, they have taken part, as equal combatants, in all the major battles of the past nine years. Indeed, it wasn't long before the taunting government soldiers got the full blast of the women rebels' ferocity. Late one evening in November 1990, a unit of "Tigresses" attacked and overran the army's outer defences at Palali, the major Sri Lankan base on the Jaffna peninsula, and inflicted heavy casualties.

They have never looked back. There are at least 3,000 Tigresses now fighting on the rebel side. But it is not just the gender of these guerrillas that takes observers by surprise. It is also their age. A typical Tigress unit might consist exclusively of women aged between 16 and 22, and many Tigers, male and female, are even younger. This is partly a reflection of the toll the war has taken on older Tamils, but it also reflects the ease with which the young have been harnessed to what has become the Tamils' most terrible weapon: fanaticism.

Perhaps more than any other factor, what has kept the Sri Lankan government at bay in recent years or so has been a steady stream of devastating suicide attacks, either in battle or in strikes against government installations or political leaders. Hundreds of Tamils have died in this way. Many have been female; nearly all have been in their teens or early twenties. The willingness of the Tamils' youthful guerrillas to die in battle recalls that of the 11th-century Arabic hashshashin, from whom the word assassin derives. The sect's leader, Hasan bin Sabbah, used to drug his soldiers and carry them to a secret garden where girls danced in elegant pavilions and offered the very best food and wine. When the soldiers awoke, they thought they were in paradise. After a few days, the ruler knocked them out again and deposited them back in their barracks. Having tasted what they thought was paradise, the soldiers were only too ready to sacrifice their lives on suicidal missions. The Tamil Tiger leaders have achieved a similar hallucinatory zeal among their young combatants, but the drug they have used in order to do so is not hashish but television.

There is a recruitment video for the Black Tigers - the lite squads of suicide guerrillas - that is regularly shown in Tamil classrooms throughout the north of the island. The video begins with close-ups of flowers, happy music, and a family picnicking in the garden. Then a Sri Lankan aeroplane drops a bomb on the picnickers, killing all but the teenage son. Thirsty for revenge, the boy joins the Tiger cadres: there are scenes of him training on the rifle range and doing fun things like swinging from ropes or singing around the campfire. Then the Black Tiger commander announces that he needs someone who is willing to blow himself to bits by driving a lorry loaded with explosives into a barricaded army camp.

Naturally, the young Black Tigers all step forward as eagerly as if they'd been offered a weekend in Paris with Cindy Crawford. Names are tossed into a helmet and our young hero is selected. He leaps jubilantly in the air while his comrades curse their ill luck. Before he hops into his bomb- laden lorry, he is shown dutifully doing his chore of sweeping leaves in the Tiger camp. "You are carrying a volcano on your shoulders," the Black Tiger is warned as he drives off. Cut to explosion. Mangled bodies.

To an outsider, the Black Tiger video may seem melodramatic, but its effectiveness is unquestionable. The cult of martyrdom created among the Tamils, who are mainly Hindus and Christians, far surpasses anything seen among the better-known Muslim extremist groups in the Middle East, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The fanaticism of the Tamil assassins is long- fused and incandescent. Take the case of Dannu, a young suspected Tiger woman, who talked her way past the security cordon surrounding Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 and put a garland of jasmine petals around his neck before blowing up herself and the Indian ex-premier. More recently, last November, there was another suicide-bomber, also in her early twenties, who attended the rally of Gamini Dissanayake, a conservative presidential candidate. This killer was cool enough to stand up so that the force of the explosion was aimed straight at the politician. Police investigators later found the Tamil's severed head kicked by the blast on to the roof of a three- storey building.

LIKE THE hashshashin, and other orders of military fanatics, the Tamil Tigers have a figure of adoration. Theirs is Velupillai Prabakharan, the enigmatic and reclusive leader of the LTTE, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. He is 41, and rather beefy-looking. Few Tamils have seen him in person, but his portrait is in all homes, shops and schools in Jaffna. Word has a way of reaching back to "the boys" if it isn't.

Prabakharan is said to have been an average student, raised on comics and karate films, but he has matured, after years of guerrilla fighting, into a master strategist comparable to Mao Tse-tung or Che Guevara. He is also utterly fanatical. In his youth, writes one biographer, MR Narayan Swamy, he "would tie himself up, get into a sack and lie under the sun the whole day. He would also go and spread himself on chilli bags. He even inserted pins under his nails. At other times, he would catch insects and prick them to death with needles to gain mental preparation to torture the `enemy'."

Prabakharan has instilled his Tiger children with similar ruthless discipline. Living in Jaffna is like living in a totalitarian state, while the Tiger training camps are unremittingly ideological. One Tamil intellectual, who felt threatened by the Tigers' regime in Jaffna and fled to Colombo several years ago, remarks: "The Tigers are more like a religious sect than a guerrilla force. Each combatant is given a nom de guerre. They are forbidden from having sex, smoking cigarettes or drinking." They rise at 4am, undergo intensive physical training and are segregated by sex. They are allowed to marry one another, but not until they have reached the age of 23, have served five years with the movement and have been approved by the "marriage committee". Young Tigers are allowed home to visit their families for just one week a year.

At the graduation ceremony from basic training, each recruit is awarded a cyanide phial to hang around his or her neck. "To be caught alive by the enemy is the highest disgrace," Prabakharan tells his Tigers. As one young LTTE fighter explained to me, pulling the cyanide capsule from inside his shirt with pride: "You bite through the glass. That way, the cyanide enters your blood faster through the cuts in your mouth." The Tigers are not afraid to use the poison. When Indian police looking for clues to Gandhi's killer investigated a Tiger network in Madras, in southern India, they were often a step too slow: the mystery trail was strewn with the bodies of 20 suspected LTTE cadres, all dead from cyanide.

THE PROCESS of moulding Tamil boys and girls into suicide-killers begins long before their pre-teens. From their earliest days in school, children are taught the roots of the ethnic war: how, since independence in 1948, the Sinhalese Buddhists who are in the majority on the island have discriminated against the Tamils; how hundreds of Tamils were hunted down and butchered in ethnic riots which swept the island in 1956, 1958 and 1959; and how when Tamil militancy reared up in the Seventies, the army and police retaliated brutally, killing and torturing many women and children on the Jaffna peninsula.

This is not a stale history lesson: since 1991, the 800,000 Tamils living on the Jaffna peninsula have been regularly strafed by Sri Lankan warplanes and hammered by artillery and naval bombardments. More than 30,000 Tamils - men, women and children - have perished in this 12-year civil war, along with thousands of Sri Lankan solidiers. After each major battle with the Sri Lankan army, children are marched from their classrooms to attend funeral ceremonies for fallen heroes. Every child must queue to sprinkle flowers on the caskets. Jaffna has been under an electricity black-out for four years, but the inventive Tamils use generators to bathe the cemetery - the Martyrs' Resting Place - in coloured neon lights, as if Death were nothing but a merry fairground ride.

Young Tiger recruitment officers often visit schools, and when boys and girls turn 12 and 13 years old they are pressurised into starting military training. They are discouraged from telling their parents about this (unless they are Tigers too). One 22-year-old combatant, Vealu Allirani, said, "We didn't tell our parents we went in for training, and we were told never to go in uniforms to our homes."

Supporters of the LTTE praise Prabakharan for having abolished the Tamils' rigid caste hierarchy and raised women's status. If status can be measured in terms of numbers of suicide-bombers, they are right, for a disproportionate number seem to be women. Father SJ Emmanuel from St Francis Xavier's Seminary in Jaffna, says: "Before, the Tamil women were very conservative. They were always a few steps behind their men. Now, the women martyrs have shown that while men might have greater strength, the women have inner courage."

This is certainly the impression I gained from the parents of one suicide commando woman, Lieutenant-Colonel Nallayni, who died last year at the age of 22. Her name will never be forgotten by the Sri Lankan navy. She and two other women Sea Tigresses slipped through the Sri Lankan defences on 18 September in a small boat loaded with explosives. They rammed a navy vessel, the second biggest in the government's fleet, and sank it. "It was only after her death that we realised she was a Black Tiger," said her father, Arumugasamy. The LTTE gave Lt- Col Nallayni a grand hero's funeral, with a band and 15,000 mourners. And, says her father, "They've painted a big picture of her beside Jaffna's new bus stand."

In her family's photo album, Nallayni always seems to be off to the side in the snapshots, quiet and frumpy-looking, overshadowed by her vivacious sisters. Did her parents know that their daughter was going to blow herself up? "She came home suddenly a week before she died. She asked me to buy a jackfruit, some mangoes and bananas, and we had a little feast. She wasn't tearful or anything when she left," her father recalls. "She never said she wasn't coming back."

SURPRISINGLY, the Tamil Tigers' cult of martyrdom receives sanction from many Anglican and Catholic priests and the Hindu pundits. Father Emmanuel, a Catholic, explains his Tamil militancy: "First, I was born a Tamil, then I became a Christian. I can't forget that heritage." The most striking image in Father Emmanuel's seminary office is a sketch of Jesus Christ laughing robustly, as though enjoying a cracking good joke. In contrast, the priest's talk is doom-laden, full of God's new "revelations" arising from "the bomb-blast". Even the Tigers' suicide-killings are theologically acceptable, the priest insists. "The church refused to let suicides have a Christian burial. But for us, these boys and girls aren't suicides, they're martyrs. They are giving up their lives for a higher cause, the way Jesus Christ did." Other Anglican and Catholic clergymen I spoke to were equally reluctant to criticise the LTTE. "Whatever doubts some Tamils might have about the LTTE," one bishop remarked cautiously, "they put them aside. They believe that the Tigers are our only protection against the Sri Lankan army."

As for the Hindus, they have even altered their funeral customs to suit the Tigers. Hindu Tamils killed in combat are not cremated, as their faith demands, but instead are buried. The sight of long rows of tombstones at the Martyrs' Resting Place outside Jaffna keeps the Tamils' hatred of the Sri Lankan army at fever-pitch. "Those who fall in battle we plant as seeds for future generations of Tamils," explains one Tiger political worker.

BY CONTRAST, the government tends to play down its casualties (which are high), dumping soldiers' corpses back in their villages without any fanfare. Indeed, Sri Lankans in the south generally try to ignore the war. Government forces draw their troops from the poor villages of the island's interior, and so the affluent middle-classes of Colombo and Kandy remain untouched by the fighting. A tourist in Colombo could be excused for not knowing that a war was going on at all.

But then south and north, Colombo and Jaffna, could not be more different. Colombo is a rich sea-port just starting to shake off its languorous colonial past and transform itself into an Asian dynamo with Singapore-style skyscrapers; yet underneath its chrome sheen of modernity is a stink of old-fashioned moral decay. Pimps sell little boys to foreign paedophiles who are caught wearing nothing but condoms but then set free by bribed police. Political scandals aren't worth gossiping about unless they involve money, sex and murder.

Jaffna is another land. Although many Tamils there are scared of "the boys", and no one dares to challenge the LTTE openly, the place does have an eerie purity. In other totalitarian regimes, soldiers swagger around with their weapons, bullying people. But I did not see one gun in Jaffna. Try to imagine a country run by Boy Scouts with cyanide capsules around their necks and you have Jaffna. The traffic police, the immigration officers and the ferryboat pilots are all teenagers, and even the judges - who have the power to execute people - are in their early twenties. Yet few crimes are committed and nobody demands bribes - perhaps because no thief could possibly expect mercy from judges such as one steely-eyed 22-year- old that I met.

Indeed, this is one of the most frightening thoughts about Sri Lanka today. It is all very well to hope for peace, and an end to the terrible slaughter of the Tamils' child "martyrs". But what if the teenage Tigers and Tigresses were to prove even more terrible in civilian life than they have done in war? !

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