Overcoming barriers to enter war-torn Jaffna under rebel siege Part 4

Overcoming barriers to enter war-torn Jaffna under rebel siege Part 4

November 1994

Final MBBS Examination at the General Hospital Jaffna

18th November 1994

and Surprises Galore in Jaffna

I left Colombo on the 16th November 1994 and reached the city of Jaffna on the 17th around noon. After taking a short break, I visited the hospital and thereafter had a good night’s rest. The next day I was ready to examine the students of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Jaffna for the Final MBBS examination in Clinical Surgery.

A surprise early morning

I heard someone knocking on the door early morning. It was the receptionist at the Subhas Tourist Hotel knocking on my door, the only guest at the hotel. I was alarmed and excited. He said, Sir, I have brought the morning newspaper. As I opened the door, he gave me a Tamil newspaper. He had read it earlier and said that my name has appeared in the newspaper indicating that I had arrived in Jaffna to examine the medical students. As I could not read Tamil, he read it for me, and there it was. I felt elated! The people living in Jaffna were kept informed about an “outsider” in the city of Jaffna who was a Sinhalese doctor together with another Professor who had arrived earlier. I have preserved that newspaper and even today it is with me. The name of the newspaper is “EALANATHAM”

English Translation of Newspaper Article

Two Ph.D. Doctors have come from Colombo

To conduct the final exam for the Jaffna University Medical Students and also to conduct the exams and lectures for the first and second year students, two of the Ph.D. doctors have arrived in Jaffna.

We have with us Prof. Gamini Goonetilleke who will conduct the final year medical exams and Prof. K Magehsan who will conduct the first and second year exams and lectures.

Few Errors in the report (corrections below)

  1. One Ph.D. doctor and one surgeon with FRC
  2. Dr Gamini Goonetilleke – Not Prof.
  3. Prof K Maheswaran and not Prof K Magehsan who conducted lectures for the first and second year students was also a examiner for the final MBBS.

Dr. M Ganesaratnam, MBBS, FRCS

Clinical Examination / Viva Voce

Venue – Surgical Ward, General Hospital, Jaffna

Panel of Examiners

  • Dr. M Ganesaratnam, MBBS, FRCS, Senior Consultant Surgeon, General Hospital, Jaffna and Acting Professor of Surgery, Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna, Chairman, Panel of Examiners
  • Prof. K Maheswaran, MBBS, Ph.D. Professor of Anatomy, Faculty of Medicine, University of Sri Jayawardenapura, Nugegoda
  • Dr. Gamini Goonetilleke, MBBS, FRCS, Consultant Surgeon, Sri Jayawardenapura General Hospital, Nugegoda

Dates – 18th to 20th November 1994

Number of candidates to be examined – 62

Another surprise

Before the clinical examination, it is customary for the examiners to talk to the patients, examine them and go through their reports individually or as a group. Being the only examiner who could not communicate in Tamil I had to do this part together with the others as a team. All the patients, as expected, were conversant in the Tamil language except one who was not so fluent. But he was able to speak in Sinhala very well. He knew straight away that I was a doctor who could speak Sinhala. He mentioned to me that he was Somaratne from Chilaw. A conversation developed between the two of us before the examination.

Somaratne (in Sinhala) – Sir, are you from Colombo

Gamini – Yes. How did you come to the Jaffna Hospital?

Somaratne – Sir, I am a fisherman from Chilaw. While fishing with another friend of mine from Chilaw we drifted to the North-Eastern waters off the coast of Mullaitivu which was in control of the LTTE. They arrested us for fishing in their territory and took us to their prison camp. My friend, Ranjan was assaulted and his face is swollen. While in the prison camp I developed severe pain in my abdomen and was admitted with my friend to the LTTE ward at the Jaffna Hospital.

I could not go on talking to Somaratne as the examination had to begin. He was a happy man as he had met another Sinhala-speaking person from Colombo. I told him that after the examination I will visit him and his friend in the ward to talk to them.

This is another story and will continue in due course)


We followed the standard practices followed in all medical faculties in Sri Lanka at that time. The examination consisted of three parts.

  • Long Case – a student is given 30 minutes to take a history, examine and go through the relevant investigations and present the information gathered to the examiners, after which questions will be asked regarding the management, etc. for 20 minutes.
  • Short Cases – a student is given several cases one after another for about 15 minutes to take a brief history and demonstrate the relevant physical signs. Thereafter questions are asked about the diagnosis and treatment etc.
  • Viva Voce – oral questions on various aspects of basic surgery are asked from the candidates

End of a unique clinical examination

The clinical examination went on for three days and was concluded successfully. I had served as an examiner for many medical faculties in Sri Lanka. But this was a unique examination for me for many reasons.

  • The examination was held in an area under rebel control  
  • The Department of Surgery of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna did not have any staff members to conduct an examination.
  • The Dean of that Faculty Prof. S V Parameswaran took the bold step of conducting the examination with outside help as there were no other surgeons in Jaffna except Dr. M Ganesaratnam
  • Dr. M Ganesaratnam played a pivotal role of consultant surgeon, teacher, and examiner. He invited me as an examiner for the exam in Jaffna. If not for him, there would not have been an examination.
  • A surgeon from the South accepted the invitation to be an examiner in the North when no other person from the South was allowed entry to the North, thus becoming the first Sinhalese doctor from the South to enter Jaffna after the onset of the conflict in 1983.
  • Thus the panel of examiners was multi-ethnic. Incredible at that time!
  • There was also a Sinhala-speaking patient from the South brought to be examined by the medical students sitting for the examination.
  • Whereas the Sinhalese Surgeon came as a special guest on an invitation, the Sinhalese patient was a prisoner in LTTE captivity
  • To cap it all, I was informed after the examination that there was a female medical student who was present for the examination and that she was the wife of a leading member of the LTTE. She had passed the examination.

The candidates who qualified were awarded the MBBS (Jaffna) degree which is recognised by the Sri Lanka Medical Council. This degree is also recognised in many countries throughout the world and they could sit for the qualifying exam conducted by their respective medical councils. Thos who qualify can obtain employment overseas. I am sure some who sat the exam in 1994 have left the shores of Sri Lanka in search of greener pastures. You cannot blame them!

Visiting the special ward

After the exam was over, I decided to visit the special surgical ward in the General hospital, Jaffna. I had free access to this ward and was able to move around freely. This was a ward for the injured cadres of the LTTE who were receiving treatment in that hospital. There were many such patients with various injuries and I was able to take a few photographs as well. The only problem was the communication gap.

The purpose of my visit to that ward was to meet Somaratne, the fisherman from Chilaw who was also a patient in that ward together with Ranjan. While Somaratne was having treatment for kidney stones, Ranjan was being treated for injuries sustained on his face after being assaulted by the LTTE.

“I spoke with Somaratne and Ranjan, the two fishermen arrested and imprisoned by the LTTE, but now in hospital. I gathered details of their occupation, home and family, their medical issues and the problems they were facing in that special ward. They were happy because at last, they had found someone from the South who was able to communicate with them in Sinhala. I asked them to tolerate their grievances for the time being and told them that I will do my best to get them released from the custody of the LTTE”.

Planning another humanitarian operation for the release of the prisoners

I visited Jaffna in the capacity of an examiner but encountered two unknown fishermen from Chilaw in the Jaffna hospital. This was something unexpected and incidental. Although they were receiving treatment in the hospital at that time, sooner than later they were bound to be released from the ward and sent back to the LTTE prison. 

  • What will be their fate?
  • Will they be allowed to return to their homes in Chilaw?
  • Will they disappear forever?

These were the questions that bothered me and I had to do something to get them released from the custody of the LTTE and take them back home with me when I leave Jaffna. I had to devise a plan that could be executed with the consent of all concerned. That involved the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) especially the leader, without whose consent nothing could happen in the rebel-held territory of Jaffna.

I left the ward with the hope of liberating them and started working on a well-planned operation knowing very well that with God’s Grace I can accomplish my task for the benefit of these two fishermen…

More about that operation later when I write the story about my departure from Jaffna…

Dear Reader, you might also like to read our next story, Please click this link : ‘MORE EXPERIENCES IN REBEL-CONTROLLED JAFFNA’

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18 thoughts on “Overcoming barriers to enter war-torn Jaffna under rebel siege Part 4

  1. Fascinating story, and amazing photos Gamini. What an adventure. What you did for the Jaffna medical students is highly commendable. The students who graduated that year will for ever be grateful to you. We should also commend Shelendra for having allowed you travel to Jaffna during the height of the war! I can identify Dr Anantharajah and Dr Ganesaratnam standing next to you. Who are the other consultants in the photo?. looking forward to the next.

  2. Gamini,
    You are a very courageous person to undertake this journey to be in the Panel of Examiners. What an experience. As Elmo had pointed out, these the students who graduated that year will be eternally grateful. God had blessed you and your family for the Trust you placed in Him.

  3. If there had been more people like you there would have been no need for such death and destruction we had to go through. May all those who became doctors through you sow the seeds of love and healing of body and mind.to countless numbers.

  4. What a story Gamini. Not only conducting an advanced examination in war torn Jaffna but also planning the release of LTTE prisoner patients. You are indeed a very brave and noble God fearing person.
    May God bless you and your family always.

  5. Once again an illuminating and electrifying read. many thanks for your services and God Bless.

  6. I like your photos. You have kept a good pictorial record. Waiting to hear whether you managed to get the fishermen released.

  7. If we had more Christians of your caliber Sri Lanka would have been a wonderful place to live in.

  8. Your humanitarian aspect seen earlier becomes evident by your desire to release the two fisherman in the clutches of the rebels. I am sure you will inform us at a later date how you did it.

  9. You are always an extraordinary surgeon for this planet. We do respect you.

  10. Dear Sir
    This is a amazing story. You had many surprising experiences in your career which everyone cannot achieve. Your stories are very interesting to read and also those are very adventureous. Why didn’ t you invite us to accompany .

  11. Young generation probably won’t understand the difficulties. Well written. This was my student era in Jaffna.

  12. Gamini, your first hand experiences of the consequences of the conflict, your very noble work in the interest of the Sri Lankan’s affected by it in those battle ground areas make you very unique for your contribution.

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