Asia-Pacific, Europe, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-SRI LANKA: &#39My Daughter, the Terrorist&#39

Tarjei Kidd Olsen

OSLO, May 6 2008 (IPS) - In Sri Lanka&#39s brutal civil war some rebel women end their lives as suicide bombers that have killed hundreds over the years. A Norwegian documentary film that follows two 24-year-olds training to do just this has enraged the Sri Lankan government, but raises important questions about the conduct of war and its consequences.

The women are from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), often called the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group that has been fighting for an independent homeland for the Tamil ethnic minority since the 1970s. The demand has arisen, they say, in reaction to abuses and discrimination by the Sri Lankan government.

A third of the Tigers are women.

The documentary &#39My Daughter the Terrorist&#39 follows Darshika and Puhalchudar, two elite female soldiers in the Tamil Tigers, as they train for missions that can include suicide bombings against perceived enemy targets. It also talks to the mother of one, painting a tragic picture of loss and sacrifice in war.

According to the film, about 300 hundred suicide bombings are alleged to have been committed by the Black Tigers, Darshika and Puhalchudar&#39s elite Tamil Tiger squad founded in 1987. Although the women insist that only military targets are attacked, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accuses both the rebels and the military of serious human rights abuses, including attacks against civilians and the forced recruitment of child soldiers.

Hostilities have increased dramatically following the gradual collapse of peace talks and a ceasefire brokered by Norway in 2001. A large-scale government offensive against the rebels is currently raging in the northern parts of the country, with heavy casualties reported on both sides.

Active Black Tiger soldiers have never been interviewed before, according to the 2007 documentary by Snitt Film Production. Norwegian director Beate Arnestad had to spend one-and-a-half years in sensitive negotiations with the Tamil Tigers before gaining access during the ceasefire period.

"I wanted to show the human costs of war," Arnestad told IPS. "Very often you only get official statements from politicians, but I wanted to see what the real costs are – what happens to a population that has experienced more than a generation of warfare. Is this how terrorism is born? I wondered how people become suicide bombers, a choice that seems completely incomprehensible to most of us," she said.

Arnestad added: "Most families live very traditional lives, and particularly women. For a woman to first become a soldier and then a suicide bomber candidate is a huge and radical step."

In the documentary Darshika says she joined the rebels as a 12-year-old after losing her father, and suffering abuse and humiliation at the hands of the military. The young Puhalchudar and her family were rescued by Tamil Tiger rebels defending a bridge they had to cross to escape a military attack.

"Thanks to them (Tamil Tigers) our family was saved. When we were running through the shelling the army attacked us…But the movement fought back. That&#39s how we survived. After that I felt that I had to save these (Tamil) people. I thought that if I don&#39t join the movement, our people will be forced into slavery," Puhalchudar sobs in an emotional scene in the documentary.

Even though both girls are Christian, they are not driven by religious fanaticism. The Tamil Tigers do not adhere to any particular religion, according to the pair. In the documentary Darshika asks: "If there is a God, why does he keep us in this endless misery? Even those who came to church for protection ended up in pools of blood."

Producer and co-director Morten Daae says that while the suicide bombers are not religious martyrs, they are revered as heroes. "In the West there is a preconception that all suicide bombers are fanatical Muslims expecting virgins in the afterlife, but that is not the case here," Daae told IPS. "They don&#39t believe they will be rewarded in the afterlife or anything like that, but they will be remembered every year on Heroes&#39 Day, when all the villages ceremoniously honour their individual martyrs with pictures and candles.

"They are willing to go that extra mile to protect their country and their families and their people, and they are proud of it. And because they live in a very male dominated society, the female Black Tigers have an extremely high status compared to ordinary women. They are both respected and feared. When they are out among civilians you can to a certain degree see that they radiate much more self-confidence and authority than the civilian women next to them."

It took some time for director Arnestad to gain the girls&#39 trust. Daae believes that the fact that Arnestad is a woman helped. "In the beginning the girls were very careful, and mostly stuck to the official line. I do think that Beate&#39s position as a woman meant that her long period of trying to convince them to open up actually paid off, because it is easier to talk to a woman. Of course, she is also a very skilled interviewer."

Things became easier still when the girls were taken to places they could relate to, such as childhood sites. Daae gives the example of a scene in the documentary where Darshika arrives at a church which was rebuilt after being destroyed in the war, before being destroyed again by the 2004 tsunami. "She broke down completely because this was the church that she used to attend as a child. After that she began to pour her heart out."

While &#39My Daughter the Terrorist&#39 has won prizes and has been well received by most international audiences, Sri Lanka&#39s government is not very thrilled. On their website they accuse the documentary of "glorifying suicide bombers", and unsuccessfully tried to prevent it being shown at a film festival in the United States on Apr. 4 by pressuring the U.S. State Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Arnestad does not understand the government reaction. "The documentary does not justify terrorism or glorify suicide bombers – rather the opposite. I also find it strange that this criticism is being levied a whole year after we first released the documentary. I suspect this is because it is being shown in so many places, while the Sri Lankan government does its best to impose a complete news blackout," she said.

Following a suicide bombing on Apr. 6 that killed the transport minister and a national Olympic hero, Daae received anonymous death threats via e-mail. The producer does not believe that they will be carried out, but says he understands why some people have reacted so strongly.

"For some in Sri Lanka it no doubt appears that a Norwegian man and a Norwegian woman are being so impudent as to support people that they consider as mere butchers, which is quite something. We do not support them – if we support anyone it must be the victims. But it is not so surprising that they feel this way as they have most probably never actually seen the documentary and have only heard the government&#39s version of events."

Filming for the documentary wrapped up just as the ceasefire began to collapse, and Darshika and Puhalchudar were posted to a new mission according to the Tamil Tiger leadership. Arnestad and Daae have not been able to trace their whereabouts since then, and do not know if they are still alive.

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