At 14, she's ready to take a cyanide pill for the Tigers

Sri Lanka: Captured during fighting in Jaffna by Indian soldiers, Arumuyam Malar is one of 48 girls in her unit battling for independence
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The Independent Online

Arumuyam Malar, is 14 years old and already knows how to fire a semi-automatic assault rifle, throw grenades and take a cyanide pill. "If I had one when I was captured I would have swallowed it," said the girl fighter with the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam, who was caught by government forces in the Jaffna peninsula last month.

Arumuyam Malar, is 14 years old and already knows how to fire a semi-automatic assault rifle, throw grenades and take a cyanide pill. "If I had one when I was captured I would have swallowed it," said the girl fighter with the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam, who was caught by government forces in the Jaffna peninsula last month.

The Tigers, a tenacious force of only a few thousand that has fought the numerically superior Sri Lankan Army for an independent homeland for 17 years, inspires that sort of zeal in its cadres.

Shifting in her plastic seat underneath a mango tree, Arumuyam looks in equal part a shy girl in her early teens, with averted eyes and a charming smile, and a rebel guerrilla reluctant to talk about what she knows. As she has been with the Tigers since the age of seven, she probably knows quite a lot.

"An older girl came to the house one day and told my sister, who was looking after me, that she would take me shopping, but instead she took me to the Tigers," she said through an interpreter.

She has not seen or had contact with her family since. Her father had died and her mother was in hospital at the time she was press-ganged but her uncle was later told by the Tigers that she was with them.

The 48 girls and women in her unit had an intensive daily routine - marching drills, weapons-handling and radio communications - that began at 4.30am and went through the heat of the day until 4pm. Even then, their day might not be over, as they would often spend an hour during the night on sentry duty, watching over their thatch-roofed hideout.

She was caught in July on the Jaffna frontline after being wounded in her right hip by a mortar round. It was her first time in combat, she said in a quiet, unemotional voice. "Before then I had no battle experience.

"But we lived as brothers and sisters and we all had the intention to fight." Asked if she thought it was wrong that a girl of her age should be fighting a war, she refused to answer, responding only with a fixed smile. She doesn't answer again when asked if she ever had any toys, but this time Arumuyam allows herself a little chuckle and looks at her feet.

She begins to tell how the soldiers who captured her gave her a beating but is cut short by the army translator.

The government claims the drafting of child soldiers is a measure of how desperate the Tigers are to reclaim Jaffna, the regional capital they took from the government a decade ago before losing it in 1995. Jaffna has been bracing for another assault since the Tigers' May offensive moved the frontline to the eastern outskirts of the town. The Sri Lankan Army's top field commander expects it in the next three weeks.

"Their interest is Jaffna, there is no doubt about that, because for them, if there is no Jaffna, there is no state," Major General Anton Wijendra said from within his fortified command post within range of the enemy's guns. The government forces were committed to stopping them, he added.

For those in Jaffna town and surrounding areas still in government hands, it is a nervous and fearful wait for the calm of the last six weeks to be broken.

The buildings bear the scars of previous battles, with collapsed top floors and saucer-shaped holes blown out of the masonry. Walking down the main shopping street you are told over and again by vendors selling their goods at inflated prices that they just want peace.

Most of the town's residents were displaced when the war swept through before, and many are expecting they will soon have to leave again. The sound of intermittent mortar and artillery shells can be heard day and night.

"We are used to a type of gypsy life for 10 years now," said Kingsley Rajanayagam, after he emerged from a narrow lane in the eastern part of the town, two miles from the front line.

Mr Rajanayagam, a regional manager for a Sri Lankan bank, said the major concern of most people at the moment is their safety and some are no longer prepared to wait it out.

"At the speed with which people are leaving, I think in the near future, there will be nobody left in Jaffna," he said. A third of the 500,000 population of Jaffna and the surrounding peninsula, almost exclusively Tamil, has already been displaced by the recent advances of the Tigers.

Most have moved in with relatives in other parts of the country or taken up residence in the many abandoned houses in the western half of the peninsula, but some 20,000 are housed in makeshift refugee camps.

When the attack comes, most people will shift to the western half of the peninsula and hope that the battle is fought only around Jaffna itself and the air and sea ports to the north, said a spokesman for a Catholic aid group.

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