- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 23, 2009


Before Palestinian suicide bombers were blowing up Israeli women and children in marketplaces, before Iraqi suicide bombers were murdering Iraqi civilians as well as Iraqi and American soldiers, there were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka - the world’s little-known pioneers of the deadly craft of suicide bombing.

On Monday, the Tamil Tigers were defeated after three decades of bloody rebellion. Their brutal leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was shot fatally by government troops in a final firefight. People danced and cheered in the streets of Colombo, capital of this island nation off India that used to be called Ceylon. After all, by then, Tamil Tiger suicide bombers had killed more than 200 Sri Lankans.

I wondered if Kittu was among the celebrants. He is 30 now, if he is still alive.

Kittu was a child of 13 when he committed himself to a life of death as a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber. It seemed the right thing after that quiet, hot day in 1990 when war suddenly burst upon his family’s small farm in the Tamil northeast. Shooting came from all directions. Kittu saw his mother and father run toward the government army, shouting pleas for the soldiers to protect their family. But confusion ruled. The army didn’t understand and kept shooting. His parents fell dead.

Minutes later, the war moved on. Kittu ran after the Tigers and joined their fight against the army that had orphaned him. (“Kittu” isn’t his real first name; it is a fake name I first used in 2003 so I could tell his very real story in a book, “Avoiding Armageddon,” and a PBS series of the same title, for which I was managing editor.)

The Tamil Tigers raised, trained, educated and mainly indoctrinated Kittu. He became a specialist in ambushing government troops and was invited to join an elite group, the Black Tigers. He didn’t know, at first, that he had been designated as a suicide bomber. He met his maximum leader, Prabhakaran, who was worshipped by Tigers young and old. The ruthless rebel chief told him it was the highest honor to be a suicide bomber. Kittu believed.

They were called “suicide boys,” and each was issued a suicide jacket stuffed with explosives. “We train on that jacket over and over again,” Kittu said. “… We would set off the [disconnected] detonator several times until we lose the fear of doing it.”

As a suicide bomber, Kittu turned out to be a failure. In 2001, he got his ultimate assignment: Kill a high-ranking Sri Lankan intelligence officer. “He was a very big obstacle. So my mission was to remove him.”

Kittu headed out, but someone tipped off government agents. Kittu was captured before reaching his target. Well-trained, Kittu opened the Tamil locket on a chain around his neck, slipped two cyanide capsules into his mouth and was about to bite down when thoughts of life unfulfilled filled his head. “I had a reflection in my mind that I must see my little sister. And I must see a little bit of the city life I haven’t experienced. … At that moment, I decided I must live - that I didn’t want to die.”

Kittu was arrested - and sent not to jail, but to rehabilitation. A personal minder supervised him daily, teaching him to live as a useful citizen. “I am leading a good life,” Kittu said. “Those days I suffered, I lived in the jungles. But now my life is much better.”

All thanks to Kittu’s minder. He gave the failed young suicide bomber the one thing Kittu thought he never would have after seeing his parents killed: the gift of a new life.

There is one thing more: The minder who gave Kittu this gift of life was, in fact, the Sri Lankan intelligence officer who was Kittu’s intended target - the man whose life Kittu had planned to end on that 2001 day when everything went so wonderfully wrong.

Martin Schram is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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