Overcoming barriers to enter war-torn Jaffna under rebel siege Part – 1
After the capture of the Jaffna Fort by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in September 1990, the entire Jaffna peninsula was in control of the LTTE except for the High-Security Zone (HSZ) in Palaly, Jaffna and Elephant Pass at the neck of the peninsula.
I had never visited Jaffna even during times of peace before 1983. However, after the onset of the war, I visited the HSZ in Jaffna on many occasions to treat the armed forces personnel injured in conflict at the Palaly Base Hospital. That was by aircraft operated by the Sri Lanka Air Force from Ratmalana, Colombo to Palaly, Jaffna, but there was no way of getting to the city from there, which was rebel-controlled.
In this series of stories, I will relate to my readers all the details of my adventurous and somewhat risky trip to the Northern City of Jaffna and my experiences in November 1994. Only a few are aware of these details. It was for an entirely humanitarian cause concerning medical education and examination of medical graduates at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Jaffna. It came at a time when no outside help was forthcoming for the Jaffna medical students in those troubled times of civil war in Sri Lanka and when Jaffna was under siege. The questions in my mind then were: how could I get there? Is it safe?
Rebels take control of Jaffna
At the onset, it is worthwhile and interesting to know how people travelled to Jaffna before the war and how it changed for the worse after the onset of the civil war. That will give you a glimpse of the suffering of a population living in a war-torn area under siege by a rebel outfit having total control of all aspects of human life in that area. They were in fact running a “parallel government”.
Travel to Jaffna before the war
In the period before the onset of the civil war, it was possible to travel to the city of Jaffna via land, sea or air. The common modes of travel, however, were on land either along the A9 road or via the Northern Railway, the famous Yaldevi train. The aerial route too was used as there were civilian and Air Force aircraft flying from Colombo to Palaly but used only by a few. The sea route was mainly for the transport of cargo by merchant ships from Colombo to the port at Kankesanthurai (KKS)
Jaffna under siege
With the onset of war, the civilians or the armed forces could not use the A9 route to Jaffna. The last town under the control of the armed forces was Vavuniya, which was many miles 140 km away. The A9 road from Vavuniya to Jaffna was mined, badly damaged by the explosion of mines and other war-related skirmishes.
The Northern railway line was also damaged as the rail track and the wooden sleepers had been removed by the LTTE for constructing and reinforcing their bunkers. The train that left to Kankesanthurai (KKS) from Colombo Fort on 10th July 1990 could not return to Colombo and perished at the KKS railway station. Thus the rail route was not available. The aerial route could not be used as the airport was within the HSZ. The KKS port was also within the HSZ. It was used by merchant ships for transporting essential cargo for the besieged people living in Jaffna as well as for the armed forces personnel in the Jaffna peninsula. There was also an economic embargo at that time.
The Army had declared the land route through Elephant Pass open but the LTTE would not allow the traffic to move along it. Furthermore, that route was also mined to prevent the military from moving towards Jaffna on the A9.
There was no way of entering or leaving the Jaffna peninsula. Those who wanted to leave had to look for an alternate route allowed by the LTTE and with their permission.
Tough regulations imposed by the LTTE
The LTTE imposed tough regulations for travel in and out of the peninsula. People from the South of the country were barred from entering the peninsula. They had devised a permit system to travel in and out of the peninsula. There was a good system of surveillance too. Anyone breaking regulations was punished harshly. The permit system also involved a payment to the LTTE. Those who wanted to leave that area had to give valid reasons. A permit was issued by their regional “officer” for travel. They had to use the route decided by the rebel group. On their return, the permit had to be shown at their checkpoint close to Vavuniya and later handed over once they reach Jaffna by whatever route decided by those in control. Loss of permit meant no entry!
PEOPLE FROM THE SOUTH OF THE COUNTRY WERE BARRED FROM ENTRY TO THE JAFFNA PENINSULA BY REBELS
What were the alternatives available for the civilians to travel out of the peninsula?
The Sangupiddy ferry and the Kilali crossing
Civilians in the North hardly travelled out of the Jaffna peninsula, but those who had to travel were compelled to use hazardous routes and were at risk of being shot at by the military as they had been declared as prohibited routes by the military.
- The route from Kerathivu in Jaffna to Sangupiddy close to Pooneryn in the District of Kilinochchi using the partly built causeway in the shallow lagoon waters, by boat or ferry. Later this was not possible as the army took control of Pooneryn.
- The Kilali crossing was the only available route declared off-limits by the military to prevent rebel movement. However, the LTTE operated an illegal income-generating night ferry service across the hazardous Jaffna lagoon from Kilali to a point on the Southern side of the lagoon in the Kilinochchi District, a town by the name of Nallur.
THE KILALI CROSSING WHICH HAD BEEN DECLARED OFF-LIMITS BY THE MILITARY WAS THE ONLY AVAILABLE ROUTE FOR THE CIVILIANS TO ENTER OR EXIT THE JAFFNA PENINSULA. THIS WAS HAZARDOUS AND THERE WAS ALSO THE POSSIBILITY OF THE BOAT PEOPLE BEING SHOT AT BY THE MILITARY AS IT WAS A PROHIBITED ROUTE.
Once they crossed over to the southern side of the lagoon they were in the Kilinochchi District. Thereafter, it was a question of travelling in various types of vehicles like tractors across jungle paths, being checked on the way by the LTTE to reach the main access road, the A9. From there they had to travel to Omantai South of Vavuniya where the final LTTE checkpoint was situated. After being checked they had to proceed via no man’s land to reach Vavuniya, the first town in the South under the control of the military. This was 85 km from the site of the Kilali crossing. They had to be checked again by the Army at this point and there were long queues on occasions. The travel to Colombo thereafter was in buses and vans passing many checkpoints manned by the Army. The entire journey would take several hours/days.
While working at the Base Hospital, Polonnaruwa I treated many victims of war. I also had the opportunity to travel to some war-torn areas in the East with the armed forces. As mentioned in my previous stories, I had also travelled to the HSZ in Jaffna on many occasions to treat the war casualties. All these were in areas controlled by the military. I had a great desire to travel to the other side as well to get a feeling of what it is like to live in a war-torn region, to experience and share with those people at least for a short time their difficulties and suffering being exposed to aerial bombing and fire from various types of heavy weapons used by both parties to the war.
The opportunity comes my way
I received a phone call in early September 1994 from my friend, the consultant surgeon working at the General Hospital, Jaffna, Dr M Ganesharatnam FRCS. He said, “Gamini we are having the final MBBS examination for the Jaffna medical students in November and I want you to be there as an external examiner”. He knew that I was daring and keen to visit Jaffna, but I was in shock when I received the invitation. I could not answer immediately as I was concerned mostly about my security going to “rebel-controlled land”.
Ganesh, as I used to call him, insisted that I should be there. When asked about my security he replied: “Gamini when I invite you to Jaffna for an important official purpose it is done with the full approval of the SUPREMO and once he gives the approval your safety isguaranteed”. I knew who the Supremo was, but I did not want to ask him at that stage about him. That allayed my fears somewhat. The next question was how do I travel to rebel-controlled land? He said, leave it to me, I will arrange that. So, I had no option but to say yes I will come, even without asking my family members. There was no turning back thereafter.
The invitation was accepted to travel to Jaffna as an external examiner for the subject of surgery for the final MBBS examination in November 1994. Dr. Ganesharatnam received the approval of the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine Jaffna appointing me as an examiner which is a requirement of the University. An official letter from the Dean followed confirming my appointment and requesting me to confirm the dates of travel to Jaffna via the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which had an office in Jaffna. At that stage, I did not know about the ICRC and its role in Jaffna.
The University of Jaffna and the Faculty of Medicine, Jaffna
The Faculty of Medicine (FOM) of the University of Jaffna was established in 1978 and moved to its new premises in Thirunelveli in 1981. There are twelve Departments in all. In 1994 the Dean was Dr. S V Parameswaran.
During the period the Jaffna peninsula was under rebel control the University suffered severe damage with a general disturbance of academic life. There was a shortage of essential goods due to an economic embargo. But the most critical problem as far as the faculty was concerned was the dearth of academic staff with many of them having fled the country. Thus, the teaching and examination of medical students were badly affected.
Heavy burden on the only Surgeon – Dr, M Ganesharatnam FRCS
In November 1994, when I went to Jaffna I realised that there was a heavy burden on Dr. Ganesharatnam, the only consultant surgeon at the General Hospital, Jaffna.
- He was the only surgeon for the entire Jaffna peninsula
- He was the only general surgeon at the General Hospital Jaffna when there should have been a complement of three general surgeons, together with an orthopaedic surgeon, a neurosurgeon and a cardiothoracic surgeon at that time. All had fled the country due to the war. He had to do the work of all these specialists.
- The surgical department of the FOM did not have a single lecturer, leave alone a Professor.
- Thus the single surgeon had to carry out all these duties – work in the hospital as well as teach the medical students in the faculty not only surgery but other subjects as well. This was an enormous task indeed.
- Taking a neutral stand he had also to treat the LTTE cadres who were admitted to the General Hospital, Jaffna with injuries sustained in war with the armed forces of the country. They had a special ward with their own supporting staff and security. More about that later!
Dr. M Ganesharatnam un-grudgingly carried out all these duties. He had to also organise the Final MBBS examination. He could not be the only examiner. According to the University regulations, there should be a complement of at least three examiners to conduct the examination. Hence the decision to persuade me when everyone else had rejected the idea of travelling to Jaffna except another Professor from Colombo who volunteered to be an examiner at the Final MBBS. That was Professor K Maheswaran who was the Professor of Anatomy of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sri Jayewardenapura, Nugegoda.
THE PANEL OF EXAMINERS FOR THE CLINICAL EXAMINATION IN SURGERY FINAL MBBS, FACULTY OF MEDICINE, UNIVERSITY OF JAFFNA. NOVEMBER 1994
- Dr. M Ganesharatnam MBBS FRCS
- Prof. K Maheswaran MBBS Ph.D.
- Dr. Gamini Goonetilleke MBBS FRCS
A humanitarian agency steps in to help the civilians/ patients
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had stepped in to help the civilians in the peninsula. The ICRC is an impartial, neutral and independent organisation. Its exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence and to provide them with assistance.
In addition to other humanitarian services in the war-torn Jaffna, the ICRC had started a transport service hiring a ship named FLAMBOYAN from Singapore to transport doctors and also patients in need of specialised treatment such as cancer to and from Point Pedro in the Jaffna peninsula to Trincomalee. Thereafter, they had to find their way to Colombo by bus. This was a safer route than the Kilali crossing for those incapacitated patients to reach specialised centres in Colombo for the necessary treatment not available in Jaffna at that time. The LTTE could not object to this mode of travel by ship organised by the ICRC for doctors and patients in Jaffna.
The ICRC contacted me to arrange my transport to the North.
I was wondering how I could get to Jaffna to be an examiner for the final MBBS examination as people from the South were barred from entering the North. I thought, I too would have to use the hazardous and dangerous Kilali lagoon crossing with the help of the LTTE who were in control of Jaffna. When the ICRC in Colombo contacted me to get my details of identification etc. to arrange my transfer from Trincomalee to Point Pedro by ship my fears were allayed. They also agreed to provide transport from Colombo to Trincomalee the same day.
There were two other things I had to attend to before my departure to Jaffna
- Apply for leave of absence from my place of work, Sri Jayewardenapura General Hospital, Nugegoda
- Approval from the Ministry of Defence in Colombo
I had no issues because of the letter of invitation from the University of Jaffna.
There were gaps in my travel plan. I did not know how I could get to Jaffna city from Point Pedro jetty which is 30km away in rebel territory. Is it with the ICRC, the Jaffna doctors, or with the rebels, and how? I had to wait till I landed at Point Pedro jetty to know exactly how! However, I knew that my security was guaranteed by Ganesh, my friend. I had to accept his word and wait patiently hoping that everything would be all right with God’s Grace.
So, the route that was as confirmed by the ICRC was
More about that and all the details of my travel from Colombo to Jaffna in my next story…
Dear Reader, you might also like to read our next story which is the continuation of the above, Please click this link : Overcoming barriers to enter war torn Jaffna under rebel siege / Part 2
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2 thoughts on “Overcoming barriers to enter war-torn Jaffna under rebel siege Part – 1”
daring journey few would undertake to serve humanity
Daring and fearless as always. Equally very caring and against injustice of all kinds. Amazing!