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Sunday, 24 April 2011

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Great humanitarian mission

A medical officer's perspective:

It was nearly two years ago that brave men of Sri Lankan Forces made this island nation free from terrorism and its skeletal remains.

In the raging battle between life and death, the human rescue mission carried out by the Forces could be a unique feat in the annals of military history. The great victory once roundly praised by the world now faces a debacle with an uncertain future.

Rescuing innocent civilians from the iron grip of the Tigers is not just bringing them to the other side of the land or making safe passages for them to escape. Vehicles to transport them needed to be arranged. Huge quantities of food had to be provided for them in addition to the responsible task of feeding thousands of officers and soldiers of the Army.

Considerable resources were essential and a continuous supply chain had to be maintained. All these happened while intense fighting continued in the Forward Defence Lines which heavily demanded arms and ammunition, food, water, medicine, casualty evacuation etc.

In a backdrop where battalions of allegations on a humanitarian mission are made against a sovereign state, taking the entire world back on the time tunnel could be ideal yet impossible. But for those who-eye witnessed chapter by chapter the entire episode of the past, remains more alive than the present.

To Dr. Vijith Gunasekara, service at the Pulmoddai ad-hoc health centre in 2009 during the height of the war was a unique experience that made a turning point in his career. Our job responsibility was to give proper medical care for the patients who were ferried to safety from the North and the East, said Dr. Gunasekara as he started relating his experience. By around end February 2009 sick and injured stranded in the No Fire Zone were transferred to proper medical facilities established at Pulmoddai by the Ministry of Health. I joined the crew as the coordinating officer of the Pulmoddai ad hoc hospital during the initial stages where people came in large numbers for variety of medical needs. By the time the Health Ministry asked me to take the position I was the Deputy Director at the Lady Ridgway Hospital in Colombo," Gunasekara said.

According to Gunesekara patients have been first brought to Trincomalee and later transferred to the Pollonnaruwa Hospital. Since reaching such a distance from the North takes the precious time of the fatally ill, the Ministry of Health had plans to shift the medical facility more closer to the North to establish a temporary hospital. Parallel to this decision the Indian Government extended their hand to Sri Lanka through medical support by this time assisting the humanitarian mission. With all this the Health Ministry established a temporary hospital with the provided assistance from the Indian medical team. "There was one doctor before me in charge of the facility who basically did a massive job in establishing the centre. And I took over at a time in which a large number of Tamil civilians reached us for medical assistance, he said.

"During the initial few weeks, every other day we receive 125 - 150 patients for treatment. This was both injured patients as well as patients with general ailments and medical conditions such as complicated diabetes, hypertension whom we generally categorise as normal patients," he said. "What we had to do was triage," he explained. Triage is the process of determining the priority of patients' treatments based on the severity of their condition. Based on this categorisation critical patients were sent immediately to other hospitals according to their condition after stabilizing them with first aid. "The medical facility at Pulmoddai was equipped with all the medical essentials and we had a good coordination with the Indian doctors and every case we managed successfully," he added.

"The working environment was very strange. Until five in the evening the beach is silent with few people and when the ship with patients and bystanders reach seas off Pulmuddai the entire set-up change," he added. The dark coloured beach of the Pulmoddai sea starts getting busy with lots of human activities.

The entire crowd, comprising with Navy personnel and International Red Cross employees were getting ready to receive the sick and the wounded rescued from the 'No Fire Zone'.

Mediated by the International Red Cross the helpless civilians are brought to safety by the 'Green Ocean', chartered vessel. Sinhala and Tamil fishermen from Negombo deployed by the International Red Cross, were waiting on the beach until the vessel berthed in the seas off Pulmoddai.

Using their small 'dinghy' boats these men safely transported the Tamil civilians to the beach. Under rough weather conditions bringing the sick and wounded people from the 'Green Ocean' to the shores using small boats definitely needed much courage and grit.

"We had a fleet of 15 - 20 ambulances which were sent by hospitals from other parts of the country on the instructions of the Ministry of Health," the doctor said. In addition buses from Sri Lanka Transport Board and several private owners were always available to transport people to safety.

The Indian medical team of 52 personnel included consultant doctors, doctors, nurses and assisting medical staff and everyday there were ten Sri Lankan doctors along with a large medical staff working throughout 24 hours a day.

The Indian temporary hospital had a fully equipped operating theatre and we managed a blood bank and a doctor from the blood bank was always present, Gunesekara added.

"When the work starts around 5.30 in the evening until next day morning the work goes on," he said. "As the doctor in charge I had to send reports to several authorities by the end of each day," he said further.

"Every higher official responsible contacted me everyday to find out the situation specially the then Secretary to the Ministry Dr. Athula Kahandaliyanage, Director General Health Services Dr. Ajith Mendis, Dr. Wimal Jayantha," he added. Since the Displaced persons were sent to the Welfare Villages in Vavuniya the then Competent Authority for IDP welfare was Major General G.A. Chandrasiri was also made aware of the number of patients.

"At times we even had to take child births and to our greatest satisfaction every incident was a success," he said. "The main problem was communicating," he added. For this the doctors sought the help of villagers who volunteered to assist in this cause.

"A local NGO maintained a large kitchen that provided food for every person who reached the land," he said.

"The entire operation was for just four months and in the latter part the number of people from North and East declined drastically as land areas were opened for the people to reach safely," Gunesekara added. "As medical practitioners it was a one-of-a-kind experience one would rarely get a chance to go through," he said with great satisfaction.

Today working as the Deputy Regional Director in Galle Dr. Gunesekara keeps his unforgettable experience alive not only for him but to prove the humane approach Sri Lanka had towards innocent Tamil civilians who escaped from the iron clutches of LTTE Tigers.

He is one of those credible witnesses for a great humanitarian mission.

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