A true-to-life account of high-risk adventure and “acrobatics” at sea
I left Colombo on the 16th November 1994 and reached Jaffna on the 17th November after a devious journey which took me and the others, first, from Colombo to Trincomalee by bus. Then it was by ICRC ship Flamboyan from Trincomalee to Point Pedro Jetty. From there it was in a kerosene-driven old Austin Cambridge to the city of Jaffna.
No doubt the journey took a considerable length of time (approximately 30 hours) but there were no risks although I was somewhat apprehensive at the beginning of going to unknown rebel-controlled war-torn territory.
“Flamboyan” cancels sailing to Point Pedro
The return journey planned for 25th November could not take place according to the original plan following the same route. This was due to the cancellation of the ICRC ship sailing to Point Pedro because of the rough seas and bad weather due to the North-East monsoon setting in. We had to depend on the sea route as the land route or the aerial route was not possible. The situation was made more desperate as the telecommunication services had been disrupted and I had no way of informing anyone at home that my return to Colombo was being delayed due to unavoidable circumstances. I did not know what was going through their minds? They too would have been anxious and desperate in that situation.
ICRC makes alternate arrangements for our travel to Colombo
Alternate arrangements had to be made by the ICRC. This was no easy task for them on that day. The land route was not possible. They tried to organize a helicopter to land in Jaffna and take us to the Military High-Security Zone (HSZ) in Palaly. That idea was rejected by the Military as it was not safe for a helicopter to land in rebel territory. They made frantic calls and were finally able to contact a Merchant’s Vessel “Kumana” that was sailing to the Kankesanthurai (KKS) Port from Trincomalee with goods and rations for the army personnel in the High-Security Zone. The ICRC officials informed the Captain of the ship that there were four passengers stranded in Jaffna and whether it would be possible for them to transfer the passengers from Point Pedro to KKS Port a few nautical miles west of Point Pedro. This was after consultation and obtaining permission from the Military High Command as we had to enter the HSZ in Palaly from the KKS Port which too was within the HSZ. Finally, the return was planned for the 27th evening via the sea route.
Once the arrangements had been made, we were informed that a merchant’s vessel was prepared to accommodate us to continue our journey to Colombo via KKS and Palaly. We did not receive a detailed description of the onward journey at that stage but travelled to the Point Pedro Jetty after lunch to be there at the time the merchant ship was passing Point Pedro.
Arrangements made, but risks had to be taken
If the initial journey From Colombo to Jaffna was only time-consuming and not without any risks, the return journey was exactly the opposite: time-consuming, uncertain, challenging, associated with serious risk to life, and completely taken unawares. But that was the only option available, and we were compelled to take it or remain in Jaffna till the end of the North-East monsoon. We decided to take the chance! It was a do-or-die situation that I never expected when I embarked on this journey. It was no doubt a life-threatening adventure at sea which we came to know only after arrival at the Point Pedro Jetty. The weather too was not in our favour.
The four passengers stranded in Jaffna
At the Point Pedro Jetty with the two prisoners of war liberated from LTTE custody
The true picture emerges and we see the risks too!
A short while after we arrived at the Point Pedro Jetty we saw the merchant ship approaching in high seas. We expected that ship to reach the Jetty and anchor so that we could embark on the ship without any risks but that was not to be. The merchant ship sailing to KKS could not sail right up to the Jetty as the Jetty was not catering to the arrival of large ships and as such had berthed in mid-sea about 1km from the jetty. It was hardly visible from the land due to the heavy rains that had set in but became more visible when the ship’s lights were switched on. We had to get to that ship somehow.
How did we get there?
The task of transporting the four of us was entrusted to the Boatman operating an old wooden motorboat. He was a LTTE cadre. This boat was far out in the sea and we were asked to walk to the boat. The weather was bad, the waves were strong and the light was fading.
The shoes and socks were removed, and the trouser legs rolled up with our bags on our heads we walked slowly and cautiously towards the motorboat further away. We had no choice but to do it if we wanted to get back home. We followed the instructions and got into the boat with difficulty. By then we were all soaked in seawater. That was the first task and that was accomplished nervously.
The sea was very rough. The boat started its movement towards the ship at high speed. I did not sit down but held on to some part of the boat that was there. The boat was tossed about by the rough waves of the sea as it gathered speed moving towards the ship far away. I was frightened thinking that the boat would sink and the lives of all of us in the boat would be endangered. I prayed to God “Oh God please protect our lives and take us home safely…
“Later on, I was reminded of two similar incidents related in the Holy Bible, when the frightened Disciples are tossed about by a storm and Jesus calms the winds and the sea – Mt 8:23-27 and Mt 14:22-33 when Jesus walks on water teaching us that he is always with us and we must have strong faith and trust in him …“
Taking photographs was out of the question as I had to hang on. It was an anxious moment in my life. Never for a moment did I anticipate such an ordeal when I originally decided to travel to Jaffna. That was not the end. What we had to endure after that was even worse.
The next task was to transfer ourselves one at a time from the motorboat to the ship. The boat had to be brought alongside the ship. This was not possible due to the rough sea. There was no way of keeping the boat steady against the hull of the ship till the passengers got in. A rope ladder was dropped from the ship. I managed to take a photograph of this process with the help of the two fishermen who supported me and held me somewhat steady.
Moving to the deck of the ship
As I write (type) this part of the story my hands’ shiver and I am fortunate enough to be alive to write about the “acrobatic act” that I had to perform at sea on the 27th November 1994.
As I write this part of the story my hands’ shiver. We were told about the maneuver that we had to perform to get to the deck of the ship. As the ship and the boat came close to each other we were asked to cling on to the rope ladder first and then take our feet away as soon as possible to prevent the foot from getting crushed between the boat and the ship. Then it was a question of climbing up the rope ladder to the ship.
To do this, tremendous courage was needed. In such situations, this came naturally. The adrenaline levels were high, the heart was beating rapidly and I was fearful and anxious too. There was no looking back. You either hang on to the rope ladder and climb up or drop into the deep sea and get drowned, with no one to help.
The Professor went first and he managed to get to the deck. That gave me some courage. Next, it was my turn. As the boat and the ship came together, I held on to the rope ladder firmly, took my feet away, and remained there for a few minutes to take a deep breath to continue the climb. The seamen in the deck encouraged me step-by-step and the fishermen were behind me giving me all the support and holding on to me. They were fearless being fishermen. The final step was taken and I climbed onto the deck of the ship soaked in water, mud, oil, and grease. The ordeal was over; I took a deep breath and thanked God for providing security right through this act which I had to perform:
The most dangerous and life-threatening act that I have ever embarked on came to an end. I was supported by the two fishermen released from LTTE custody on my request. That was their way of showing GRATITUDE to me!
The two prisoners of war who were in my custody being fisherman too had to perform this procedure. Being ﬁshermen they were used to these situations, unlike me. Anyway, there were no disasters and all got on board safely. The captain of the ship noticed that we were exhausted and invited us to the restaurant for a hot cup of tea which was very welcome and refreshing. The ship sailed to the KKS Port which was a few nautical miles away and we were able to relax for a while.
We reached the Port of KKS in the High-Security Zone
The ship sailed to KKS. A Dhora Navy gunboat was awaiting our arrival there. We had to move to the gunboat, but it was well organized, and it was a question of going down a wooden ladder from the ship to the boat. This boat took us to the port from where we were taken to an army bungalow for the night within the High-Security Zone as this had been pre-arranged.
First call Home after 11 days
Since I left home on the 16th of November I could not get in touch with my family in Colombo. The telephone lines had been disrupted and this was not possible. Even the ICRC did not allow private calls, but on one occasion they had called to inform those at home that I was safe in Jaffna. My wife’s calls to the ICRC office were reassuring, but nothing more. She and the members of the family had been worried, anxious, and apprehensive as there was no direct contact. Later on, my wife, Shelendra, intimated to me that she was under the impression that “I had been captured by the rebels” and she will not see me anymore. That was quite understandable considering the situation prevailing in Jaffna at that time. As usual, she was always living with strong FAITH and TRUST IN GOD with much prayer for our safety and protection and a safe journey back home.
The first call home was only eleven days after I departed from Colombo. That was on the 27th of November to give the good news that I had reached the Palaly Army Camp in Jaffna and would be returning home the next day. They were surprised and excited!
Flight to Colombo
The next morning, we boarded an Air Force Y8 aircraft and reached the Colombo airport at Ratmalana from where we were driven to the ICRC Headquarters in Colombo. The relatives of the two fishermen released from LTTE custody had been informed and they were present to receive Somaratne and Ranjan.
One “Prisoner” (Ranjan) was handed over to his relatives. Somaratne was dispatched to my ward at Sri Jayewardenapura General Hospital as he had to undergo surgery for his kidney stones.
I went home to the surprise of everyone, thus relieving their tensions, anxiety, and apprehensions…
It was an interesting, exciting and rewarding trip to the rebel-controlled war-torn Northern city of Jaffna which no one from the South had embarked on before. I was somewhat apprehensive and fearful at first, especially on the first night, but as time went on, I came to understand that there were no inherent dangers of my being there. In the end, I realized that it was fully worth travelling to such an area to understand the conditions there, and the trials and tribulations of people living in a war-torn area. I gathered much knowledge at the same time imparting knowledge to the future doctors of our nation – Sri Lanka. The freedom that I was afforded and the fellowship extended to me by the medical profession in Jaffna was magnanimous.
The photographs that I captured with my camera an Olympus Trip 35 (a basic camera) are historical in nature and were used to illustrate my stories. The main reason for my visit to Jaffna was to be an examiner for the medical students there. If that was a humanitarian reason to be there, the encounter with the Prisoners of War (POW) and their subsequent release from LTTE custody was a calling from God to serve humanity in whatever way I could, irrespective of the inherent dangers. I am happy I did exactly that!
My visit to war-torn Jaffna with all its “life threatening dangers ended there. I hope I have educated my readers of at least some aspects of life in the war-torn region of our country- Sri Lanka.
As I complete my series of stories from this region, I wish to thank my friend, the late Dr. M Ganesaratnam FRCS, Consultant Surgeon at the General Hospital, Jaffna at that time for the gracious invitation that he extended to me to visit Jaffna and for all the support and care given to me during my stay there.
“Only those who will risk
going too far can possibly
find out how far
one can go”
– T S Eliot
Acknowledgment – I wish to thank Kevin Caspersz of Melbourne, Australia for the beautiful pen sketch he created of the ship, rope ladder, and the boat to illustrate my story.
Dear Reader, If you haven’t read my earlier story which is a continuation of this story, you can read it in this following link : ‘Prisoners of War are Released as a Gesture of Good Will’ and the next story is also a continuation of this, the link is as follows : ‘The Healing-Cut for a Kidney Stone’
You also might be interested in watching some of our other photo gallery links are given here : ‘WAR FRONT – 1’ – ‘WAR FRONT – 2’ / ‘PHOTO GALLERY – PICTORIAL JOURNEY OF SURGERY’ / ‘MY LIFE’ / ‘SPORTS’