By: Indeewara Thilakarathne Date: March 13, 2023
Original Story link from commonwealth union website: https://www.commonwealthunion.com/healing-the-wounded-souls/
In an exclusive interview with the Commonwealthunion, Dr. Gamini Goonatilleke, a Sri Lankan Senior Consultant Surgeon spells out his once-in-a-life time experiences against the backdrop of 30 years of conflict dominated by ruthless terrorism spearheaded by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an elusive separate state to be carved out of the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka.
Question: Your memoirs titled “The Extra Mile” is, invariably, captured one of the tragic eras in the contemporary political history of the nation. This, though tragic, has led to the generation of authentic body of indigenous knowledge in the area of Combat wound and Military Would Care. Your memoirs commence with some noteworthy cases, particularly, the time you spent at Polonnaruwa hospital. How would you revisit those experiences?
Answer – My first appointment as a consultant surgeon in Sri Lanka was to the rural out-post of Polonnaruwa. This was a primitive hospital unlike today with many deficiencies of staff and medical equipment necessary for surgery. For me it was a great challenge. I accepted the challenge and got the ‘wheels turning’ to bring the hospital up to some standard with at least the basic facilities that enabled me to treat my patients in a satisfactory manner.
I encountered many different types of surgical problems which I had never seen before. The wounds of war added to this list later on. As I think of my experiences at Polonnaruwa now, 30 – 40 years later I feel happy and contended that I did my best even under those conditions and was not only able to gather considerable experience but was also able to save many lives during that period of over 6- years. It also taught me to adapt to situations, accept challenges and sheer dedication would bring good results even in the absence of modern technology. The three key words Care, Concern and Compassion are of utmost importance in the practice of my profession. This is something that I learnt when treating especially the rural poor in that region. The experience that I gathered no doubt helped as I matured as a surgeon with time and that experience enabled me to be selected as a surgeon in a prestigious hospital later on.
Q: Attending to the wounds caused by landmines, missiles and ant-personal mines would have been challenging and well as generated new knowledge in Ballistic Would care in Sri Lanka in the context of conflict in the North and the East. How important this unique body of knowledge for budding surgeons in Sri Lanka and abroad?
A: For me this was a learning experience as I as a medical student or a trainee surgeon was neither exposed to such horrific injuries nor taught the principles of war surgery. This is a different specialty altogether and surgeon world over from the time of World War 1 or even before have learnt the basic principles from their own mistakes. Now War surgery is an established specialty practiced by military surgeons. But for me as a civilian surgeon, this was something new and I had to gather knowledge from books and journals relating to their management which I later applied to my patients. This knowledge has now been disseminated to the junior surgeons by way of publications, seminars, symposia and orations. I also feel that this subject should be introduced to the curriculum of medical students. It is necessary for every surgeon to have a basic idea of the correct principles of managing war injuries even in times of peace to treat the occasional victim injured by missiles and explosive devices that they may encounter in their practice which is not uncommon in the world at present. My experiences during the war in Sri Lanka is now published in my book titled THE EXTRA MILE: a surgeon’s experiences which is available for those interested to enhance their knowledge in this subject.
Q: The Good Friday Massacre- 1987 was, perhaps, the first of such massacres you witnessed during the conflict. It was carried out by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) that waged a 30 years of conflict in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka with the objective of carving out a separate independence state of Eelam. Looking back on the tragic history of the conflict, you have realised the sheer futility of war, conflict that incurred huge human cost. As a surgeon, how would you perceive the conflict, revisiting your unique experiences?
A: The Good Friday massacre in Habarana in the North Central province of Sri Lanka was not the first attack of innocent civilians that I witnessed in this region. There were incidents with injury and death of a smaller number of Sinhala villagers living in the areas bordering the Eastern Province who were attacked to drive them away to carve out the separate state of Tamil Ealam.
The victims were treated at the Base Hospital, Polonnaruwa where I was the only surgeon. The attack of unarmed innocent men, women and children can in no way be justified to achieve the goals of a terrorist group. The problems of different communities living in one country or wars between countries result in so many problems and the best way to sort out these issues would in my opinion be by discussion, consultation and consensus facilitated, if necessary, by a peace negotiator. If not, the civilians will have to face innumerable problems and the states at war will have to bear this enormous burden which will be difficult for a country recovering from war or conflict.
Q: Rescuing two fishermen in the LTTE’s custody was one of the unthinkable acts at the height of the conflict. This was, perhaps, one of incidents that demonstrates that only an impartial professional could intervene in such a matter and even, was, possible to get fishermen in the rebel custody released on humanitarian grounds. How would you recall these dramatic episodes that led to the release of the two fishermen in the LTTE’s custody?
A: I met the two fishermen taken prisoner by the LTTE when they were in the Jaffna hospital. I visited them in their hospital ward and had a long discussion with them. They were happy as they had met a ‘fellowman’ from their part of the country, the South who could converse in the same language. They were living in fear not knowing what their future would be? They were under the impression that they will be taken back to ‘prison’ once they are cured of their illnesses. They had no hope of returning home and wanted me to intervene on their behalf which I assured as I left them the first day.
I had to wait till I finished my duties as an examiner and then obtain the help of the doctors with whom I had established a good rapport by then. They could be released only on orders of the leader, and I was of the opinion that the doctors some contact with him as LTTE cadres injured in conflict were treated by them in the Jaffna hospital. That did not work out. Then I appealed to the Head of the ICRC in Jaffna whom I had come to know by then. But that too was not certain, but she promised to try on my behalf in return for the service I had rendered in Jaffna for the patients and the students. My request was granted, and they were released to me on the day of our departure to Colombo and we travelled together. This is an unforgettable incident in my life!
Q: The time you spent in Jaffna when it was under LTTE’s control was dramatic as well as historic given the fact that you were the only Sinhalese medical doctor visited the North as an external examiner of the medical student. How could you compare the life in Jaffna then and the life that people led in the South and the unwanted hardships that people of the North and East underwent during the conflict years?
A: There were many problems for the people living in Jaffna. They could not get out of Jaffna. This was due to lack of transport and the laws imposed by the LTTE. Diesel and petrol were in short supply. Kerosene was available but limited in quantity and expensive. There was a complete black out. The source of light in homes was by the use of kerosene oil lamps. There was also a short supply of some food items which had to be obtained from the South by ship. The hospital too lacked staff and so was the university. Schools were functioning as before because education was given top priority always.
People adopted to lack of fuel by travelling by cycle of which there were many on the roads at all times including the night. People were not living in fear but obeyed the rules and regulations of the LTTE including the payment of taxes. The beauty of it all was that the people adopted to live under trying conditions without complaining which people in the South would not do if exposed to the same conditions (as we see sometimes now).
Q: The return journey to Colombo was challenging given the trying circumstances of your departure by a Ship. How would you recall that?
A: I travelled to Jaffna on November 16 and reached my destination the next day. Since leaving I could not establish contact with my wife and children as the telecom lines were destroyed. Although my departure to Colombo was fixed for November 25, it did not happen as the ICRC ship did not arrive at the Point Pedro jetty. It was the next day. Then came the announcement by the ICRC that the ship will not sail to Point Pedro in view of the North- East monsoon that had set in. That would have been in January the next year. I was wondering how I could get back home.
I was depressed as I felt I would have had to spend time in Jaffna without an end in sight. What would have been the reaction of my family? It was in this scenario that I appealed to the ICRC to help me to travel to Colombo by some means. They contacted the Military in Jaffna. But they could not help as a helicopter could not land in Jaffna under rebel control. They were fortunate to contact the captain of a merchant ship sailing to KKS port with goods for the people of Jaffna. He agreed to take us to KKS but there was a problem. The ship could not berth in the Jetty but could anchor in mid sea about one km from the jetty.
We had to travel by motorboat to the ship and then move into the deck of the ship by hanging on to a rope ladder. We were given the option of traveling to KKS this way although risky. I together with the two fishermen liberated from LTTE custody agreed to this as there was no other way of going home. The challenge was accepted and with adrenalin levels in my body reaching sky high I went through the ordeal. IT WAS A DO OR DIE ATTEMPT! Following my return home, I had nightmares for several weeks. However, I must admit that if I am asked to perform this task once again, I will fail and drown in mid sea.
Q: You received accolades for your service, and you also had the rare privilege of delivering Dr. V.T Pasupathy memorial lecture. While recalling such pleasant memories, what are the hard lessons that we should learn from the past to secure a peaceful and prosperous nation for the future generations to come?
A: The thirty-year war in our country brought about divisions along racial lines. We experienced terrorism never seen before. There was loss of trust between communities, and it was during this time that I was invited to rebel held territory in Jaffna. I accepted the challenge and went there for a humanitarian cause. I was fearful at first, but that fear disappeared soon as I mingled with people of another community. They accepted me as a true friend and one of their own. To reciprocate for my gesture of good will in helping the students of the medical faculty in Jaffna, the Medical Association in Jaffna (JMA) invited me to deliver the prestigious Dr V T Pasupathy Oration- the first doctor from the south to be invited to deliver this oration. In fact, it was that same year (1999) that they resumed the activities of the JMA after a lapse of 16 years.
We are divided along racial lines. This has been made worse by politicians and political parties based on ethnicity. Reconciliation can be achieved not by hatred but by love and forgiveness. I feel this can be achieved not by politicians but by non- politicians.
Reconciliation and respect for each other should start at grass root level. Trust among communities can be established by simple meeting of people of communities both in the South and the North. This is what I together with a group of people including a priest from Polonnaruwa tried to establish by visiting and living with them in Jaffna. Reciprocal visits were to follow, but the resumption of fighting between the two factions prevented such meetings. We must not use the word RACE, but we should all be treated as citizens of one nation one country as Sri Lankans. Political parties based on ethnic lines should be de-registered. Truth, Justice and equality are the key words in my opinion.
Inquiries about the book ‘The Extra Mile’, Contact: Dr Gamini Goonetilleke, Phone +94777 794107
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