The house Rajiv Gandhi's killer lived in
On May 21, 1991, Velupillai Prabhakaran, chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, made what was arguably the biggest blunder of his life. An LTTE hit squad assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The intensely paranoid and ruthless Prabhakaran feared a return of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) if Rajiv returned to power and so, he struck when the former PM was at his most vulnerable-during his campaign for the general election. Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in Sriperumbudur, a town near Chennai, was the first time the Tigers had used a human bomb in a targeted killing.
K. Ragothaman, the chief investigator of the CBI's Special Investigation Team, later told me Rajiv's killing was meant to be an operation the LTTE could deny, something it would never own up to.
Prabhakaran's hand was exposed when a lensman LTTE had hired to photograph the assassination for their chief was himself killed in the blast. The camera recovered intact, revealed photographs of the entire hit squad, including the suicide bomber, Dhanu. from then on, The plot unravelled rapidly.
The LTTE had already fought the IPKF for three years between 1987 and 1990, but Prabhakaran's dastardly action ended what remained of India's support for the LTTE. Indian Navy patrols in the Palk Straits severed links to the guerrillas' rearward base, Tamil Nadu, and Marine Commandos hunted Tiger cadres on the high seas. The LTTE chief, meanwhile, masterminded the 1993 killing of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa-making his group the world's only terrorist organisation to have killed two heads of government, one a former prime minister, the other a serving president.
On May 19, 2009, just two days before Rajiv Gandhi's 28th death anniversary and when another Indian general election was underway, Prabhakaran was surrounded and killed by the Sri Lankan army. History had come full circle.
In March 2013, I travelled to northern Sri Lanka with my photographer colleague Reuben Singh. We were among the first Indian journalists to be given unhindered access to the Northern Areas which had been freed of LTTE control after 25 years. Our first stop was Mullaitivu district, adjacent to the erstwhile Tiger capital, Kilinochchi.
We were hosted by the gregarious Mullaitivu Security Force Commander, Major General L.B.R. 'Marky' Mark, an officer who had been trained in Indian military institutions. The burly, affable general met us at his sprawling mansion near the Nanthikadal lagoon and unabashedly took credit for what he believed was a hard-fought victory over the LTTE.
"Every morning, I sit on the roof of my house and sip tea looking over the spot where we found Prabhakaran's body," he told us. The site where his body had been found was now flooded, I was told. Deliberately, perhaps? The last thing Sri Lanka wanted was for the Tamils to build a shrine to the LTTE leader.
Our next stop was former LTTE chief's bunker complex in Puthukkudiyiruppu in Mullaitivu district. It was the star attraction among a series of former LTTE installations now being run as a tourist circuit by the Lankan army. They called it the 'Tiger Trail, the touch of irony perhaps unintended.
We drove into the thick Vanni forest of Puthukudiyiruppu, in the middle of A35, the highway between Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi. Halfway into the densely forested area, our vehicle veered on to a small dirt track around six foot wide. The trail ended at a nondescript pink-coloured, two-roomed house. It had an unusually wide porch framed by two slim pillars. It was a place vehicles could drive up to without being seen from the air.
Multi-tiered defensive layers covered the house, much like the mythical Chakravyuh of the Mahabharata. Five rows of barbed wire fencing, minefields, armour-plated soil-covered guard bunkers that rose out of the ground, cages for guard dogs and barracks for hundreds of bodyguards. This 60-acre complex was where Velupillai Prabhakaran lived for several years before he was killed.
Tour buses and cars ferried in a mix of Buddhist monks, schoolchildren and wide-eyed tourists, nearly all of them Sinhala and all eager to see the dreaded LTTE chief's lair. A skinny Sri Lankan soldier in battle fatigues deftly flicked a thin pointer stick over a large layout of the bunker complex, speaking in rapid Sinhalese. "We won a great victory against terrorists." He paused, as an explosion interrupted his spiel: demining teams destroying landmines around the complex.
The house was actually only a façade for what lay beneath. A heavy blast-proof door in the living room shielded a sloping passage leading to a bunker 40 feet underground.
The bunker was a four-storey structure with three-feet-thick concrete walls telescoping into the earth. Each floor was around 500 square feet and smaller than the next one. The entire structure was built to withstand air and artillery attack.
If architecture is a personification of its occupants, then the structure pretty much represented what Prabhakaran was throughout his life: underground, secretive and acutely conscious of his personal safety. The bunker was both his residence and a command post. It was here that Prabhakaran conducted briefings, met key aides and discussed strategy even as he hid from Sri Lankan Kfir fighter aircraft and covert units of the Lankan army's Long Range Reconnaissance Units that had begun penetrating deep inside LTTE-controlled territory to assassinate Tiger leaders.
No one knew when the structure had been built, but we were told it had been in use for over a decade. In its heyday, the complex was air-conditioned and supplied uninterrupted electricity via a noise-dampened captive power plant housed above the ground. The power plant was no longer working when we reached there. The bunker's interiors were dank, dimly lit and smelled of urine.
The first level had Prabhakaran's operations room where floor-to-ceiling frames on the wall were used to pin maps and charts. The second and third level were large dwelling spaces of some sort with attached bathrooms. This is possibly where the Tiger chief lived a middle-class existence with his family.
Lankan troops that captured the bunker found beds, framed photographs of Prabhakaran on the walls, a stuffed tiger, bottles of cognac and Prabhakaran's letters and photo albums. There were also LTTE uniforms, a Chinese QBZ-95 assault rifle and a container believed to have held the acutely diabetic Tiger chief's insulin injections. When we arrived, however, the bunker was bare, stripped of everything, the walls painted in Sinhala signage to direct visitors inside.
Access to all rooms was through sloping staircases, the doors to the rooms all armour-plated for protection. At the bottom of the bunker was the fourth and last level, a circular chamber not more than 10 feet wide. It was the antechamber to a steep vertical escape tunnel that opened up some distance away from the house.
Also in the distance was a separate underground car park. Entrance to this vehicle park was shielded by torn strips of hessian cloth in the LTTE's distinctive tiger pattern camouflage.
One frequent visitor to the complex, who might even have had a hand in its construction, clearly might have been Shanmughalingam Shivashankar alias 'Pottu Amman', the head of the Tiger Organisation Security Intelligence Service (TOSIS). This shadowy intelligence service of the LTTE controlled the Black Tiger suicide assassins and reported only to Prabhakaran. As Kumaran Pathmanathan, the LTTE's former overseas arms procurer and seniormost living leader stated in several media interviews since his 2009 capture, Rajiv's killing was the work of two individuals, Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman.
None of the ingenuity I witnessed at the bunker complex surprised me. The LTTE was the world's first guerrilla organisation to field a navy and a rudimentary air force. Finally, it had even perfected the macabre art of converting a human being into a precision strike weapon.
Adele Balasingham, the wife of the late LTTE ideologue, recounted her 1989 visit to Prabhakaran's underground 'One Four' lair. In her 2001 book, A Will to Freedom, she wrote of 'a subterranean haven of tunnels and rooms chiselled out of the underground rocks' some 30-40 feet underground where the rooms were 'absolutely freezing at night' because sunlight did not penetrate.
The bunker the LTTE chief moved into to escape the IPKF and where he lived in his final years was not designed to protect him from a full-scale ground invasion. So, in January 2009, when five Sri Lankan army divisions poured in from three directions into Tiger-controlled territory, Prabhakaran and his cadre fled towards the sea, taking with them nearly 100,000 civilian human shields towards the Nanthikadal lagoon where they made their last stand amid some of the most savage fightings in the 26-year-long civil war.
Even as the Sri Lankan army closed in, Prabhakaran's overseas aides, including KP, made frantic escape plans to fly their beleaguered chief and his family out of Sri Lanka. The boldest one was to evacuate him using a helicopter flying off a merchant's vessel. KP planned for the ship to take him to an African country, possibly Eritrea, and not to India, just 20 kilometres across the Palk Straits. Prabhakaran finally met his end on May 19, 2009, around 30 kilometres east of his underground refuge.
Our story made it to a Headlines Today (now India Today) prime time show on Friday, March 29, 2013, and an India Today magazine cover story (dated April 8, 2013), much to the displeasure of the Sri Lankan government. The island-nation was then under intense global scrutiny for atrocities committed by its soldiers in the closing stages of the war. 'Terror tourism', as we called it, was not the best news then.
Six months after our visit, on the evening of October 1, 2013, the Sri Lankan army asked people living near the bunker complex to evacuate their homes. BBC's Sri Lankan correspondent, Charles Haviland, reported people 'hearing an explosion and saw ash rising from the former Tamil Tiger facility'. It was the Sri Lankan army burying a key chapter in its bloody past.