Eelam Tigress At 7:  The Girl Who Forgot To Die (Asian Age: 23-8-2000)

           Jaffna,  Shuffling her sandal-clad feet in the dust, 14-year-old Arumuyam Malar confesses that she has been a naughty girl: She did not kill herself.

            Trained since the age of seven to fight till victory or death and commit suicide upon capture, she did not have a cyanide capsule or grenade handy when Sri Lankan government troops overran the position she was defending several weeks ago.

            “If I had a grenade or cyanide capsule, I would have done it,” she said through a translator.  “I thought the Army would kill me when I was caught.”

            The story of Arumuyam Malar, one of the youngest child soldiers captured alive by government forces in their 17-year war against the guerrilla fighters of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, is a sad tale of abduction and lost childhood.

            Her story also reveals the methods employed by the rebels to recruit and train young children into their ranks.  According to the Sri Lankan government, many Tamil Tiger guerrilla fighters are children, with nearly one third of the 5,000-strong force under the age of 18.

            Captured in late July following a battle with government troops that left most of her all-women unit dead, Ms Malar is being held in the military high-security compound on the Jaffna peninsula.

            A small group of foreign journalists who interviewed her, the first reporters permitted onto the peninsula since April, were refused access to the compound where she is held.  Nothing she said could be independently verified and she was interviewed under stressful conditions that could easily have appeared to her as an interrogation.

            Seated in a plastic chair on a hot and dusty street in front of a bombed-out building, she was surrounded by a dozen camouflage-clad and heavily armed government soldiers.  The foreign journalists Ms.Malar spoke with asked questions through a military interpreter, just about the only person with whom she could communicate in her native Tamil.

            Her answers were often monosyllabic, occasionally contradictory and her lack of education hampered communication.  Almost all large numbers were described as one thousand.  She spent much of the interview with her brow knotted, nervously wringing her hands, twisting a microphone cable and searching for eye contact.  She rarely smiled, and she did not laugh once.

            Her battle scars spoke volumes.  In addition to fresh artillery wounds to her left hip, her right wrist had what an Army nurse described as an old bullet wound.

            Her transition from infant to child soldier starter when at the age of seven, she was home alone.  With her father dead and her mother temporarily hospitalized, she was in her uncle’s care when a girl called Sylvie dropped by.

            “Sylvie said we would go to buy something together at the shop,” she said.  Instead, she was taken from her village in northern Sri Lanka into the Jaffna peninsula, the operations center for the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.  “They told me I must fight for the country,” Ms.Malar said, “I lived as brother and sister with other young people who also wanted to fight,”  The Tamil Tigers told Ms.Malar that her mother had been informed about her joining the guerrilla army, but she never received any letters or direct messages from anyone in her family.

            While in the guerrilla camp, she woke up each day at 4:30am, took a bath and put on the Tamil Tiger’s uniform: shirt and trousers with light green and yellow camouflage. She usually studied two hours of radio communication before breakfast.

            Then, at 8 am, the day’s training began, with only a short break for a lunch, of rice and curry.  Exercises included marching, drilling and practising counterattacks, including the use of hand grenades and the T-56 semiautomatic rifle, a weapon similar to an AK-47.

            As the youngest child soldier in her unit, Ms.Malar had difficulty keeping her much shorter legs in step when marching.  Speaking abour her early training with the assurance of a hardened veteran, she almost mocked herself.  “I really was not very good at marching drills in the hot sun,” she said.  “I was frequently punished.”

            Breaking into a rare grin, she added: “I did many small steps to keep up.”

            Punishment for the child soldiers frequently consisted of holding a four-kg T-56 rifle above their heads and doing what she described as “thousands” of knee-bends.

            At 3 pm, those who did not have sentry duty could play games.  Volleyball was popular, but Ms.Malar preferred kabaddi.  She never owned a toy or played with a doll.  Each night, members of her unit took turns serving one hour of sentry duty.

            Her main instructor and mentor was Sylvie, the girl who recruited her and a more senior cadre known as Anna.  All 48 members of her unit were women and five were her age.  “Anna said the youngest ones were not supposed to fight unless fighting reached the inner cordon,” Ms.Malar said.

            Her strongest memories are of people dying in battle, such as when Sylvie was killed or when a cadre, Susila, was given cyanide after receiving a head wound from a shell blast.

            “Her face turned blue 30 minutes after taking a cyanide pill,” Ms.Malar said.

            “Her body was delivered to her next of kin.”

            Now awaiting trial, Ms.Malar is held alone in a house in the security compound.  She has no playmates and few people speak her language.

            A letter sent through the International Committee of the Red Cross to her mother several weeks ago has not yet brought a reply.

            How does she feel?