Last Word: Room for Both?

Praying with a Terrorist

It was June 27, a Friday, and the sun was disappearing slowly into the clouds over Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Peninsula. A pile of trash smoldered on the dirt road, and as the heat of the day faded, a warm breeze carried the stench through the window of the room I was waiting in. Spider webs hung limply from the corners of the low ceiling, and a pair of well-worn sandals sat on the floor, beneath a cracked mirror.

A low, almost inaudible voice emerged: “Welcome to my home. Please, sit.”

My host and I shook hands, and I took the chair opposite him at a small, rectangular table.

I remember the date and the details because the man was a terrorist. For twelve years, Prashant, as I will call him, was a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist insurgent group I was studying for my academic research on ethnic conflict. The LTTE, or simply the Tigers, had for nearly three decades fought for an independent Tamil state in the small island country of Sri Lanka. Fear was the Tigers’ method of persuasion, murder their main way of stoking it: they mastered the use of suicide bombings, carrying out more attacks than any other terrorist organization to date; assassinated two world leaders; and massacred several thousand innocent civilians. The FBI labeled the LTTE, before its brutal defeat in 2009, “among the most dangerous and deadly extremist groups in the world.”

But it was precisely Prashant’s cordial demeanor—the soft voice, the warm, parental smile—that slowly put me at ease as I sat across from him in his home. We spoke for three hours, maybe more, and I wrote until my fingers cramped, my notes becoming illegible. Our conversation centered on his past: his motivation for joining the LTTE, his experience as a soldier, and the cruel acts he and others carried out. Prashant’s English was good, but he often switched tenses without realizing it, lending his stories a vivid intimacy.

“I am on the roof,” he recalled at one point, “and a soldier [a Sri Lankan government solider] is walking to me. I shoot my gun; he is dying.” Death. All of his stories seemed to return to it. He didn’t boast. He simply told the truth.

I asked him if he had changed, or if he had any regrets. “I regret all I have done, every day,” he confessed. “I have to live with that.” He paused for a moment. His face clouded over. “All I can do is beg for forgiveness. That’s all I can do.”

I closed my notebook, preparing to leave. But then, unexpectedly, he spoke.

“Malik,” he said, lingering thoughtfully on my name. “What is your religion?”

“Christian,” I answered. “Catholic.”

His eyes widened with enthusiasm. “I am the same!” There was a pause, a moment that, in lingering, only added emphasis to the words that followed. “Will you pray with me?” he asked. A smile tugged at his lips.

I felt the panic rising in my throat. Surely, I thought, as a researcher, it would be inappropriate to interact with a source in this way. Even more, I simply could not reconcile his request with what he had done, and thus, who he was. I suddenly saw prayer as a form of endorsement. I had made my decision, but I couldn’t think of what to tell him. I muttered something as I tried to form my thoughts.

He interrupted. “Don’t worry, it is on your way to the bus. I will walk with you.”

We left the house and walked for a few minutes, barely able to see the path ahead. There were no people around. Stray dogs lurked ominously along the road, barking loudly. Suddenly, a large, discolored statue of the crucifix, dimly lit, became visible. Below was a small wooden slab for kneeling. We stopped.

“This is where we will pray,” Prashant said, motioning me toward the statue.

I looked down at the small kneeler and then at him. “We can’t both pray here,” I pleaded, expressing my honest impression that there wasn’t enough space, but also hoping this would provide me with a way out.

And then, resting his hand on my shoulder, he stared squarely into my eyes. “No,” he said in a near whisper. “There is room for us both.”

We knelt beside each other. I made the sign of the cross and clasped my hands tightly. I looked up into the inky blackness in the sky above. The dogs no longer barked. It was quiet now, and so he began. 

Published in the January 23, 2015 issue: 

Malik Neal was a 2013–2014 Fulbright Research Scholar in Sri Lanka. He graduated in 2013 from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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