He looks like any other short dark balding Tamil man, wrapped in a thick fleece against the unfamiliar chill. A political refugee from northern Sri Lanka, now he lives in a tranquil landscape of pine trees and glaciers on the Atlantic Coast. Nobody in his country of refuge knows his past or gives him a second glance but back home patients, who owe him their lives, discretely visit his relatives to offer thanks. For them he’s a hero.
‘Call me Niron: I have to be careful. Any problem caused by me and they will take revenge,’ he says, referring to the Sri Lankan authorities who’ve been questioning his friends to find out where he escaped. ‘They were looking for me…Now they realise our importance as witnesses,’ he explains.
Dr Niron, not his real name, served as a doctor in northern Sri Lanka at the brutal culmination of the civil war in 2009 as the military used scorched earth tactics to crush Tamil insurgents, who in turn used child soldiers and suicide bombers. Though he worked inside rebel-held territory Dr. Niron was employed by the central government whose bureaucracy extended throughout the island.
When the Sri Lankan military drove the Tigers into a tiny pocket of land along the eastern coast, Dr Niron and hundreds of thousands of civilians went with the rebels, unaware that a bloodbath was coming in which the UN would later estimate up to 40,000 people died in just five months. Legal experts for the UN Secretary General later warned that Sri Lanka’s conduct “represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law” though there was evidence that both sides committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Though he had many opportunities to flee, Dr Niron decided his duty was to his patients. He stayed in the war zone even though the government ordered him out and stopped paying his salary.
As the frontline advanced and the population was crammed into a tiny sandy coastal spit, Dr Niron set up makeshift operating theatres in public buildings, homes, tents and then finally under a tree. In January 2009 he was the last person to speak to a young nurse minutes before she stepped into the yard of Uddayarkattu Hospital and was blown to pieces by a shell. She is just one of many colleagues Dr Niron mourns. Two thousand shells fell, he says, in those last ten days in January right inside an area the government had just declared safe for civilians.
There were far too many patients to operate on and life-saving drugs were running short. Normally the central government supplied civilian hospitals inside rebel areas but as the fighting intensified officials became less keen on helping people who might sympathise with the enemy. Dr Niron says all the government sent was paracetamol, allergy tablets, vitamins and a local anesthetic used for dental extraction. There was nothing to treat war wounds, despite desperate appeals from the doctors. A March 2009 Wikileaks cable has diplomats warning the Sri Lankan government that denying medical supplies to injured civilians was unconscionable. When the doctors themselves openly complained they were threatened with disciplinary action for embarrassing the government.
Blood for transfusions ran out. By the end Dr Niron was so desperate to save a sixteen-year-old-girl who needed bowel surgery, that he resorted to donating his own blood before operating. One of his worst memories is treating the survivors of an attack in April 2009 on a queue of women queuing for milk for their babies. In the hospital, he struggled to insert needles for the intravenous drips into the tiny veins of injured toddlers. ‘They were so small the veins would collapse. So we made small incisions and took the vein and put the drip in that way,’ he remembers, still haunted by the sound of those children crying.
As the shelling grew more intense, Dr Niron operated inside a bunker inside a building, reinforced with layers of sturdy palm-tree trunks and sandbags. One day a bomblet flew into the room and lodged itself in the roof. He believes it belonged to a cluster bomb – a weapon the Sri Lankan government denies having used. On another occasion the doctor believes he himself was injured by white phosphorous while in a densely populated civilian area. The initial blast was quite different from usual explosions and the resulting wounds were unlike anything he’d seen in his years in casualty wards.
At first Dr Niron assumed the attacks on his makeshift hospitals were a terrible accident. He had red crosses painted on the roofs of his buildings so they’d be clearly visible from the air. He sent the GPS coordinates of each new hospital to the International Red Cross so they could share the information with the Sri Lankan military. Every time he did this the makeshift hospitals were hit within days, if not hours. Eventually he learned his lesson. There were five smaller hospitals, with no red crosses, whose locations he never passed on. Not a single one of those five buildings was ever hit. Dr Niron concluded that the military were deliberately targeting hospitals. ‘They were attacking purposefully; they wanted to kill as many as possible,’ he says.
His conclusion is borne out by a United Nations report that found that all civilian hospitals on the frontline were systematically shelled by the Sri Lankan government during those months, some even “hit repeatedly, despite the fact that their locations were well-known to the Government”. The authors of the report said that in early February one of the two remaining hospitals in rebel territory was attacked with multi-barreled rocket launchers and artillery for five days in a row while up to 800 patients were inside. Human Rights Watch also documented more than thirty attacks on hospitals in those months. One incoming rocket was even captured on video. International staff from the ICRC were present during an attack on a hospital and called the army six times to warn them their shells were falling dangerously close to the hospital building. They were not given proper access to the war zone again. When the war ended, the ICRC said it had seen a lot of wars, but rarely one where civilians had been so badly affected. It was, they said, an ‘unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe’.
Dr Niron is the only one of his colleagues who managed to evade arrest at the end of the war. Strangely this brave man feels he failed because he abandoned 150 patients under a tree to die on the last day of the war as he ran for his life. He can’t stand the sight of blood anyone and no longer wants to be a doctor. There have even been times when he’s contemplated suicide.
There are other medics and volunteers from the hospitals still emerging from Sri Lanka with testimony that supports the doctor’s account and the findings of lawyers and human rights researchers. But the Sri Lankan government and many of its supporters in the south of the island simply deny any of this happened and blame everything on the Tamil Tiger rebels. It’s a short sighted policy that will hamper any kind of reconciliation or understanding between the different ethnic groups. The trauma for Tamil survivors like Dr Niron is so deep that it’s simply not possible to forgive and forget and move on. At the very least their suffering - unprecedented even by the bloody standards of Sri Lanka’s civil war - needs acknowledging.
Frances Harrison is a former BBC foreign correspondent based in Sri Lanka. Her book of accounts of survivors from Sri Lanka’s civil war “Still Counting the Dead” is published today (Oct 4 2012) in the UK and online in ebook form by Portobello Books.
Read openSecurity's series Is Reconciliation Possible in Sri Lanka?