Read more about Sri Lanka's history of conflict and the latest developments there.
Beate Arnestad is the director of the hour-long documentary "My Daughter the Terrorist," which FRONTLINE/World has excerpted and recut as a Web exclusive segment called "A Terrorist in the Family." In this interview she tells FRONTLINE/World about how she became interested in and gained access to the young women who voluntarily joined the Tamil Tiger guerillas in Sri Lanka, many becoming suicide bombers. "The biggest challenge was to gain the trust of the character and make her trust me enough to actually tell her story," said Arnestad. "She had never before told her story to anyone, and mainly when she talks, she talks in these guerilla-structured sentences. So it took me a long time to make her open her heart and give me her life story."
This interview took place in Lillehammer, Norway, on September 13, 2008.
Beate Arnestad, director of the documentary "My Daughter the Terrorist."
FRONTLINE/World: Start by telling me a little bit about how you came to do this work.
Beate Arnestad: It was possible to make this story because I was actually living in Sri Lanka for three years. My husband got an assignment there so we moved the whole family. Previously, I had been working for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation for about 20 years, and I've been going in and doing stories all over the world. But suddenly I had plenty of time and I lived in a country that had suffered from a brutal civil war for almost a generation, for 25 years. And I wanted to do research on women in conflicts. I wanted to really try to understand what goes on in a country suffering and trying to live in a war situation, not one or two years, but you know, their whole life. What is this doing to a population in the war zone areas?
I was living in Colombo, which is the capital, and there -- everywhere you go -- there were barbed wire and checkpoints, and even though there was a cease-fire, people were really, really on the alert, mainly because of suicide bombers. The Sri Lankan authorities have been fighting a war with the Tamil Tigers, which is a ruthless guerilla organization. And it was particularly famous because they have deployed suicide bombers since 1987. The most famous action was the murder of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. And I recall that event [thinking] is that a set-up, you know, is that really the Tamil Tigers? And why would they kill the Indian Prime Minister? And...why are they killing themselves?
I also learned that 30 percent of the actions are committed by women. I was just curious about the whole thing. Why would young people kill themselves and why would they take part in such activities? So I started to ask around and people said, "No, these are just brainwashed crazy people and no one has access to them." Then I looked at the Internet and there was virtually no information at all. I started talking to other Sri Lankan journalists about it and they said, "No, no, these are just crazy people. No one is allowed to get in there and no one is allowed to do an interview and no one had been allowed to make any documentary films about it. Just forget the whole thing [they said]. But I just kept on. I was just curious, so I built up a network -- which took me more than a year -- and I started going into the guerilla area.
What did you have to do to build up access to do this film?
Well, you can't really get access. The thing you have to do is build up a network, a reliable network. You have to make those contacts to get into the area and you have to create some kind of relationship. You have to create that trust. And by going in again and again and telling them I want to make a documentary film about some of these girls, [I thought] they would say yes -- but nothing would happen.
Finally I think they were just tired of me. And, at some point they gave in. Whether they received a clearance for me to do that, [I don't know]. They asked me how do you want to do that. I said the conditions must be totally on my terms. I'm going to ask the questions I want to ask. I'm going to hand pick the girls I want to use. I want to be able to travel freely within the area and just to work as you usually do in Europe.
And they said, yes-yes. But then I assumed there would be tight restrictions, and they said well, you can have an audition. And I had an audition and interviewed between 20 and 30 of these girls and heard their personal stories. And I ended up with the two girls that I used in the film -- because they were unique characters and very good talkers and had this unique friendship. So, I said, I want to use those two girls. And I also need to be in touch with the mothers, because the mothers would also have an important story for me.
And what are their names?
Darshika and Puhalchudar. They are part of the Tamil Tiger's Black Tiger division -- that is the suicide squad of Tamil Tigers. And they are ready to kill in an action and they are ready to go in with a bomb and blow themselves up. That's their mission.
Who is Darshika?
Darshika is a very strong character, very intelligent and very beautiful. And she's also a devoted Catholic. She wanted to become a nun when she was small and she always wanted to become a nun until she realized that her people would die and she had to save her people. And that's why she went in to join the guerillas and became a frontline combat soldier for at least seven years. Before that she also lived with the guerillas -- I don't know for how many years, maybe since she was 11 or 12. Whether she was a child soldier or not, I don't know. But, at some point, she decided she wanted to become a Black Tiger.
Has any [Tamil Tiger] suicide bomber spoken on camera before?
No, this is the first time, I believe, they have permission to talk on camera at all. I asked her about the previous batch of [female Black Tigers] and she said that none of the previous batch were alive. They were all killed. And she told me that she was only alive because of the cease-fire and that during the ceasefire, they were not allowed to work, so to speak. So, she was in a paused situation, and ready for anything that would happen. And the organization then allowed me to do this documentary film about them.
How long had Darshika and Puhalchudar worked/trained together?
[Before they were] recruited as Black Tigers, they were frontline combat soldiers for seven years, and they had been together everyday for seven years. At some point both of them decided they wanted to become Black Tigers because of the stature. The Black Tigers are regarded as first class soldiers. They had to be very fit, very smart. These missions are very complicated. Some of the missions take years to prepare. And most of their missions are just against military targets. They are not civilian targets. Of course that happens, but most of their targets are military targets.
Darshika and Puhal
Who is Puhalchudar in relation to Darshika?
Puhal is Darshika's closest friend. And as they both left their families when they were around 11, 12 years old, they only have one another. So they sleep in the same room, they fight together and they have all their meals together. They're almost related. So they're very close. They tell all their secrets to one another.
Who is Darshika's mother and how long has it been since they had a relationship?
I don't really know how frequently Antonia, who is the mother of Darshika, how frequently she gets to see her, but very, very rarely. Darshika left her when she was very young, and I don't know how that came about -- whether she ran away or was abducted or whether she was convinced that she had to be a guerilla soldier, this I don't know anything about. But she disappeared from the family and has not been living with her mother ever since. So, occasionally, and only when there is a ceasefire, the mother can see her daughter, briefly.
How long ago did Darshika leave?
Darshika was 11 or 12 years old when she left the family.
When did the Sri Lankan civil war break out?
The civil war broke out in 1983, and the reasons are very complicated. It's a post-colonial conflict. There have been several attempts for negotiating peace and they never succeeded. So, basically, it's an endless war that has just escalated and the violence and the civilian losses are just horrible.
How many lives have been lost?
One estimate is that at least 70,000 people have died. But unofficial figures are probably much, much higher. And you also have to keep in mind that almost 2 million Tamils left the island and are scattered all over the world, mainly in English speaking countries.
What about Darshika and her mother being reunited?
The mother has gone to the camp to try to search for the daughter and she would also search through all the pictures of the dead soldiers just to see whether her daughter is still alive. So, she will go to the camp and she will ask whether Darshika is there and she will try to see her. Maybe, occasionally she'll just see her for a brief moment. [Or they will] say, you know, Darshika was not there. So, this is just arbitrary.
We filmed, just briefly, a sequence because I had asked to talk with Darshika's mother and so the LTTE sent for her and at some point she was able to be with her daughter for maybe 10 or 15 minutes. And, I was able to witness that, and they're very fond of each other but they live very different lives right now.
When did that meeting take place?
This was in 2004, so I don't know whether the mother was able to see the daughter after that. But I met the mother afterward, when she was searching for her daughter, when we were also searching for her daughter. We couldn't find her, but what we did was we showed her some of the film of her daughter and she was deeply touched by that -- she said it's almost like seeing my daughter being able to screen this footage, this filming of her. When we were searching for Darshika, we just received information that she was on a mission, a secret mission, and no one could contact her.
What's the latest that you've heard about the girls?
Since 2006 I have been actively looking for Darshika. The LTTE would say, "She's on a mission in another secret part of the country and maybe we'll get her there. And I was looking for her but never found her. I tried to contact the LTTE many times and I begged them, "Tell me, what is her destiny because there are viewers all over the world that are interested?" Recently, I heard from someone working for an NGO organization that some of his friends had seen her, and that she was alive at least this past July. Violence and the war have escalated and right now the situation is very, very bad, so I don't know whether she's still alive.
What ground rules did the LTTE lay down for you?
In advance, people had told me just to forget about filming there because you will not be able to do any filming. Surprisingly, they didn't put any restrictions on me. In the beginning there was a supervisor there, but she just smiled, and most of the time she fell asleep. And she said, 'You know, I'm kind of busy so you just go on." So most of the time I was there alone and filming and we were able to travel freely and to find their locations and just film everywhere within the rebel-held territory. Of course, outside the territory, we didn't have any permission to film, and the Sri Lankan authorities did not know what we were doing because we had to work undercover the whole time.
Were you surprised by that freedom?
I was very much surprised.
Why did you want to do a film about terrorism?
This is not a film about terrorism as such. But, I was interested in -- is there a difference between terrorist and freedom fighters? And who defines what is a freedom fighter and what is a terrorist? And, obviously, the Sri Lankan government has defined the freedom fighters as terrorists. But, they are also denying access to foreign journalists to those areas.
One is not allowed to talk to them, one is not allowed to follow them there; and, of course, one is interested in finding out what is going on there. What is the story actually? And what is information and what is disinformation? Since the Sri Lankan authorities have taken the full responsibility of explaining to the world what is going on there.
Should the Tamil Tigers be called terrorists?
You know, I'm not a politician and I don't want to define who's a terrorist and who's not a terrorist. I wanted to make a film about the human costs of any conflict, the human costs and human lives. And that was my focus.
How easy was it to report from the area controlled by the Tamil Tigers?
It's very difficult to tell what is actually going on. It's almost impossible. And it's also difficult to film. The area is mined and you have to be very careful where you're running around, because there are probably more than a million mines in that area. I was really scared that any of the crew members would step on some of them. And if you talk to any politician [about the conflict], what they said would be utterly confused. Most people do not have any clues as to what is actually going on. But, the human costs in this war have been tremendous.
What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
The biggest challenge was to gain the trust of the character and make her trust me enough to actually tell her story. She had never before told her story to anyone, and mainly when she talks, she talks in these guerilla-structured sentences. So it took me a long time to make her open her heart and give me her life story.
How did you make her open her heart?
When [I was] filming, she was talking in sort of brainwashed sentences. And I told her, "This is not working at all. Don't you have any heart?" And she looked at me surprised and she said, "Of course, I have a heart." I told her, "If you want to reach out with your story, you have to speak with your heart, not with your brain. And how can we do that?" And she said, "You know, if I touch my heart, it's so much pain, I can't touch it." And I said, "You have to start touching your heart. If we go to places where some of this pain came from, would it be more easy for you to talk about?" And we tried it out and she was able to recall what happened and what she'd gone through in her childhood and give me her story. And that story was verified by her mother.
What was your personal reaction to hearing her story?
Everywhere I go in that area, there's no electricity; all of the houses are bombed; there's very little food. You don't really know how they survive at all, and the people were very warm and they were very welcoming and they are courageous. And all of these people, they have had just horrible experiences. [Many] lost their legs in bombs and terrible war accidents, and they have hardly any medical equipment, no hospitals, nothing, and they've been surviving like this for years and years and years. So, everywhere I met people with just incredible stories, and I just chose two stories.