I Played Chess with a ‘Terrorist’

by Shanthi Padmalingam

My heart feels heavy.  Maybe it is the longing to go back and help my people of Tamil Eelam.  Maybe it is from looking at pictures of the people I have just met and don’t want to leave behind.  Maybe it is the shock of realizing how very wrong I have been.

Never having a true understanding of the Tamil people’s struggle for freedom, it was easier for me to sit on my satin sofa, thousands of miles away in America, and argue with my father about the necessity of the war the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had waged.  Why had they not been able to discover an alternative to war?  Why have so many people died? 

It was not until seeing the reality of Tamil Eelam that it dawned on me that this was not a war the Tigers had waged: this was a war the Sri Lankan government had waged on the Tamil people, forcing them to defend themselves and fight for a just peace... A peace in which Tamil students are guaranteed a fair and equal education; a peace in which 12-year old Tamil girls do not fear gang-rape by the Sri Lankan Army; a peace in which Tamil sons are not forced to watch their fathers stripped naked and burnt alive while policemen dance around the body in triumph.

As I stood in the midst of thousands of graves of cadres who had given their lives for their struggle, I witnessed the true meaning of what it means to be selfless.  The young annas and accas (brothers and sisters) whose names are proudly etched on the tombstones had passionately dedicated their minds, bodies and souls to this movement.  What were they expecting in return?  Something that I take for granted everyday in America – something we grow up with here, along with the ABCs and 123s – freedom.  The young annas and accas did not join the LTTE for recognition.  They did not leave crying mothers begging them to stay home in order to receive a nice salary.  And though many, as I did not too long ago, may like to believe that the cadres picked up rifles for the simple sake of violence, this is utterly untrue.  Their turn to armed resistance was an unfortunate measure the Tamil youth had to take in order to ensure a just peace.  In the words of one anna, "We are shedding blood so future generations of our people will not have to shed any more tears."

It saddens me to think that people outside of Tamil Eelam may never truly understand their freedom struggle... That people, who are in a position to help ease the suffering there, blindly believe the media and label the LTTE as terrorists.  Maybe I will never know the complete history of their struggle, or every detail of each battle, but I do know that I have never been exposed to more love and respect than I felt in Eelam.  The annas and accas who had courageously defended their families against the terrorism of the government showed me what it means to live for a just cause and selflessly live for the people.

These freedom fighters, who many unjustly prefer to call "terrorists," have become more than just friends to me.  They have become a part of my family.  Playfully teasing me about my lack of cooking skills, giving me the self-confidence to speak my broken Tamil, laughing with me over ice cream, and tickling me to keep me from leaving so I could share their food with them are moments made many times more extraordinary when experienced with those we hold dear to our heart. 

Upon first meeting them, I did not think I would ever recognize them without their loving smiles.  However, after talking with them and hearing their stories, I realized it was not just their smiles that drew me to them.  It was the depth of their eyes.  The pain, the heartache that they held, and the determination that their children would not feel the same horror, were all reflected in their eyes.  I always wondered how they felt in the battlefield.  Weren’t they afraid of dying?  One anna asked me how they can fear death when that is all they have ever known.

It does not make sense to me how the man who thousands of children, orphaned by the conflict, affectionately call "Appah" (father) is also the same man who is hatefully deemed a terrorist in America.  The leader of this freedom movement, Velupillai Pirabakaran, grew up with Tamil men and women crying to his mother while reliving stories of rape, torture and massacre by the Sri Lankan Army.  After years of peaceful protesting, only to be urinated on, arrested, and abused, the Tamil people finally refused to accept further injustice.  They decided to carry arms and defend themselves.  Overcoming the obstacles involved in sparking a revolution, the LTTE could not have matured without the fierce support of its people.  During war time, 70-year old grandmothers run in the streets carrying rifles in order to defend themselves from the Sri Lankan Army.  When those same grandmothers are shouting words of inspiration that the youth of today must be able to defend themselves against those who are trying to erase the Tamil people’s culture and history, it becomes not just words, but expectations.  Expectations that the Tamil people will not let their heritage be taken away from them.

As I think back on my moments spent with these "terrorists," I remember the sound they make when they giggle at a friend's impersonation of a fish.  I remember the love in their eyes as they tell me why they joined the LTTE.  I remember the sadness in one anna’s voice as he recalled watching two of his female classmates shot by the army.  I remember the laughter on their faces as they clapped their hands to songs of freedom.  I remember the pride in the way they raise the national flag of Tamil Eelam, in the hopes that one day, they will have a land they can call "home."


Posted September 12, 2005