CHAPTER ONE: COMPROMISES
“We took some tea as a symbol, as a gesture, to the Palestinian people, picked by the Tamil people, as if to say, ‘This is our sweat and blood, this is the only thing we have to give.’”
The Day That Started with a Bang
It was 5:01 AM, October 22, 1984. It could have been a morning two thousand years ago. Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo, slept under the pink clouds of dawn, palm fronds nodded in the tropical breeze, large-billed birds summoned up the sun, and the 5:00 AM train blew its whistle. In the street below, a couple of three-wheeled tuk-tuks sat, their engines puttering: taxi drivers waiting to take children to school or businessmen to their desks. One of these drivers leaned forward to turn on his radio, and his tuk-tuk was thrown backward in a spray of dust and debris, as if by a silent hurricane. The corner of the church across the street rose several meters from the ground. It sagged back down, crushing a Tamil man underneath, and then it rained cement shards and pieces of glass for a full minute afterward as people scrambled awake.
The explosion was heard over ten kilometers away. Since the country was in the teeth of a civil war, this wasn’t as much of a surprise as if it had happened in, say, Oklahoma City, but, just to be safe, security forces, medical personnel, and a bomb squad were deployed, quickly scurrying to the address that was broadcast on the radios. They expected that the mop-up would be quick and minimal. Multiple ambulances were deployed—again, just to be safe. The Sri Lankan army was put on alert. More than a few people assumed that the explosion was caused by a gas line that had caught fire, or that maybe the church had just collapsed because it was so old.
These teams pulled up to the front of the smoldering church at the moment that another bomb, at the south end of town, ripped open a bus station. Phone lines started to jam up, police and security forces were told to station themselves at the edges of town, and the Sri Lankan army picked up its weapons and headed over to the bus station, since these events were turning the dawn quite dark.
Five minutes passed. As this second emergency team arrived at the second scene, a third bomb, this one at the west end of town, detonated at a television transmission station owned by the state-run Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, dropping the tower into a smoking mess of steel shavings. Five minutes later, an office building downtown erupted in a spray of concrete, spitting pebbles, rebar, plaster, carpet, and a few twirling chairs into the sky. Then, as if inhaled back into the building, the material returned to earth, collapsing floor after floor under its weight, instantly burying four people.
In a suburb, two people, clueless as to what was happening in the city at that minute, opened a box they found on the sidewalk. An enormous smoking mouth opened in the middle of the road, and their limbs were launched more than ten meters away. About two minutes later, at Fort Railway Station, an unexploded bomb was found by the police. While the Sri Lankan army was busy defusing that one, a second detonated nearby, flicking a train car that had just blown its whistle onto its side like a matchbox.
Six minutes of peace followed. Just as the police dispatch began to breathe a sigh of relief, someone called in to report a blast near the foreign ministry office.
There were no more emergency workers available, and the Sri Lanka Broadcast Corporation, from what remained of the broadcast tower, pleaded that people stay indoors, remain calm, and wait for authorities to unwire a city that had been turned into a distributed detonation device.
But it wasn’t over. Five more explosions were yet to come in the next ninety minutes. And since that morning in 1984, more than one hundred thousand people have died early deaths in Sri Lanka as a result of “civil war,” “terrorism,” and “political unrest.”
The attack was organized by a man named Shankar Rajee, who, over afternoon tea, told me why he did this. He said his intent was to cause terror. He said, “We realized that we needed to make the ruling class and the bureaucrats feel the pressure and tension of the war. We needed to make them listen to our grievances. With this in mind, we drew up an action plan . . . These would be symbolic explosions that would be designed to create enough panic, and, well, terror . . . to make the government realize that they were not as powerful as they thought.”
Rajee brewed many dangerous ideas in the course of his life, and he spread the danger generously. An exporter of the concept of suicide bombing to the Middle East and one of the founders of the Sri Lankan Tamil militant movement, he fueled enough terror on that October morning to draw the attention that the Tamil cause needed. He felt justified. He had grown up under the heavy weight of riots, lynchings, arson, refugee camps, and an intimate education on the finer points of segregation. Raised in the war zones of Sri Lanka, and finding himself muzzled because of his ethnicity, he’d had enough. So in his early twenties he moved to London. While there he met Palestinian militants, traveled with them to Beirut for training, pulled a trigger on the front lines, and explained the basics of suicide terrorism to the Fatah party. He left with a souvenir given to him by the PLO: enough ammunition to start a small war. Which he promptly did, as soon as he arrived back home.
The decade leading up to this bombing had been a politically charged competition of physical force between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority (both of whom have been living on the island of Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, for as long as either of them can remember). Up until Rajee bombed Colombo, the civil war had grown gradually from attacks by petty criminals to deadly discharges launched by organized groups. Murders committed out in the farms triggered riots in the towns, which in turn provoked multiple murders in temples, which then set off massive riots in the cities. With each blow, the government grew harder and more conservative—and this in turn led to harder and more conservative militant groups.
One of the militant groups born in these hotbeds was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—or the Tamil Tigers. Founded in 1976 in the extreme north of the island, the LTTE waged a violent campaign against the Sri Lankan government and, like most Tamil groups, sought to create an independent Tamil state in the north of the island, which would be named Eelam. The LTTE became notorious for civilian massacres, child conscriptions, drug smuggling, weapons stockpiling, and high-profile assassinations. They came up with the wearable detonation device known as the suicide belt, invented suicide bombing, pioneered the use of women in suicide attacks, and were proscribed as a terrorist organization by more than thirty countries by 2002. And they had their dark side, too.
The Tamil Tigers waged war with the Sri Lankan state for three decades. Nearly one hundred thousand people died in the longest-running civil war in Southeast Asia. The Tamil Tigers attacked not only shrines and monuments of symbolic importance—they also carried out the assassinations of public figures such as Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Then, on May 17, 2009, the Sri Lankan government announced the death of the elusive and dictatorial Velupillai Prabhakaran, the founder and leader of the LTTE, claiming victory in the war and ending this chapter of a three-thousand-year-old story.
The war the LTTE waged was cultural, ethnic, social, and economic. What I saw was a cultural dialogue: Sinhalese chauvinism fueling Tamil chauvinism, and vice versa. The LTTE argued that the ruling Sinhalese (primarily Buddhist) majority was suppressing the Tamil (mainly Hindu) minority. The LTTE’s justification for its felonious habits was simple: Ethnic suppression demanded military response. Indeed, over the years the vision and mission of the LTTE managed to earn some support among the diaspora of seventy-four million Tamils currently living in Europe, North America, and India.
Rajee’s goal, like the goal of many Tamils, was to make the government realize that it was not as powerful as it thought. A former colleague of Rajee’s and one of the cofounders of the Tamil Tigers, Dharmalingam Siddharthan reiterated Rajee’s message when he told me, “The only way to move the elephant is to prick it with something small. You can’t move it. You have to make it feel something.”