25th November 1994
“So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you say, we are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10)
A Surprise meeting of a Fisherman from the South in the Jaffna Hospital 18th November 1994
I was at the surgical ward of the General Hospital, Jaffna for the Final Examination of the medical students. While most of the patients brought for the examination were fluent in the Tamil language there was one who was not so fluent. But, he spoke Sinhala very well. I spoke to him in Sinhala and he had no hesitation in answering me in 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, and I asked Somaratne what made 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 controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). They arrested us for fishing in their territory and took us to their prison camp. My friend, Ranjan was assaulted and he had injuries on his face and swollen. While in the prison camp I developed severe pain in my belly and was admitted with my friend to the LTTE ward at the Jaffna Hospital.
As the examination had to begin I could not go on talking to him but promised to visit him in the ward after the examination was over that day.
Visiting the special ward to see the prisoners
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. The two prisoners were also there.
The purpose of my visit to that ward was to meet Somaratne and Ranjan, the fisherman from Chilaw who were in the custody of the LTTE. While Somaratne was having treatment for kidney stones, Ranjan was being treated for injuries sustained on his face after being assaulted by the LTTE cadres.
“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 indicated to them that I will do my best to get them released from the custody of the LTTE. They were happy as there was at least some hope of getting released and going back home”.
There were no Government officials in Jaffna who could help the two prisoners and no one knew about the prisoners. I met them accidentally and I had to take the initiative and intervene to get them released from captivity. Therefore I had to plan another humanitarian operation for their release. At that stage, I felt that patience and goodwill were the key factors in liberating them from captivity.
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 thoughts 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 things could not happen in the rebel-held territory of Jaffna.
I left the ward that day 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…
My departure from Jaffna was planned for the 25th November 1994 and there was plenty of time for me to get involved in other activities which I have described in the previous stories. During this time I used to visit the ward to meet Somaratne and Ranjan and advised them to tolerate their difficulties and live in hope. By then I had initiated a process to get them released, but I did not divulge this fact to them.
Getting the two Sinhala prisoners released from LTTE custody was not an easy task. I had no access to them and as a result, I had to get another party involved in the process.
I had no access to the LTTE and not to the leader. I tried to get my request for their release to the hierarchy if not the leader through the doctors who had contacts as they had treated the injured LTTE cadres in the Jaffna Hospital. This was not forthcoming but I did not give up.
ICRC agreed to take my message to the LTTE
I approached the head of the mission of The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) branch office in Jaffna. By then I had developed a friendship with her as we had met on many occasions in and out of the hospital and she was in charge of coordinating my visit to Jaffna.
I remember pleading with her to hand over the prisoners to me so that I could take them home on my return. She said, they are not in the custody of the ICRC but in LTTE custody and they have to be released by their leader and the ICRC had nothing to do with their release. But since the ICRC was aware that there were two prisoners held by the LTTE it was up to them to see to their safety. That was a part of their duty to care for prisoners of war. What she said after that was reassuring…
She said, Doctor If you have a plea/message I can convey it to the leader/hierarchy of the LTTE through our sources and we can see their response.
I took that opportunity and informed her to convey these facts to the LTTE hierarchy in consideration of the release of the two prisoners as a reciprocal gesture of goodwill…
Most of these were known to them but if a request was not made for their release incorporating these facts nothing would happen. Therefore, there was the need for sending a message across to the LTTE.
The message – Please consider the release of the prisoners for these reasons…
“I visited Jaffna on the invitation of two people from Jaffna, namely the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Jaffna and Dr. M Ganesaratnam, the only surgeon in Jaffna who was well known to all. This was to help the medical students to complete their exams. For me, it was a very risky, challenging, and dangerous journey visiting an unknown territory not knowing how I will be treated and at the same time entering a part of the country affected by war. I have completed my task successfully. I will be going back home shortly and I do not want to go home empty-handed.
I am only asking for one thing and that is to release the prisoners in LTTE custody in exchange for my services to the medical students of Jaffna.
I can take them back home with me. I also asked the ICRC chief to emphasize the fact that if the patient with kidney problems does not get proper care there was also the possibility of him developing complications and dying. He needed urgent surgery.
That I thought would make them worried, especially because the ICRC knew that the LTTE had two prisoners in their custody and hopefully give my request more serious thought. The message was conveyed by the head of the ICRC mission to those concerned many days before my departure and it was a question of waiting for the GOOD NEWS in anticipation that they will reciprocate for my service as requested.
I WAS HOPING AND PRAYING THAT MY PLEA WILL BE HEARD AND GRANTED AGAINST ALL ODDS.
Finally the Good News: they agree to release the prisoners
25th November 1994 – the day of the departure
I was due to return to Colombo on the 25th November once again via Flamboyan, the ICRC ship in which I sailed to Jaffna on 16th November with others. On the 25th morning, the Head of the ICRC mission in Jaffna gave me the good news that the LTTE hierarchy had acceded to my request to release the fishermen from their custody. Somaratne and Ranjan too were kept informed of the good news. However, they could not release the fishermen directly to me, but the ICRC. The ICRC took control of the situation and decided to hand over the prisoners to me at the Point Pedro Jetty before embarking the ship on departure. We were elated and that was perhaps the happiest moment for me during that period in rebel-controlled Jaffna.
I ACHIEVED MY OBJECTIVE OF GETTING THE TWO FISHERMEN RELEASED FROM THE CUSTODY OF THE LTTE WITH PATIENCE, GOODWILL, AND THE GRACE OF GOD.
It was my bounden duty to take care of Somaratne and Ranjan after their release from the custody of the LTTE and hand them over to their relations at the ICRC office in Colombo. But there was something else I had to do before I sent Somaratne home. That was to remove his kidney stones at surgery. Without that operation my job would be incomplete.
A hiccup: Departure to Colombo by ship delayed
The good news regarding the release of the two prisoners which I received in the morning was somewhat dampened by the bad news in the evening. Although we were due to leave Jaffna on the 25th November our departure was delayed. The North-East monsoon had set in and the ICRC ship was not sailing from Trincomalee to Point Pedro that day. We were waiting at the Point Pedro jetty but with the bad news I had to get back to Subhas Hotel and the two fishermen were taken back to Jaffna by the ICRC. We were hoping to leave on the 26th, but it was the same story…
Then we received the most disturbing news of all. The ICRC ship had suspended sailing to Point Pedro, Jaffna because of the rough seas brought about by the North-East monsoon which had set in.
We were stranded, agitated and helpless with no hope of returning home. The sea route was the only available route for our return and that too had become an issue. There were four (4) passengers waiting to get back to Colombo, the two fishermen, myself and Prof. Maheswaran, the other examiner who visited Jaffna.
How could we get back to Colombo?
We pleaded with the ICRC to make alternate arrangements for our departure at least the next day- 27th November.
They started communicating with various sources on their phones and finally came up with a solution for our travel to Colombo. The details of the devious journey were explained to us before confirmation. We accepted it as there was no other way.
The journey that was proposed was challenging, risky, frightening and somewhat of a threat to our lives in mid-sea. But that day we had no choice and fearfully accepted the route proposed by the ICRC. We came back home safely but that journey caused nightmares even months later.
More about that journey in my next story …
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