The rest of the world might never understand the violence Velupillai Prabhakaran stood for, but its imprint on Sri Lanka is wide and deep. For 26 years, the elusive leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had waged war with the government to win an independent homeland, or eelam, for the island's Tamil minority. The struggle claimed more than 70,000 lives--including, on May 18, Prabhakaran's. The government says he was killed, along with 17 of his trusted lieutenants, while fleeing an army ambush.
Prabhakaran, 54, was born to a middle-class family on the Jaffna Peninsula. Incensed by discrimination against Tamils and radicalized by a militant grade-school teacher, Prabhakaran founded the LTTE in 1976, a year after a group he headed claimed responsibility for killing Jaffna's mayor. By 1983 the guerrilla movement--which pioneered suicide bombings and the recruitment of child soldiers--escalated the fighting into a civil war.
At the height of his power earlier this decade, Prabhakaran led a de facto government that controlled vast swaths of territory and boasted its own systems of taxes, roads and courts. As the army closed in, he allegedly used thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields. By the final days, just 250 LTTE members remained. They died too, along with the dream of eelam.