By Dr.Thangamuthu Sathiyamoorthy
Medical Supdt, Vavuniya
Born in 1970, I had my primary and secondary education at Kilinochchi Hindu College till 1989. Entering the Medical Faculty of the University of Jaffna in 1991, I passed out as a medical graduate in 1998 with an internship at Base Hospital, Nuwara Eliya from 1999 to 2000.
I assumed duty as a Medical Officer at District Hospital, Akkarayan, Kilinochchi in February 2001. From October 2002 to October 2005, I covered the position of the Regional Director of Health Services in Kilinochchi.
From 2005 to 2006, I did my Masters Degree in Medical Administration and thereafter appointed as Regional Director of Health Services Kilinochchi and Acting Medical Superintendent, General Hospital Kilinochchi. I continued in these positions till 15th May 2009 and at present working as Medical Superintendent, General Hospital, Vavuniya.
I was involved in many Health sector development activities during 2002-2005 when the peace process was in progress.
During this period Government peace delegates frequented Kilinochchi by helicopters that land at the Rodrigo grounds in Kilinochchi. I have experienced traffic blocks on the A-9 road near the helicopter landing ground to facilitate smooth movement of peace delegates. These were occasions that made me happy as I considered these as potent signs of a dawning peace.
Few Sinhala Doctors reported for duty during this time and we conducted many mobile health camps with the support of teams from the South.
I had a friend whom I know from my early childhood without any sense of identity as Sinhalese or Tamil but just as a friend. But in about three or four years time when one’s identity began to crop up as Tamil and Sinhalese, I began to rightly or wrongly realize that he was different from me because he was a Sinhalese.
I remember having seen an election manifesto with the photograph of former President J.R.Jayawardena when I was just a seven year old boy. Most curiously, a slogan titled “War or Peace” on the second page of the leaflet instilled a sense of fear about ‘an impending war’ in my young mind because I hate violence.
The ensuing years saw the acceleration of militancy and I was strikingly shocked and worried about many of my seniors in school joining militant movements. As a child in a peasant family I was brought up with care and a strict emphasis on morals and non-violence. I was, in fact, a peaceful and peace loving child with a strict “NO” to violence in speech or action.
I have seen two displacements during my university period. The first one was in 1995. In September 1995, all people from Valikamam division in Jaffna district displaced towards Chavakachcheri and Vanni. I saw many dead bodies of elderly persons who had probably fallen behind in the stampede to cross over on the roads. One man was crying on his wife’s dead body saying that he was unable perform the last rites. We helped him eventually to perform an ad-hoc ‘last rites’.
My family along with our neighbours was displaced in early part of 1997 from Kilinochchi town. One of our close relatives was killed in a shell attack. Among those injured, one suffered a spinal injury and is permanently paralyzed now.
During September and October 2008 all the people in Kilinochchi and suburbs were displaced and moved towards Viswamadu/ Tharmapuram areas. In January 2009, they were again displaced and moved to Udayarkaddu. In February 2009, a sizeable majority of these people went to Puthumaththalan and Mullivaikkaal area.
Hospital staff along with a few medical personnel also moved in keeping with the movement of civilians. In displaced areas we put up temporary/make-shift hospitals and almost all of the health staff worked with dedication.
Thinking in retrospect, I just cannot help concluding that we all managed to survive in deplorable conditions, unfit even for animals. Fear, suffering, loss of life or limbs, penury and a squalid surrounding littered with dead bodies and carcass of dying animals was all what the poor peasants had to bear with. Many did not have access to a square meal a day and most importantly and pathetically water was a hard to get commodity for many. Conspicuously absent were toilets and even the most conservative of the women folk had to go in the ‘open’. As a Doctor I was sick at heart witnessing this human tragedy, both in the sanitation point of view as well as the embarrassment factor that the unfortunate people had to bear with. Frustration, first as a man of medicine and then as a human being with a heart that was bleeding with empathy, was totally unavoidable.
In the latter part of January 2009 we received injured civilians daily and treated them with the available facilities. Later we transferred most of them to General Hospital Vavuniya by land route.
In the early period of February 2009 we moved with civilians to Puthumaththalan area and we set up a makeshift hospital there. We informed about the shortage of medicines to Ministry of Health. Since the land route was closed, the Ministry tried to send medicines through ICRC ship. When we received the medicines we treated patients as much as possible and at the same time we evacuated injured people to Trincomalee by ICRC ship. It was a great help to injured civilians. Many civilians were literally ‘begging’ us and the ICRC officials to make arrangements to transfer them to better medical locations.
I have seen and heard several people praying aloud, invoking God’s Blessings to end the cruel war and bring about lasting peace. Frustration ran that high that there were times when I noticed people throwing themselves prostate and cry aloud that they have lost all their faith in God. As a medical officer, I was trying hard to control my emotions borne out of empathy, but realized that I too, as a human, fell victim to a feeling of dejection. Reminding me incessantly from a remote corner of my mind was the ‘oath’ I have taken as a man of medicine and I, like many other medical personnel, took courage and did what we could do in those dire circumstances.
I was so depressed when a nursing officer died while treating an injured old woman. Even after such incident, the health staff worked continuously and untiringly, and many health volunteers’ services are unforgettable and should not be allowed to go unrecorded.
In a theatre of war, I realize now in retrospect, that however much one tries to bring about sanity, the environment dictated otherwise and I was no exception to that. There wasn’t anything whatsoever as a privilege a doctor would normally become entitled to under the conditions that prevailed in the areas wherein we were called upon to serve. The golden lesson on peace that I was nurturing since my childhood was revisited in the conflict zone and made me to determinedly decide that one must leave no stone unturned to resolve conflict and achieve lasting peace at whatever cost to anyone’s ego or vain pride. I am fully convinced that conflict in any form would only splinter the social and by extension the national fabric.
In future we all should work for real reconciliation of the society and rebuilding of this war-tattered nation of ours.
(Report submission to Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission
19 November 2010)