NITTAMBUWA, Sri Lanka (WOMENSENEWS)–Four hundred women who once fought for Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam left rehabilitations camps in the northern district of Vavuniya last month and made the seven-hour trip south to a hostel here set up for them by a major apparel exporter.
Fourteen months ago many of them carried arms. They gave them up in May when Sri Lankan troops won the 30-year battle with the separatist group. Now, with their lives as guerrillas behind them, they faced new jobs in clothing factories owned by the Tri Star Group, a major apparel exporter in Sri Lanka that has set up housing for the ex-combatants.
They arrived in the evening and the next morning they would be enrolled as machine operators in three garment plants a few miles away. Each day Tri Star buses transport them to work and back.
In the rehabilitation camp they were taught to meditate, participated in theatrical activities and received training on beauty, culture and personal care.
Almost a year later, it was time to rejoin society.
"I am here to begin a new life," said Manju, who only goes by one name. She spoke Tamil and communicated through a translator in a meeting at one of the hostels, furnished with beds, toilets and bathing facilities.
As she spoke other women, who had also just arrived, sipped soft drinks and arranged their belongings in the drawers that had been allotted to them. "I am excited about coming here. From tomorrow, I will be a working woman. I will never touch a gun again," she said.
Tri Star Group, based in Ratmalana, a major suburb in the capital Colombo, is a nearly 30-year old company with 16 garment factories island-wide. It exports women’s and children’s apparel to major international retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target stores and Gap, employing 10,000 people, mostly women.
Resuming a Decent Life
The company’s chairman, Kumar Devapura, promised to provide 1,200 jobs to former Tamil Tiger women when the government sought private-sector support to provide employment to graduates of the rehabilitation process.
"I only want to help them to resume a decent life," Devapura said, as he stood in the hostel, helping to greet the new arrivals. "By training them in apparel industry, they will get confidence. I have already trained 150 women in our Ratmalana factories. I am impressed with their progress over the last three weeks."
So far, 550 ex-combatants have joined the company; 650 more will arrive in the next few weeks.
Devapura greeted the women alongside Commissioner General of Rehabilitation Brigadier Sudantha Ranasinghe, whose staff members were quickly trying to learn a few Tamil words so they could communicate with the newcomers as they got off the buses carrying their bags.
The women looked tired from the trip. Many were dressed in a traditional style, in skirts, blouses and pottus, or forehead decorations that announced their marital status; red for married, black for single. Most wore leather slippers and anklets.
"I feel ashamed that I don’t speak Tamil," Devapura said. "But I have got translators and Tamil-speaking counselors to help them. If they come across personal or official issues, they can easily communicate with them."
Ranasinghe says the women who come to work here will be expected to work for a transitional, three-month period. "After that they are free to continue on their own."
Having No Choice
One of ex-combatants is Chithra, who also uses only her first name. She spent years fighting with the separatists.
She says she never had a choice in the matter. After the Tamil Tigers took control of her northern village she said they told her to join their side or make one of three impossible choices: pay them $45 a month, give them one of her children or give them her parents.
"I had no money to pay them. I have three children. They were quite small then–so I had no choice, but to join myself."
Being a combatant, she said, was a nightmare. "We had to hold guns because there was no other option."
She did everything from carry out armed fighting to miscellaneous organizational chores until she escaped in May 2009, when civilians kept by the Tamil forces as a human shield crossed the Nanthikadal lagoon by the thousands to reach government protection during the last few days of the final battle. At the same time, Tamil women and child soldiers also crossed the lagoon for safety
Another of the women, 35-year-old Chithra, has scars on her forehead. She joined the Tamil Tigers in 2006. "They told us we should fight for our freedom. We fought for many years, putting our lives in a misery. Although we were convinced we should fight– we have now realized war can bring us nothing."
Caught and Punished
She once tried to escape the Tamil rebels but was caught and punished. "They got me to cut wood to build bunkers. We had to work really hard."
She said the rebels promised to pay her $91 a month. "But we were paid a little money once in three months only. Recently we came to know how lavishly the leaders lived. They cheated poor women like us."
She says she’s not scared of saying the truth. "I have already forgotten the dark side of my life. Now I want to move on and let my children live in a peaceful environment," she said. Her mother is caring for her children–two daughters, 14 and 12, and a 10-year-old son–in their village.
Many of the women have limited education, but Niranjala, 20, was five months away from her university entrance examination when she was conscripted in April 2009.
She had been attending the government school in Kilinochchi. After one week of intensive military training she was sent to the Tamil forces’ military front. She only had to fight for a few weeks because the battle was nearing the end at that point.
Along with many of the other women here, she crossed the lagoon. She worried about what had happened to her siblings and parents. Miraculously they all found each other among the thousands of people in the same rehabilitation camp.
In the rehabilitation camp Niranjala attended classes and continued her studies. "Now I want to learn sewing skills. And when I am fully released, I will sit for the university entrance examination next year," she said.
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Chandani Jayatilleke is a freelance writer in Colombo, Sri Lanka, who contributes to several international publications.
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