“Rewarding” journeys and a changing scenery in war-torn Jaffna

“Rewarding” journeys and a changing scenery in war-torn Jaffna

Recapitulating my learning experience in treating battle casualties

The origin of the North-East conflict can be traced to the explosion of a landmine in Thirunvely, Jaffna on the 23rd July 1983. By 1985, the violence had spread to the Eastern Province.

I was the only surgeon at the Base Hospital in Polonnaruwa at that time. Treating casualties became my responsibility. There was no help from anywhere. I had no option but to do my best for the injured and undertook that challenge with great enthusiasm. During this period I gathered tremendous experience in managing battle casualties. However, after my transfer to the Base Hospital in Gampaha in 1989, there wasn’t much excitement. I wanted to make use of my experience and thus volunteered my services to the military to work in the High-Security Zone in Palaly Jaffna.

I did not want that initial experience to go to waste. I went from the Eastern-front to the Northern-front and then to the Jaffna City first under rebel control and later under military control.

My first journey to the Jaffna High-Security Zone

My first journey to Jaffna was to the High-Security Zone (HSV) in Palaly, Jaffna in late 1989 to treat the soldiers injured in battle in the Jaffna peninsula. That was in aircrafts operated by the Sri Lanka Air Force. Many such journeys were to follow. There was no access from there to the Jaffna city which was virtually under rebel control.

War time journey to Jaffna city under siege by the rebels

The opportunity to visit the city of Jaffna under rebel siege came my way when I was invited to be an examiner for the final year medical students of the Faculty of Medicine in Jaffna. I accepted that invitation with a lot of trepidation and under difficult conditions. But finally, everything worked well, and I performed my task to the satisfaction of all concerned in Jaffna, especially the medical profession in the Faculty of Medicine and the General Hospital, Jaffna. The details of my visit have been published on this website earlier.

Operation Riviresa:  The Battle for Jaffna peninsula

Ealam War 3 was the name given to the third phase of the armed conflict between the Sri Lanka military and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam. Operation Riviresa was a military operation in this phase of the conflict.

In a combined military operation that started on 17th November 1995 and lasted eighteen days (18), the Sri Lanka Army captured the city of Jaffna and the rest of the peninsula. The rebels were driven out to the Wanni beyond Elephant Pass. No doubt there was the displacement of the civilians in Jaffna city as well. Some of them went to Point Pedro. Others went as far as the Wanni going through jungle routes or crossing the Kilali lagoon to avoid the army at the neck of the peninsula- the Elephant Pass Army Camp.

Return of civilians to the city of Jaffna and the easing of travel restrictions

Around six months after the army captured the Jaffna peninsula, the civilians gradually went back to their homes in Jaffna. Conditions were better. There were many check points in the city.

  • There was freedom of movement out of the city along the A9 passing the Elephant Pass camp.
  • The ICRC ship “Flamboyan also continued to operate from Point Pedro Jetty to Trincomalee for the benefit of patients who needed treatment at hospitals in Colombo. Doctors too were afforded this facility.
  • Civilians in Jaffna were also allowed to travel to Colombo in flights operated by the Sri Lanka Air Force. This was with the approval of the Ministry of Defence (MOD). A fee was levied for this purpose and of course, there was a thorough physical and luggage security check. This was understandable when travelling to and from a war zone. Those who could afford made use of this facility as it was less time-consuming.

The transport service from Jaffna to Colombo after 1995

More visits to the High-Security Zone and the Jaffna city

A rare photo shoot on the way to the Palaly Airport.

‘TWO HINDU WORSHIPPERS SUSPENDED FROM METAL SKIN-HOOKS AND CONNECTED TO A CHARIOT BY A CORD DURING A HINDU FESTIVAL WITH THE BELIEF THAT THIS WILL BRING THEM GOOD LUCK AND MAKE THEIR WISHES COME TRUE.’

‘PERHAPS THEY WERE WISHING THAT THE WAR WOULD END SOON AND NORMALCY WOULD RETURN TO JAFFNA!’ THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN THE WISH OF EVERYONE IN SRI LANKA!

I continued my services to the injured soldiers at the Base Hospital, Palaly in the HSZ. At the same time, the ease of travel by air encouraged me to undertake more visits to Jaffna on the invitation of the Director of the Jaffna Hospital and the Dean at the Faculty of Medicine Jaffna to teach medical students whose teaching programme was affected by a lack of teaching staff there. I also performed surgery at the Jaffna Hospital on a few occasions. These were for civilian victims of war.

Since I had worked in the HIGH-SECURITY ZONE, I was permitted to enter this zone from Jaffna city with the permission of the Army. This facility was denied to the citizens of Jaffna for security reasons. This made it possible for me to conduct lectures to the medical staff at the Palaly Base Hospital as well on my visits to Jaffna city to teach medical students. 

With the military takeover of the Jaffna peninsula in late 1995 the conditions in the city of Jaffna slowly improved, although the civilians faced many problems for which solutions could not be found overnight. They adapted to the situation well and carried on their daily chores to the best of their ability.

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 : ‘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’

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9 thoughts on ““Rewarding” journeys and a changing scenery in war-torn Jaffna

  1. Amazing. You should be in the forefront of the present covid operation! With the experience you have, knowledge and devotion the nation will greatly benefit.

  2. What agonies Sri Lankans uderwntn. You have been an angel of mercy. God Bless . God Bless – Godwin Fernando

  3. Your willingness to involve in the “ dual role “ is highly commendable. A valuable lesson to reach out to the other despite differences. A great maxim indeed.
    Keen to hear the psychological aspects , inner scars of war you came across. Those wounds too are in greater need of healing, to prevent recurrences.
    “ Love your enemies do good to those who hate you” said the Lord.
    God bless you

  4. Your intention of going to Jaffna for service in the war-affected North was kindled through your experiences at Polonnaruwa. Thus you got very rare opportunities that no other surgeon in Srilanka had obtained. Rather than an opportunity, it should be considered as a special interest you developed. Thus you had a chance to be familiar with personnel and equipment associated with war and the difficulties that northerners faced then. Thank you. WSP

  5. Your commitment to foster, promote and protect “life and to bring healing” is truly commendable. Clearly you had the respect and trust of “all sides” because of your concern for humanity.
    God bless you

  6. You understood simple facts.
    People were not difficult but they were different.
    Your success is from natural consequences and sincere intentions.
    A true son of the soil.

  7. Dear Dr.Gunathilaka,
    I heard about this blog from your son. I got 1 more blog to read.
    It was an amazing read. So beautifully written.
    I was preschool kid when me and my family moved out of Jaffna in 1990. Poonariyan ferry crossing brought back a few memories.
    Looked at the photos and could identify a few doctors. I was fortunate to have met a few of them when I worked in Jaffna.
    Thank you.

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