Speaking of Conflicts

February 17, 2016
Mahesh Bhat
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Unicorn armoured vehicle that was escorting us. Klashnikov has been one of the most enduring symbols of global armed conflicts..

Near Vakkarai, Sri Lanka, 2007- A Unicorn armoured vehicle that was escorting us. Kalashnikov has been one of the most enduring symbols of global armed conflicts..

Sometime in 2007, post the publication of UNSUNG, Mr.Arun Maira (then chairman of Boston Consulting in India) had nominated me for consideration of an International fellowship. Selected Fellows would be taken to the US, all expenses paid and the organisation would arrange meetings with whoever the Fellows wanted to meet (other than the senior most members of the US administration). The aim was to encourage the emerging social leaders and help them build networks. During the selection interview, I told the members of the committee that if selected, I wanted to study the rising conflict amongst us – conflict for land, water, language, religion. Conflict between nature and human beings…. They were a bit perplexed that I did not want to meet photographers and people from related fields. I was not even short listed but the I did not stop thinking about the ‘conflicts’. Today it has reached a crescendo..

“I wanted this interview because I don’t want to die. I hope you’ll help me to live” said Menake, the captured female suicide bomber of LTTE. I was sitting in front of her in the safe house of the Anti Terror Police of Srilanka in Colombo. It was 2007. It had taken writer Jan Goodwin and I, 6 months to set up this interview. At that time Sri Lanka was considered to be the second most dangerous place in the world after Afghanistan. Colombo was highly militarised. I was not allowed out on the street with cameras without an intelligence operative walking next to me. The fear of suicide bombing lingered everywhere.

Menake was raped by her father when she was a child. A series of accidents caused her even more trauma through her childhood. The Tsunami killed her mother. Her caretaker aunt gave her away to LTTE’s black tiger unit. (The suicide bombers were called Black tigers). LTTE promised to take care of her brother after she blew herself. They trained her thoroughly. She was to assassinate the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Life had served Menake with severe blows right from her childhood and there wasn’t much left to live for. She was disenfranchised and disillusioned. But when she reached Colombo with her handler to go through with the assassination assignment, things changed. She saw life in the beautiful city of Colombo, hope sprang, she wanted to live and she fumbled during the recce. She was caught by the authorities.

I think of Menake every time there is a terror attack in the world, when young soldiers die, when innocent people die, when habitats disappear, when nature disappears and I wonder why have we created such a fragmented and conflict ridden world? How is that we missed the plot so badly?

Most of the terrorist/separatist organisations started of to claim their physical place on earth – their land, their identity. Over the decades these groups have become something completely different, unfathomable actually. Many internal agendas, that of governments & their agencies, individuals of those agencies, terror lords, arms manufactures…etc have interwined and layered upon each other. Conflict zones are dark environments, one cannot trust anyone. Today the entire world seems to be a conflict zone.

Add to this is the societal polarisation caused by the economy, the result is that an exponential number of people are getting disenfranchised and disillusioned. Some of the disenfranchised are easily getting drafted into the terror groups and changing the profile of the terror operative.

Many years ago, Digvijay Singh (yes, believe it or not) and Nitish Kumar were the only politicians who said that “Naxalism/Maoism’ was a developmental issue and not a law or order issue. Perhaps in the most fundamental level this holds true for terrorism as well. I don’t think that bombing the hell out of Middle East and or fighting terror with escalating force is a permanent solution to the issue.

The solution can only come about by reducing the ever increasing wealth gap between people. If the trend continues by the end of 2016, 1% of earth’s population holds 99% of the wealth says a report by Oxfam.

The solution to mitigate the global conflicts is only possible by providing good education, health care, sanitation and infrastructure at minimal cost to the global south, it can come about by caring and preserving nature and natural resources, bringing about a serious change in the agricultural sector (In India at least) and changing our definition of success! The status quo must be changed. It is easier said than done. Perhaps it is easier for leaders of nations to sanction military option and buy arms than to provide the nation what is really necessary.

In the repeated conflicts Manake endures with faith, with trust, with betrayal of those, with nature, with power, with freedom and not to mention her own personal and emotional conflicts as she made the choices she did – she did not kill, she did not take lives.. she decided to give life a chance. I do not know if she has been rehabilitated as the authorities told us, I hope she has been. But the bigger question is can we rehabilitate ourselves?


Menake, a suicide bomber of LTTE who was caught when she was on a mission to execute the prime minister of Srilanka. I photographed her on an assignment for Marie Claire. The story – ‘When the Suicide Bomber Is a Woman’ written by Jan Goodwin ran across the world



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