Tiger, tiger burning bright

By Bandula Jayasekara

Many billed the news conference Prabhakaran gave as the news conference of the decade. All because the man identified as the most ruthless terrorist or rebel in the world came out of his cave to meet the press, face to face. It is well know now what happened, how he answered our questions, how he ducked our questions, how he stood his ground and how he wanted India to forgive and forget and how Anton Balasingham, Bala Annai, tried to hijack the press conference. But, this story is about how we got there and what happened the day before.

fea8.jpg (23601 bytes)

Anton Balasingham and Velupillai Prabhakaran
at the recent press conference in Kilinochchi.

Five of us, journalists from three countries, went first to the LTTE office in Vavuniya to give our names since it was the first thing we were asked to do. Two Tiger women dressed in Black T. Shirts and jeans flashed their smiles. We said "Vanakkam" but they greeted us with a "Hello". They told us sweetly to proceed to Omanthai and that we will be taken care of. Adjoining the LTTE office stood the office of the Democratic Peoples Liberation Front (DPLF). Their office was empty, unlike before. Most of the people had flocked to the LTTE office. DPLF men were friendly as usual and welcomed us with open arms. I met with Thirupathy Master, a secretary of the party. He said " It is the first time that the media is getting an opportunity to meet Prabhakran. I am sure he will be able to give you first hand answers to all your questions." He questioned " All what we want to know is, what is his solution to the problem. Opening the A9 and removal of the embargo is no big thing. What is his political solution? What does he want? What are you struggling for? In the Indo- Lanka accord North and East was accepted as traditional homelands of the Tamils and he rejected it. Now what?" I am sure you know by now if Prabhakaran answered all of them. Your guess is as good as mine.

When we headed towards Omanthai people were on the move; lorries, buses and trishaws were full of cycles, common mans vehicle. Those cycles hung out more than anything else. We passed the army farm in Omanthai and soldiers were busy at work. They waved us off, most of them smiled whiled others had questionable faces. Bare land and houses destroyed by war with bullet holes mixed well with colourful polythene decorations and fluttering national flags. It was a busy day for the Omanthai military checkpoint. Peace marchers, peace runners, peace merchants, war mongers, UN convoys, the ICRC and media men and women crossing to cover Prabhakran annai’s press conference. However, things moved fast. The Army handled the pressure with smiles while the ICRC men waved flags of clearance. A board warning of mines reminded us of all those young people who lost their legs and limbs. A LTTE cadre asked us "Koheda Yanne?" We said "Prabhakran hambawenne" Very pleased he said "Bohoma Hondai" A warm welcome was offered at the LTTE receiving center. Daya Master known to almost all members of the press co was very friendly, accommodating and was a Master at Public Relations. He was all smiles. He gave us clearance very fast and we were off to the LTTE guesthouse in Mallavi. Difficult terrain, passing old Skoda and Hillman cars and a torn down public library and boards warning us to beware of explosives. It was a journey in to the State of Tamil Eelam, so the boards screamed. In the heat of time few rain drops poured from heaven. We welcomed it but the sun took over soon after. A long journey and long stretch of land. I wondered why people fight for land, a separate state. Why do we forget that when death comes we don’t even get 6 feet underground?

We passed an LTTE cemetery, very impressive in red, colour of death, colour of life. The LTTE do honour their dead. It looked very peaceful. No wonder we say Rest In Peace. A board read Tamil Eelam Administrative Service next to a school where children sat under a tree and sang, just like their poor brothers in South. A board proudly displayed the ‘Bank of Tamil Eelam’. However another board read Government Hospital. Which government I wondered. District court of Tamil Eelam was empty, may be the sessions were over that day. Passing palmyrah trees and our driver dreaming of toddy we arrived at the LTTEs Mallavi guesthouse, well decorated with plants all over. I spoke to Mohan who work at the LTTE guesthouse. He earns 4000 rupees a month with food provided. He is happy with his job with many foreigners, those NGO guys who throw money like hell and government people keeping him busy at work. Children were playing cricket at a nearby field and we talked of cricket. Mohan said "I like Muralidharan. He is popular. But, we support the team that plays good cricket" He is right. Mohan is a true sportsmanship living in Tamil Eelam. Since the Mallavi guesthouse had not enough rooms we were taken to another place. Sewalanka office, an NGO headed by Harasha Kumara Navaratne. They gave us the best possible rooms, well water and electricity provided by a generator and a fan. Armed LTTE cadres stood guard behind the house. Lunch was with a spicy onion sambal, chicken curry and a cracker fish curry. Our host there was one Kalingaraja who works for Sewalanka as a programme officer.

We noticed that International Non-governmental Organisations (INGO) guys behaved as if they owned the place after LTTE. They passed us in their Prados and Pajeros making the dusty roads dustier. We did not see this organization named CARE caring for others when they used those roads. ICRC and the UN jeeps sped in a mighty hurry. One journalist questioned "where do these guy get their money from and where do they go, to the poor or to their pockets?" Norwegian presence was very clear with Save the Children office in Mallavi and Redd Barnna boards. Their modern office had everything including radio communications. One official from an organisation working for children told the writer recently. "When there were floods in Mallavi, we asked for help from the Colombo office. It took 3 days for them to respond but, the aid never came and I could not help the children". It is also known that the LTTE is suspicious about the funding by these INGOs. They wonder if they get the all the aid as promised. Sewalanka office was used freely by the LTTE and we assumed that other NGOs and INGOs are under the full control of the LTTE. It alleged that Save the Children, CARE, OXFAM, has been working with TRO (Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation) an LTTE front in Canada, even though they have issued deniasl recently. A high official of one of these organisations working for children admitted to the writer that they work through TRO and that they had no other choice.

Then only communication center in Mallavi used a satellite phone. A call cost 350 rupees and they promptly issued a receipt and even get you to sign on it. Good service is provided by this communication center. We met up with two LTTE policemen who were assigned to guard where we stayed. One was a sub-inspector, Negasanthan. They earn 3500 per month with no other allowances. Their main function is to protect public assets and property. They said, "We have no crime here. There is no chance for anyone to commit any crime here" (It depends on ones definition of crime of course). Negasanthan said that they have no contacts with the Sri Lankan police. (Mind you we were in Tamil Eelam and speaking to an SI from the Eelam police) This is how our brief conversation went Q: What do you think of the peace talks? A: Peoples opinion is our opinion. Q: What is their opinion? A they like peace. Q: But, what will happen then? A: It is left to Prabhakran. His decision is final. Q: Tell me who are you angry with, Sinhalese people or the government? A: Our anger is against all successive governments. Q: But, why then have you killed so many innocent civilians? A: That is a historical compulsion to kill and for people to loose their lives. (Killing of innocent people, Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslims-Historical compulsions!) Q: What do you think of Prabhakaran? A: He is a prophet to us. I sat outside with Kalingaraja and listened to Voice of Tigers. He was elated when songs praising Prabhakran were aired. He told me that his 7-year-old son sings them. When I questioned if Prabhakran liked those songs he said, "Yes. He likes them very much" But, when I told Kalingarajah that there are no songs for Ranil and Chandrika his face fell. Some one asked Kalingarajah if the LTTE operated any night club in Mallavi. He had no answer. But, my journalist friend who asked the same question managed to buy Gin and Arrack in Mallavi.

We had more surprises for us in the night. We had to go through a security check by the LTTE. It was felt that they singled out British journalist Paul Harris and the writer for some reason. (Our doubts were confirmed the following day when we heard that others did not have to go through such checks and when we were checked again and again) Each of our equipment and all items by piece were checked. They said no to paper clips, medicine, lap top computers, calculator, keys. All the cameras, Dictaphones, pens were removed and checked, film rolls were rewound. Each item, pens and the biscuit I wanted to take to the press conference were checked and weighed and even photographed. Even the system of my computer was checked. They had experts from all fields to attend to each item. They had the best of equipment and cameras. They checked our identity cards several times and asked both of us to write down all the items we had brought. Come what may It was clear to us that Prabhakaran fears for his life more than any other person in this world. It was clear to us that he cannot come out in the open, whole of his life. Even the people from the area I spoke to said that their leader does not come in the open due to his fear of life. One said that he had not seen him since 1999. This is the first time Prabhakaran was going to meet over 200 outsiders face to face after his last press conference in 1991. But, again, at that press conference he did not face many people. We sat with Kokulan and Patrick who led the security team. They said that it was their duty to protect their leader. Kokulan an expert in explosives who had lost a leg in Trincomalee said " Presidents and Prime Ministers are elected and chosen. But, leaders are born and there is one leader we have" Anyway , It was a late night for us after the strict check, watched by LTTE cadres we went in to deep slumber.

We were woken up at 5.00 in the morning. (Tamil Eelam time) They asked us to get ready to go to Killinochchi. But, the details were not divulged. (I must also mention that a foreign journalist lost 8000 rupees at this guesthouse. He complained to them but, nothing happened and the answer given was that he would have misplaced the money. So, much for protecting public property as proudly mentioned by the LTTE police. Hope the LTTE take note of this and help our friend who is based here) Before we left we recommended that Kalingraja be given a promotion for the way he treated us and also for the way he was trying to befriend us He was a great host. At this point where all the vehicles were parked and people gathered to leave for Killiniochchi the security man in charge of Mallavi stared at me hard. A journalist working for a foreign newspaper too wondered why. He then spoke to another journalist and asked if I write for a Pakistani paper. I went up to him and said No. Then he said that the LTTE will not allow any Pakistani journalist to cover the press conference. He never stayed back to give any reason. So, much for LTTEs press freedom.

Thereafter we were taken to a place to have breakfast. Harris complained to Daya Master about the way both of us were checked. However, we did not get any reply except a smile and Daya Masters invitation for both of us to have breakfast with him.. We were then taken to Killinochchi where most journalists stayed. It was also the so-called press secretariat. We were checked again along with others, they removed the film roll again from the camera and photographed us again. We flashed our toothpaste smiles. The waiting game began again. It was clear to us that the LTTE had planted people all over, to watch us, photograph us, video us and for what else I do not know. Many have described what took place there and the suffering the entire press co underwent there. I will not take space to explain it all over again. But, I must mention that there were some LTTE cadres who understood us, what the media wanted. I figured out that they did not think that media men and women were spies. I salute them. We told them to reach out to the media. We told them that we have no race, caste, creed or anything like that. We said that our job is to inform.

Then came the final part. Body checks and a bus which turned out to be a temporary torture chamber for all of us. It took us to the place where the press conference was held. It was stampede there, journalists fighting for vantage points, TV cameramen showing their backsides to print journalists and print journalists refusing to look at their backsides. I am sure the LTTE realised that the media also could declare war. LTTE had many journalists planted there to pose questions and to watch us carefully. Most journalists realised it. One journalist even tried to deliver a vote of thanks at the end of the conference. We had to shout him down. I am sure the LTTE will invite us to a spacious place when they have their next press conference. I appeal to the Norwegians to help them to build one in the Wanni. There was tiger music, fanfare and much more. But, I missed my favourite song "Prabhakran, Prabhakran" before the press conference.

In Killinochchi

It was a tense atmosphere in Tiger territory. Nearly 200 journalists, fighting for a ringside view of the tiger leader waited in anticipation. Tigers were getting a heavy doze of medicine from members of the fourth estate. They were keen to protect their leader from the media. They said their leaders security concerns were of great importance while the story was of more importance to us. We were not going to shoot him with AK 47 but with our flashguns and our pens. Press conference was getting delayed; lack of space was a prime factor. Mr. George, the LTTE compere asked for patience and for forgiveness and to understand their limitations and their problems. He also warned us not to make any suspicious move. He said that Prabhakran’s security might misunderstand such moves. I had a ringside view and it was clear to me that Tiger Kings heavily armed guards meant business. So, the tigers through a net of fear and few colleagues seated at the back warned us to watch out. We watched out for the Tiger and there he came in white van.

Vellupillai Prabhakran looked scared, he looked tensed as he walked in and took his seat. How could you blame him? He had come out of his cave after many years and he had not such a number of outsiders before. Balasingham acknowledged yours truly, not because he knew me but, because of my Mao cap with the red star. It was my attention getter. Flanked by Karuna and Paduma his commanders from Batticaloa and Trincomalee, Thamil Chelvam, Adel Balasingham Prabhakran really did not look at the large gathering straight. All, I wanted to do his observe him, look in the eye, eye of the tiger. Prabhakran looked puffed up, I could not see his neck and it was clear that he was wearing a bullet-proof vest and it made the man more uncomfortable. A journalist commented that he looked sick too. Prabhakran never looked in the eye of any journalist. He smiled when some questions were asked but, never with any journalist. He spoke few times to Karuna and made Karuna smile and that was all. Prabhakaran had a thin voice and he spoke slowly. He was not articulate. He could not express himself very clearly and it took time for him to answer questions. We that he was slow in picking up questions but it was also clear to us that he knew English even though he pretended not to know English.

So, the Tiger king out of his cave did not look impressive at all. He looked ordinary, normal, frightened, tensed, and very uncomfortable. Safari suit did not suit him at all. May be the Tiger king is more comfortable in his cave, wearing his stripes and when he prowl free. Only time will tell if he is comfortable with his new image and role.