NIROMI de Soyza says she became a child soldier at 17 because she wanted to fight for freedom rather than die in a bunker with her family.
"All I packed was books just in case there was some spare time between the fighting. I was pretty naive,'' the author of Tamil Tigress admitted on the Sunshine Coast yesterday.
Niromi soon found herself surviving on her wits in the jungles of Sri Lanka with an AK47 - and a cyanide capsule around her neck in case she was caught by the enemy.
"We were taught it was better to die than be caught alive because they would rape you, torture you and then murder you anyway.''
The Sydney-based author and mother of two gave an inspirational address to the Sunshine Coast Business Women's Network breakfast at Maroochydore.
Niromi said she wrote her story after watching the negative reaction to those fleeing the bloody civil war which engulfed Sri Lanka for decades.
Niromi said she wanted to give a voice to the boat people and asylum seekers written off by some Australians as terror threats.
"I realised people need to understand these people are real human beings," she said.
Niromi came from a respectable, middle-class family which preached the value of education.
But after seeing government forces burn down the local library and blow up schools and churches, Niromi could not stand by doing nothing.
"I spent much of my childhood in bomb shelters. My family said there was nothing could you do about it.''
But as an idealistic and naive teenager, Niromi said she had other plans.
"I always had a spirit of adventure,'' she said, adding that (children's author) "Enid Blyton has a lot to answer for''.
"I decided one day I was going to fight. I thought enough is enough.''
But it was not long before the horror of war became all too real as fellow Tamil Tigers died around her, including a childhood friend.
"It is something you are never prepared for, to watch people die in front of you.''
After becoming ill, Niromi fled the jungles and her family put her into a boarding school in India run by nuns.
She said she never spoke with her family about the horror she had experienced until after it was revealed in her book.
After coming to Australia she fought for four years to gain political asylum. She has since obtained degrees in biotechnology and law and works at a university.
"For the first time in my life I felt free,'' she said of coming to Australia. "I felt I belonged here.''
Niromi is grateful she did not come by boat, fearing she would have ended up in a detention centre.
While Sri Lankan critics have questioned Niromi's incredible story, she stands by her memoirs, first penned as a diary while at the boarding school.
Her book has already sold more than 200,000 copies and Niromi has vowed to donate 50% of the proceeds to children displaced by war in Sri Lanka.
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