The Human Bombs Of Sri Lanka
Ruthless guerillas commit suicide for independence

LOSE YOUR HEAD!" could be the recruitment slogan for the Black Tigers -- careers with this suicide squad of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (a.k.a. Tamil Tigers) often climax with skull separation.

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... by Hank Hyena
... in the Scope section
... from September 13, 1999

The recent assassination of a moderate Tamil politician (Neelan Tiruchelvam, who "collaborated" with the despised Sinhalese) was triggered by a gutsy man who had 3.3 lbs. of explosives strapped to his stomach. Ambushing Tiruchelvam's Nissan sedan that was jammed in Colombo traffic, the man "pressed his belly against the window and detonated..." (New York Times, 8/24/99). The resultant cataclysm shattered the target, as the "suicide bomber's severed head flew over the vehicle and landed on the curb."

It's decapitation déjà vu, if one recalls Rajiv Gandhi's death in 1991. The former Indian Prime Minister was campaigning in Madras when a woman named Dhanu (she's "da bomb!") crouched to touch his feet. As Rajiv bent over to gently lift her up, Dhanu's finger flipped the toggle switch that sparked a six-grenade belt-bomb. The blast stripped off the killer Tiger's brainpan.

"Human-bombs" send shivers into the Sinhalese, who are clawing with the Tigers in a civil war that has sopped this beautiful tropical island with 60,000 corpses. The 18 percent minority Hindu Tamils are resisting majority rule by the 74 percent Sinhalese, who constitutionally declared their own language and religion (Buddhism) official. The Tamil Tigers, regarded as one of the planet's most disciplined and ruthless guerrilla forces, are struggling to establish a separate "Tamil Eelam" nation.

Unparalleled fanaticism and efficient fundraising skills are the outnumbered Tigers' forte. Approximately $1 million per month is obtained from Tamil residents in Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and Switzerland; this buys weaponry from arms-bloated Afghanistan, Mozambique, Cambodia, North Korea, Cyprus, Burma, and the Ukraine. Tiger "liberators" are guided by a cunning strategist, Vellupillai Prabhakaran (a 44-year-old ex-fisherman), and their jungle troopers are furious fighters. But the nastiest nightmare for the Sinhalese is the self-shredding Black Tiger brigade. Spectacular actions of this kamikaze cult include:

  • In 1993, a human-bomb blasted off at a May Day celebration in downtown Colombo -- the eruption eliminated former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, and 23 bystanders.
  • Sri Lankan Army (SLA) headquarters were rocked and bloodied in November of 1995 by two walking, talking Tiger-bombs. 15 killed, 59 injured.
  • Fourteen months later, a Black Tiger named Raj crashed his lorry loaded with 440 pounds of Ukrainian explosives into the Central Bank of Colombo. The ka-pow punctured eardrums, burned buildings, and showered slicing glass shards into pedestrian flesh. 82 dead, 1,338 wounded.
  • The Buddha himself, Lotus Lord of all Sinhalese, was the Tigers's next target. On January 25, 1998, two death-drivers detonated their truck at the holy "Temple of the Tooth," in the central city of Kandy. The 2,500-year-old right incisor of Siddhartha -- the shrine's sacred relic -- suffered not even a cavity, but 20 sentient beings were injured, and 14 were dead.
  • Two weeks later, an aquatic limb of the suicide squad -- the "Black Sea Tigers" -- splashed into action. Two explosively packed Tamil boats boomed into two Sri Lankan Navy ships, sinking both and killing 60 sailors.

Black Tigers are revered by the population they defend -- leader Prabhakaran extols them annually on "Black Tiger Day" (July 5th) as "men and women of flame." Laudatory speeches are offered to the self-mutilating martyrs and compact discs sell songs commemorating their ultimate sacrifices. The number of deceased Black Tigers is officially listed as 145, but this figure is calculatedly low, due to the huge number of successful "hits" that the rebels deny.

Suicidal tendencies are pervasive in the Tiger ranks -- many carry cyanide capsules around their necks that they have sworn to swallow, if they're ever threatened with capture. Idle bravado? Definitely not -- when 41 co-conspirators were implicated in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, a full dozen snuffed themselves instead of surrendering.

There's a "juvenile" explanation for this self-destructive Tiger talent. Many separatist troops are mere "children between the ages of 13-18," claims the Sunday Observer (11/8/98). Recruitment starts with "boys and girls from the age of 10 upwards," adds a former UNICEF representative. Reuters applies statistics to this pubescent theory when it lists Tamil casualties, "... 47 dead bodies, out of which 20 are of young girls and 16 are of very young boys" (10/8/98). International news agency IPS suggests that, "up to half the fighters ... are children, many among them girls."

"Baby Brigades" are considered extraordinarily valuable in war, because they're easily indoctrinated (i.e. "brainwashed") into a cult of martyrdom. Tiger cubs and kittens, like the AK-47 adolescents of contemporary West Africa, and the Columbine High School slayers, seem eager to sink their intense teen hormones into virulent causes.

No one knows when this brutal 16-year conflict will end, but one fact is undeniable: Tamil Black Tigers are going to keep volunteering to get their heads tossed like cabbages, because they're convinced that "a human mine is a terrible thing to waste."

Hank Hyena is a columnist at SFgate and a frequent contributor to Salon.