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SRI LANKA: Doctors Put Life During Conflict Under Microscope

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Dec 1 2010 (IPS) - During the last phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2008, information on the intensified fighting had slowed to a trickle. But in their November 2010 submissions to a government commission looking into the final days of the conflict, a group of doctors who served in the war zone have shed light on living conditions that were “not fit for even animals”.

Sri Lanka's war may be over, but its deep scars are still visible. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Sri Lanka's war may be over, but its deep scars are still visible. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

With government forces cornering the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers, into an area in the north, it had become close to impossible for journalists confined in the capital Colombo – almost 300 kilometres away from the fighting – to report on the predicament of some 300,000 civilians caught in the cross-fire.

Independent reporting had become difficult as journalists who were not going with government troops could not get anywhere near the fighting by this time.

Likewise, the last trickle of information from aid workers in the conflict area had dried up with the September 2008 withdrawal of the United Nations and other international humanitarian agencies there, after the government asked them to pull out.

Instead, journalists had to rely on bulletins by the International Committee of the Red Cross and on government updates from the Vanni – once the Tigers’ stronghold and which was to be their last battleground – in north-east Sri Lanka.

Against this backdrop, a small group of government- appointed doctors still serving within the war zone, like T Sathyamurthi and V Shanmugarajah, turned into conduits of first-hand information. Often, they were the only sources for journalists after late 2008, when the decades-old sectarian war was reaching its final climax.

Sathyamurthi, the district medical officer for Kilinochchi, once the Togers’ showpiece political centre, began providing the media with pictures he had taken and accounts of what was going on. These soon came under government censure when government officials criticised their comments.

On May 10, 2009, Shanmugarajah, who served in the main hospital in Mullaithivu district where the Tigers concentrated their military might, was the main source for a story about artillery fire hitting a makeshift hospital in the village of Mullivaikkal in the north-eastern coast, claiming as many as 378 civilian lives. The government promptly denied the charge.

“There is absolutely no way that this doctor could have used a telephone, dialled BBC, or CNN or al-Jazeera, and said that the shelling was coming from the government side and so many people have been killed,” Mahinda Samarasinghe, then Sri Lanka’s minister for human rights, had told this writer shortly after the doctor’s comments. He also said that there was a good chance that a Tiger rebel could have been holding a gun to the head of the doctor as he spoke to the media.

As the war drew to a close, the doctors finally fled the war zone along with tens of thousands of other Sri Lankans. On May 15, 2009, government authorities took them into custody. They spent about three months in remand, and were released on bail in August 2009.

Since then, the doctors have returned to the areas where they formally served, and remained away from the media glare.

But in November, appearing at a government committee set up to investigate the final months of the civil war, three of the doctors – Sathyamurthi, Shanmugarajah, and P Sivapalan, who served in the Vanni but had not given interviews – gave a glimpse into the harsh living conditions towards the end of the conflict.

Parts of their public submissions also debunked some of their own allegations regarding war atrocities and civilian casualties. Shanmugarajah, for instance, admitted that he had been forced by the Tigers to inflate casualty figures when talking with the media.

Up until January 2009, the doctors revealed, hospitals had functioned satisfactorily and supplies provided by the government also came in regularly from the south.

But after the fall of Kilinochchi, the Tigers’ administrative centre, the situation began to turn dire. Hospitals began to be shifted to improvised locations, Shanmugarajah said.

According to the doctors, as the fighting intensified and injuries mounted among the Tigers’ ranks, the separatist militants started putting pressure on civilian health services, and even tried to prevent civilians from fleeing across the battle lines to safety behind government forces.

Sivapalan, who worked in the Kilinochchi hospital, said that Tigers would fire at the government’s military units less than a kilometre away from the civilians, provoking retaliation and cutting down chances of civilians fleeing.

With tens of thousands of people crammed into the shrinking space while fighting raged around them, the situation became “deplorable and not fit for even animals,” said Sathyamurthi.

“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,” Sathyamurthi said. “Frustration, first as a man of medicine and then as a human being with a heart that was bleeding with empathy, was totally unavoidable.”

Still, Shanmugarajah said, the medical professionals tried their best to keep the services going. “We provided children’s vaccines till April (2009),” he said.

Over three decades of conflict and the last bloody end have left a terrible mark on the Vanni population, said the doctors, who were instructed by regional government authorities to remain within the war zone until May 14, 2009 – just five days before the war’s end.

According to Sivapalan, half of the households in the Vanni had lost at least one person in the fighting, while many more had been injured. “Many of the middle-aged heads of families have lost all what they had and are dejected,” Sivapalan said.

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