story of innocence and brutality. Gajaani became an
LTTE member at 19, and has spent the last 13 years as one of its official
war photographers. Scorching in its simplicity, her highly unusual account
tracks the making of a soldier
I grew up in the
1970s in Kilinoch-chi, Sri Lanka, where I was born. Kilinochchi was
a remote area then, a place with a small population and very poor infrastructure.
My parents talk of it as a peaceful time, but the problems in my country
were already beginning.
homeland’s toll: Mullaitivu, 1996
During the riots
in 1983, we had relatives in Colombo who were taken in by Sinhalese
friends. But a mob stormed the house where they were hiding —
six of my family members were killed that day.
We in Kilinochchi
were sheltered from such atrocities then. Kilinochchi was one hundred
percent Tamil; there were some military camps around, but there were
no riots. We would all listen to the radio and the elders would talk
about the stories coming through. I remember my family crying and being
very upset through these times. The stories were horrific, but I couldn’t
understand or relate to what was going on. I was just a child.
At that time, the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were still very young. I remember
their fighters coming to my house. Like many families in Kilinochchi,
we would help them as best we could, my Amma would dress their wounds,
we would look after them like they were our own family. They seemed
like such big people, they would tell me and my siblings about the fighting,
what it was about, what the problems were with the country and why the
Sinhalese were treating us Tamils like this. I remember hearing stories
from the riots when babies were put in boiling tar and women had their
breasts cut off and the symbol of ‘Sri’ branded in the wound
where their breasts had been. Those awful days made us mad with fear
and confusion. We were sheltered in Kilinochchi, but we were very aware
of events in Sri Lanka and the grief they were creating.
In 1984, the military
started an operation to wipe out the LTTE. The military had many weapons
and the LTTE had small arms, nothing sophisticated, but they were quick
and clever and knew the jungle well. Within a few days there were dead
military bodies all over Kilinochchi — they tried to kill the
LTTE, but the LTTE finished them. From this moment, we knew that we
could take them on, that they were weak and we were strong, clever and
Through 1984 to
’85, Tamil people were being displaced from Jaffna, Mannar, Trincomalee
and other places, and were coming to Kilinochchi. We made space for
them in our schools, and I used to talk with them a lot and help distribute
food and blankets. I met many children my own age in these camps and
they would be really scared and upset; they had seen many horrific things
and they told me their stories. In the camps there were many LTTE fighters
too. They would talk about Prabhakaran.
I can still recall
her face. She was ready for battle, she was hard and
focused. It was the first time I had seen that face, but I have
seen it and worn it many times since
I didn’t really
understand why he was such a hero but, like many of my friends, I was
completely enamoured of him. I used to ask the fighters if they had ever
seen him and most would reply that they had not but they fully believed
in what he was doing and the way he led them. He was 16 when he started
fighting, just 16. I was nearly that age, and I wondered what made him
so special and so brave. So I too tried to join the LTTE at age 16 —
why not, I thought. But the fighters kept telling me I was too young.
After a while,
the LTTE came into Kilin-ochchi. They had only been in the jungle before
this, but now they began to set up bases in the town. My friends and
I were very excited; we made plans for joining a base, and finally managed
to enter one. It was a hard day; from morning to evening, LTTE cadres
talked to us, mocking us, tell-ing us we were too small, too weak, testing
our resolve. I remember telling them that if they could do it, I could
too and that I wasn’t scared by them or their discipline.
By evening, our
families were very worried and came in search of us. We all hid and
begged the cadres not to tell our families we were there. We could see
our parents talking to the cadres; their eyes were full of tears, and
we too were crying; our hearts felt we had lost something. But, at the
same time, we felt we were about to achieve something better. At one
point, our parents came near the room we were hiding in; if they had
looked through the window, they would have seen us. We crouched low
and stayed very still, we were completely silent. In that moment, I
realised that my life had completely changed. We have a saying in Tamil:
peththamanam piththu, pillaimanam kallu. It means: the parents’
hearts are soft, but the children’s hearts are like stone. I thought
of this saying as our families finally went away.
The next night,
we heard the sounds of shelling and shooting very close to us. My friends
and I were rounded up by the cadres; they were frantic, running about,
preparing everything very quickly. Someone told us the second Eelam
war had started. Two vehicles arrived at the base; my friends and I
got in one and the cadres got in the other. One cadre told us that they
were off to attack the Kilinochchi military camp and that we were being
taken to a base for our training. I can still recall her face, she was
ready for battle, she was hard and focused. It was the first time I
had seen that face, but I have seen it and worn it many times since.
We arrived that
night at a base in the jungle. I had never stayed in the jungle before;
I kept waking up through the night with the strange sounds around me.
As dawn broke, I looked about. I saw the cadres sleeping nearby. I also
saw many tomb stones and realised we were in an LTTE martyrs’
graveyard. I froze. I had gone to sleep a civilian and had woken up
in the LTTE graveyard a cadre. It was like a rebirth. I was 19.
remains: Kilinochchi, 2006
The base became
a second school to me. There were many new friends to meet, people from
all over the country, so many different faces and stories, people with
the different accents of my Tamil language. Our leaders became like
our parents. They treated us very well, and helped and encouraged us
to succeed. The training itself was very hard. I was not used to so
much exercise, and we had to learn to become strong and prepare ourselves
for battle. It was hard and heavy work. I remember crying with pain
and exhaustion, but our leaders would say that the boys could do it,
so we girls had to as well — and then our determination would
make us succeed. We would also do drama and painting workshops and,
as we were the juniors, we had to cook too. I had never cooked in my
life, but here we sometimes had to cook for 700 people. I remember one
night the leaders came to the kitchen with a goat and asked us to prepare
a mutton curry. We had never handled dead animals before; we did not
even know how to skin it. So we hung the goat from the ceiling and one
at a time jumped and hung onto its cut parts to rip the skin off. It
was difficult but we had great fun.
After our training,
we were divided into groups. I was the leader for one of them. My first
posting was the Palaly Front Defence Line in Jaffna. We were to block
the military from moving forward.
The first battle
was very difficult. I was used to the sound of guns and bombs and I
had no fear for myself, but when a fellow cadre is killed, it is a terrible
moment. These were girls that I had known and been through so much with,
and then suddenly they were gone and I was left alone on the battlefield.
I cannot really describe the feeling very well — we have a Tamil
word, urayinthu. It means to freeze with emotion. At these moments,
I had to recover very quickly as I still had a job to do and needed
to get focused. Afterwards, I would always fight much harder, I just
wanted to fight and fight and fight.
I participated in
many battles in my first couple of years with the LTTE. All through
this time, I still had such a desire to meet Prabhakaran. In the middle
of a battle, I would sometimes think, ‘How can I die before meeting
our national leader,’ for this is why I was fighting, for him
and our people.
I remember in earlier
times, before I joined the LTTE, I would ask the fighters I met how
they could be in the LTTE without meeting Prabhakaran. I had now been
in battles for one-and-a-half years, and I still hadn’t met him.
Then came 1991; I was being trained for Aniyiravu (the Battle of Elephant
Pass), and Prabhakaran came to the base. As soon as I met him, I felt
ready to go to battle and die for my people. I was so happy that no
matter what happened from then on, I had met Prabhakaran. My aspiration
in life had been fulfilled.
the border: Jaffna, 1998
life: LTTE women cadres, Palai, 2006
As dawn broke, I looked
about. I realised we were in an LTTE graveyard. I froze. I had
gone to sleep a civilian and had woken up a cadre
He was there on
the morning of the battle, sending us off into war. We fought so hard
that day because of this. It was the most unforgettable day of my life.
I was 20 years old and the battle was called Akaya Kadal Veli Samar
(the Sky-Sea-Ground Battle). Elephant Pass is a very difficult place
to fight, and the Sri Lankan Army had planes, boats and ground troops;
we just had ground troops and had to defend and attack against all types
I was injured in
the Elephant Pass Battle and was taken to the LTTE medical wing for
treatment. I was there for three months. During this time, the LTTE
began to develop its Media Wing and Prabhakaran asked leaders to find
cadres to join it. The leaders of my team put my name on the list, but
I was not interested in photography then — I was just focused
on being a fighter. However, I finally agreed. I arrived for my first
lesson just as the class was taking their first practice with a camera.
I was handed the one camera we had at that time, and was told about
the focus. I took the camera and twisted the focus from left to right,
unaware that it is a very delicate and sensitive manoeuvre. It was the
first time I had handled a camera, I didn’t know what I was doing
but I enjoyed it.
I was asked to
take a picture. I felt shy as I didn’t know what to do. Behind
me, there were many other cadres waiting their turn. Then I gently applied
the shutter button, and the camera took the picture. When the photos
were printed, mine were not so good — the exposures were all right
but everything was out of focus! But, after a few weeks, when we had
an examination, I got the highest mark in the group. I even got a prize
— a camera of my own.
After this, I could
not stop taking pictures. The year was 1993. I remember the most important
picture I took. I went to visit an Internally Displaced Persons’
(IDP) camp; outside a hut, a small child was eating raw fish and there
were flies and blood all over his face and body. I think this was the
first time I had been exposed to extreme poverty. Kilinochchi is not an
affluent place but these IDPs were so poor, they didn’t have anything.
The sight really upset me. I began to think about poverty, what it was
about, how this situation happened to people and, most importantly, what
I could do to change it.I took a photograph of this child and sent the
image to Prabhakaran. I asked for his opinion of what I was seeing and
photographing. He was very pleased and said that Tamil people and the
world needed to see such things.
The two greatest
influences in my life have been Prabhakaran and Col Kittu, a photographer
and artist based in London. He would send us photographic assignments
and give me so much encouragement that it was a joy taking pictures
of things he asked for. Due to the security situation, it was very difficult
for me to send the pictures to him, so I would send them to Prabhakaran.
He would choose the good ones and would send back advice and comments.
My first photography
field experience was on Thavalai Pachchal (Operation Frog Jumping) in
1993 in Poonakary. I already had much battle experience and knew my
place on the battleground, so I was comfortable being there. However,
being a photographer on the battleground is very different. I only had
my camera, I had no rifle. It felt very strange at first to be there
with no gun. I was excited and ready to take good photographs, but it
rained all day and I couldn’t get any pictures.
is remembered: Kilinochchi, 2001
I don’t think
about death when I’m on the battlefield, I just try and
get the best pictures of my cadres — that is my mission
and I don’t feel any fear
Since then, I have
taken photographs of many battles and it is a very dangerous job. The
real danger is where I have to stand to take pictures. When you are
a fighter, you get to stay in camouflage, undercover and in the bunkers.
When you are a photographer, you have to be outside getting the pictures
of the fighters. I don’t think about death when I’m on the
battlefield, I just try and get the best pictures of my cadres —
that is my mission and I don’t feel any fear.
I remember one
time the LTTE started attacking Jaffna, they were moving forward and
the Sri Lankan Army was in retreat. I reached a beach I thought had
already been captured by the LTTE. I was walking without any fear; it
was difficult to walk because I was tired from the battle, but it helped
me gather my thoughts after the past days and hours of war. I saw some
coconut trees, they were very beautiful, they were bending as they grew.
I wanted to take a picture of them, after so many photographs of the
fighting. I began to move closer to them. Suddenly, I noticed a bunker
under the trees and, at almost that moment, bullets came towards me.
I froze, realising it was a military bunker. I dived behind a nearby
tree and took cover, my heart pounding. There were only 10 metres between
the military and me. I had no choice but to run, and I did so as fast
as I could. A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) passed over me and exploded
in front of me. As I ran, I laughed to myself — they had used
an RPG shell for one girl!
About 50 metres
from the military bunker, I reached the cadre bunker. I was breathing
heavily and then I heard the sound of a different gun, a sniper. I looked
at a female cadre who was beside me. She smiled at me. I understood
at that moment that someone in the bunker had taken the bullet. I checked
myself to see if I was injured. I was not bleeding, I was okay. The
girl beside me was slumped against the side of the bunker, still smiling
at me. The other fighters were frozen still. I shook her. There was
no reaction from her; I couldn’t bear it. Those rounds had been
aimed at me but they had hit her. I cannot describe what I felt at that
I can never get
over the feeling when a cadre is killed. We share meals, laughter and
adventure together, and then they are gone. I never get over that loss.
I too can die in the next second when I think of the people who died,
and when I see them die, I grow strong and fierce — like a Tiger.
I touched her gently, she rolled onto her back. There was no bleeding.
I released the holster around her chest and suddenly the blood shot
out. Everyone understood what had happened. Immediately they began first
aid. We stopped the bleeding, and sent her with the other cadres towards
the medic. The military kept shooting at them as they ran. I took up
the girl’s rifle and started to fire to give them cover. Other
cadres also began to shoot and then the military stopped firing. My
camera was hanging around my neck, I didn’t even think to take
it up. In this situation I failed to take good pictures. It is very
difficult to be in battle as a fighting photographer and a journalist.
us where they’ve gone: Seambianpattu beach, 2006
I once sent pictures
of the Point Pedro killings to the newspapers. They took the photographs,
but they only showed faces, not the wounds or the amputations
many difficulties when I try to take pictures of fighters when they
are under cover, under trees and in the bunkers. I have to use my brain
well. I have to observe the enemy, where they are, what they are doing,
what weapons they are using, what formation they have formed. When the
time comes, within a split second, I have to take good pictures and
get back to safety. My eyes and ears are completely focused on the objective.
There is a high
respect for photography in the LTTE and among the Tamil people. I show
my pictures to my whole team and to Prabhakaran and the other commanders.
They all encourage me, and say that I should do more. Some of my photographs
have appeared in newspapers in Sri Lanka, but they don’t always
take the full picture, they edit and cut the image. I remember how I once
sent pictures of the Point Pedro killings, there was so much bombing and
shelling at that time. They put the photographs in the newspaper, but
censored them; they only showed the faces of people, not the wounds or
the amputations — it upset me because it did not represent the truth.
My dream is Tamil
Eelam. I have heard my people, men and women, crying and screaming,
I have seen them dying, I have experienced the tragedy of my people
and my society. I have experienced far too much violence and so many
people suffering — from all this, my dream is to see these people
smile, living in a free homeland, living a happy and good life.
Within the LTTE,
I have gained many experiences, I have studied about the world, about
other struggles and wars, I have got to know many things. One thing
that we learn in the LTTE is that when you are given a job, you should
do it one hundred percent perfectly. There is little room for mistakes
in the LTTE.
I am very proud
that people are taking my photographs seriously now and that they are
going to other countries. I am very pleased that people are taking an
interest in my war-torn homeland. I am very thankful and happy that
this is happening, and I hope that people will understand them without