The heartbreaking Damilvany Gnanakumar story is one many yet to be told. She was released recently from a Sri Lankan concentration camp. I would imagine for a hefty sum of money. These SL Government‘s acts of mercy does not come cheap nowadays.
For those four months, the 25-year-old British graduate was imprisoned behind razor wire inside the Sri Lanka’s grim internment camps, home to nearly 300,000 people.
The last time she publicly spoke about the conflict was from the hospital where she was working inside the ever-shrinking war zone in Sri Lanka’s north-east. Then, the Sri Lankan army had surrounded the small sliver of land where the remnants of the Tamil Tiger guerrillas held out and where hundreds of thousands of civilians had taken refuge. She had been in despair: a shell had just struck the hospital and dozens were dead. “At the moment, it is like hell,” she said then.
The young mother was standing by the side of the road, clutching her baby.
The baby was dead.
Damilvany Gnanakumar watched as she tried to make a decision. Around them, thousands of people were picking their way between bodies strewn across the road, desperate to escape the fighting all around them. “The mother couldn’t bring the dead body and she doesn’t want to leave it as well. She was standing … holding the baby. She didn’t know what to do …
At the end, because of the shell bombing and people rushing – there were thousands and thousands of people, they were rushing in and pushing everyone – she just had to leave the baby at the side of the road, she had to leave the body there and come, she had no choice.
And I was thinking in my mind ‘What have these people done wrong?
Why are they going through this, why is the international government not speaking up for them? I’m still asking.” Gnanakumar was one of a small group of medics treating the wounded and providing a running commentary to the outside world from behind the lines. For months she had managed to stay alive while around her thousands died.
At night, she lived in bunkers dug in the sand. During the day, she helped in the makeshift hospitals, dodging the shells and the bullets, tending the wounded and the dying, as the doctors tried to operate with butchers’ knives and watered-down anesthetic. Now her damning account provides a powerful rebuke to the claims of the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, that the defeat of the Tamil Tigers was achieved without the spilling of a drop of civilian blood.
Usually the Sri Lanka government’s ground forces, done regular air raids by air force Kfir jets. But in early January artillery barrages began, forcing the population to move. That was when the reality of the war hit Gnanakumar for the first time. “It was raining and … you could see everywhere on the road the blood is running with the water and the bodies were left there because there was no-one to identify who was dead and who is alive, the bodies were just laid down on the floor and that’s the first time I saw dead bodies and wounded people crying out, shouting.”
Wherever they stopped, they built a bunker, digging down until they could stand up in the hole, cutting down palm branches and laying them across the top for a roof and packing sandbags on the top and around the sides.
As the frontline advanced, trapping as many as 300,000 people inside a shrinking enclave of LTTE-held land, Gnanakumar went to the makeshift government hospital, which had moved into a former primary school, and volunteered to help, dressing wounds and administering first aid. As the fighting intensified, they were treating as many as 500 people every day in two rooms. “They had a shortage of medicine but they had to somehow save the people. The last two weeks or so there was a shortage of everything.” With replacement blood running out, she had to filter what she could from the patients through a cloth before feeding it back into their veins.
When the anaesthetics ran short, they diluted them with distilled water. “I watched when there was a six-year-old boy,” she said. “They had to take off the leg and also the arm, but they didn’t have proper equipment, they just had a knife that the butchers use to cut the meat, and we have to use that to take off his leg and arm. He cried and cried.”
As the army closed in, it got worse.
“People were running and running to get them safe away from the shell bombing, but they couldn’t and it came to a point where we thought we are all going to die, there is no way we can be safe anymore here, but we just have to take it. I mean, you can’t get out of the shell-bombing. I didn’t think that I would be alive and I would be here now. I said OK, I’m going to die, that is the end of it. “One day I was inside the [operating] theatre and the next room was bombed. We had a lot of the treated people left in the room for the doctors to go and monitor and they all died in that shell bomb. And they [the Sri Lankan forces] again bombed the hospital and one of the doctors died in that.” Inside the hospital, there was no respite.
Gnanakumar could not take any more. On 13 May the hospital had been hit, killing about 50 people. “The bunker right next to ours had a shell on top of it and there were six people in the same family died and three were wounded. “I saw them … suddenly I start hearing people are crying out and I thought, it has to be somewhere really close … I came out of my tent and I saw blood everywhere and the people – I couldn’t even imagine that place, there was blood and then the bodies were into pieces everywhere . In the last five days, she says, she believes about 20,000 people died. The UN has acknowledged the true death toll may never be known.