Sunday 9 August 2020
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Redefining the ‘war without witness’: My Experiences working inside a war

Redefining the ‘war without witness’: My Experiences working inside a war

By Dr. T Varatharajah

I feel compelled to write this article at the commemoration of 7th Year Mullivaikkal Genocide remembrance.  Resolution that was passed at the UNHRC regarding war crimes in Sri Lanka created hope among Tamils, that justice would be served to them. This hope is now looking more and more like a mirage. The Government has done nothing to fulfill it’s promises that it made to the international community in response to the resolution passed. In many occasions   Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena and the Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe both have categorically stated that they will not allow international judges on the bench to hear war crimes cases.

Opinions on the exact nature of an accountability mechanism and the government’s push for a domestic mechanism have been controversial, especially to those who are concerned about the severity of atrocities that were committed in the regions where Tamils predominantly live. The question remains as to who will be the judges, prosecutors, and forensic experts.

Most importantly, we must ask whether we have an environment conducive for witnesses and victims to come forward to reveal their experiences and knowledge. Especially when many are now in exile and some have been already been jailed and have been forced to publicly compromise the truth of their experiences. The question is how much are the voices, for which the mechanism that is being set up, are being heard.

Cluster Bomb attack in the North of Sri Lanka

I am a medical doctor by profession and I served in the East and the North of Sri Lanka at the peak of the war. I have first-hand experience of the sufferings of thousands and thousands of people. I have treated them for injuries caused by the use of harmful weapons, aerial bombardments and shelling. With limited medical supplies, staff and hardly any facilities to conduct surgeries, we had performed the best treatments we could under the circumstances and we were determined not to let the people to die. However, in that situation we were helpless and witnessed patients dying without anesthetic medicine and blood. A few doctors and I took the decision to help the victims of war without caring for our own safety and risked our own lives, we stayed and served until the very end of the war. As the heavy bombing and advancement of Sri Lanka military was forcing people to move from place to place, the hospitals that had very few medicine, facilities and staffs, were still opened to serve the injured.

Ariel bombing in MullivaikkalAmong the thousands of unforgettable incidents, there is one that will always stand out for me and it related to a cluster bomb attack. A woman was brought to the hospital with a deep wound on her leg. In January 2009, as a doctor still actively serving people in the main hospital ,  this is the first time I heard and seen cluster bomb injuries. At the time the hospital was functioning in Puthukudiyiruppu in Mullaitheevu, that is located in the northern part of Sri Lanka.  ICRC and UN foreign staff were at the Puthukudiyirippu hospital. After that we heard about many more incidences of cluster bomb attacks that were dropped on the population. It was a busy time at the hospital, we were working day and night with hardly any sleep or rest.

We had also started hearing the term “white phosphorus bombs”. After hearing about one particular incident, I went to the area where the bomb was dropped and found that the burning I saw was not the usual, instead of black ashes? there were white ashes. However I am not a forensic expert and I rushed back to the hospital where the situation was dire as many injured people started to come to the hospital and we had to manage the hospital with the available resources. We did not think then that we had to gather evidence of the types of bombs that were used on people, because at that time, we had hoped that the situation would improve.

Over 30 years of war, people had built up some knowledge about the types of bombs that were used against them. They were able to recognise and feel the differences, which is what brought about talk of cluster bombs.

Injured woman in Mullivaikkal beow her kneeThis particular woman was in her 50s and brought to the Puthumathalan hospital.  The injury was just below the knee and we thought we should take care to treat her without amputating her leg. While we were treating her, we located an unexploded ammunition with container that was lodged inside her leg. We discovered this when we were cleaning her wound, there was something in the size of a can inside. It was unusual and somehow recognisable as an unexploded cluster bomb. This caused immediate fear and tension. We did not know whether it would explode and kill or injure doctors and staff in the operation theater at hospital. We discussed on the ways in which we could treat the wound and on how to save this woman without putting the medical staff at risk? None of us had any expertise in dealing with removing ammunition from a patient without causing an explosion.

Injured knee of a woman in Mullivaikkal by cluster bombSome who had heard about the issue actually started fleeing the hospital. A decision had to be made quickly. We had no choice but to amputate the leg above knee and move it as far away from the hospital as possible. So that is what we did. We cut off the leg and had it taken away in a vehicle for disposing.

Dr. Sivamanokaran,  died on 22 April 2009 from a cluster bomb attack near the Valagnarmadam makeshift hospital.

Of all the atrocities I witnessed, these instances were just a blip in the radar. Now the question is whether the international community and the Government of Sri Lanka will take any credible measures to ensure justice for these atrocities and others and to guarantee non-recurrence. And still, what measures will be taken to finally bring to an end the ongoing suffering?

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