Traces of War on Their Bodies

“I pour water on my head, when the pain starts”

“I can’t carry heavy things for a long time. My chest begins to ache.”

“On some days, I don’t have a fit. Sometimes I have them twice or thrice a day.”

“They say that if I was talking to you in the sun, I would be talking differently.”

“I can’t stand in the sun; my eyesight dims. I feel dizzy, I feel numb.”

“The ache starts in that area, and my whole hand becomes numb.”

None of these people fell from climbing a tree. They did not meet with an accident. They were not born with physical disabilities. These are people whose daily struggles come from witnessing and being trapped in the middle of a war that lasted three decades. These are people who think that it would have been better for them to die when they were injured, instead of living in hell everyday.

Many of the people who were affected by war in the North and East of Sri Lanka continue to live with the metal shrapnel from deadly weapons lodged in their bodies. They live with daily pain, humiliation, and frustration.

Ravi says the shrapnel causes him unbearable pain whenever he prays, but due to the poverty he lives in, he is unable to have it removed. Sixteen-year-old Akalvizhi says that the doctor advised her that removing the metal shrapnel from her body could be life threatening.

Maatram traveled to Mullaitivu to meet 10 people including Akalvizhi, whose head was injured when she was six years old; a former combatant who was injured at the battlefront; and a mother who lost her daughter in a shell attack, but continues to live with the remnants of that shell in her body.

“No, she does not go to school. Because of the head injury, she gets fits frequently. This year she has to sit for her Ordinary Level exams. What do I do?

She was injured in March 2009 in Puthumathalan. She was 6 years old at that time. It was afternoon. We were living in a temporary hut. We did not hear any sounds of shelling or rounds where we were staying, but we heard sounds far away. My daughter fell, suddenly. I did not know what happened or what was happening. I later realised that she was injured in the head. The piece of shrapnel had gone through the back of her head, and the area near her ear was swollen. I immediately carried her and ran to the temporary hospital nearby. The doctor said that she should be operated immediately, but there was no medicine.

I do not remember what I did or how I did it. I somehow came to the military-controlled area and treated her at the camp. They took us to Vavuniya immediately. The Chief Doctor who inspected her told us to take her to Kandy as soon as possible. We treated her for two months in Kandy.

She opened her eyes after four days. She started to speak after 20 days. They injected her thrice a day and gave her saline as well. The doctor finally said that they cannot operate her as it would affect her nerves.

She was fine for a few days after coming home. Then, she started getting fits. On some days she has two or three fits a day, and on some days she does not get them at all. Now I take her to the Mallakam hospital every month, where they give tablets for the fits.

Now they say that she should have an operation abroad, that it would cost Rs. 800,000 – 900,000 for this procedure. I work in the fields. Only my eldest son is doing a job, the other three children are studying. Where do I go for this amount of money?”
“I did not have pain for some time. But, I went out to sea a couple of days ago. My hand became numb and I could not pull the net on my own. I somehow managed to come back.

There is shrapnel lodged in both my hands from when I was injured in 1994. I received treatment for it at the time, but I did not remove the pieces. Two fingers of my right hand were not functioning, and I cured them by doing specific exercises using a ball. However, there are still pellets within my hand. There is nothing I can do to change this.

I feel immense pain because of the piece of shrapnel lodged in my left shoulder. I showed it to the hospital. On checking the X-Ray, they said they cannot remove it. They say that my hand will be numb, or even paralysed, if they remove it. On some occasions when I feel pain in my shoulder, my arm becomes numb and I cannot move it at all. It is my wife who helps to bring it back to normal, by applying oil and massaging it. It does not happen all the time, but when it does, I need someone to help me.

Once, when I was at sea, my arm became immobile and stiff. I could not do anything. I could not pull the net or turn the boat. I was alone for three to four hours. I survived because some fishermen from my villages happened to also be out fishing that day, and we crossed lanes.

Another time, I was at the top of a coconut tree when my left arm got stiff and immobile. I could not do anything. I could not climb down the tree as well or jump from that height. A person who was at a house nearby climbed up the tree, tied me to a rope and helped me down.

There have been many instances like these. If I do not work because of these incidents, what do I do for the education of my children? I have to make a credit payment of Rs. 50,000 for kerosene for the past two months alone. I can only repay it if I continue to catch fish.

I have never thought what would happen because of this piece of shrapnel inside me. I want to be happy with my children as long as I live.”
“I was a combatant in the movement [a reference to the LTTE]. I joined because I had three sisters in my family. I was injured during a battle in 1997. There is a piece of shrapnel at the back of my head, and more in my chest and hand.

Doctors refused to operate to remove it, saying that it would damage my brain. Even now, I don’t have any intention of removing it. I fear that there will not be anyone to look after my 4 children if something happens to me when I am operated. Let it stay there.

Initially, the pain was not severe. But I would feel dizzy if I stood in the sun. Once, I fell really ill when I was hit on the head while working.

It worsened after I returned from detention. Now I cannot lift heavy things and run around as I did before, I feel tired.

While in the camp for the displaced, I informed the CID of the fact that I fought for the LTTE. After some questioning, they let me go, instructing me to come and sign every month. Suddenly, someone claiming to be from the TID came to question me further. They took me with them saying that I will be allowed to come back in one day. They only allowed me to leave after four years.

Those four years were torture for me. My white shirt was completely soaked in blood. I brought that shirt back. There would be black bruises near my chest. He would stab me with a pen while interrogating me. I don’t have nails in two of my toes. He stepped on my bare feet with his shoe while I stood on a cement floor. I don’t know whether what’s happening to me now is because of all this.

They say that if I was talking to you in the sun, I would be talking differently. I don’t know. A lot of people have told me this. I go to the lake, to fish, at 6 in the evening and return by 5 in the morning. I will have to rest in bed for two weeks if I get really wet in the rain, as my head feels heavy. I don’t go out as it would bring other complications. Therefore, I don’t go out anywhere. I only go to the lake and then head back home.

I have two cows, and we live by selling the milk from these cows. On the days we fish, we might sometimes earn Rs. 200 and on some days, Rs. 2000. There have been days when we have brought home Rs. 100.

I never received any aid or compensation because I was a former combatant. My wife is everything to me, and she somehow manages with the money I bring.”
“I was injured in Mullivaikkal when we were displaced in 2009, when a piece of shrapnel from a shell pierced through my spine. We could not do any treatment for one week as we were constantly on the move.

Finally, we held on to our lives and reached the military-controlled area, where I was able to get treatment and medication. Once they checked my wound, they said they could remove the shrapnel if the wound was fresh. They did not remove one piece since a liquid had started to ooze out of the wound. They gave me medicine saying that the piece would eventually come out.

I could not walk for three months, my wife and sister used to carry me everywhere. I started walking normally once the wound healed. After resettlement, I was the one who did the farming and helped build a house for us. I did not feel any pain at that time, just a numbness in my leg. A week after we finished the house, I found myself in unbearable pain. I cannot describe that in words. Finally, I went to the Kilinochchi hospital in 2015, unable to bear the pain.

A doctor checked on me at the hospital. He injected my spine twice, and said the pain would reduce and I would feel better. But the pain only increased. He kept saying that we will operate later, and suddenly, he was transferred to another hospital. The new doctor asked me to bring all my family members to the hospital, where he said that there was a chance I would be paralysed if I had an operation. That scared my wife, and fearing that something would happen to me, she said that we shouldn’t operate.

I have been inside the house for three years. Either my wife or my sister has to help me, as I cannot do anything on my own. How many days can I stay like this? I had the desire to get up and walk. I thought to myself ‘whatever has to happen, will happen’ and went to the Jaffna hospital. They ask me to come to the clinic continuously.

Both my children are schooling. My wife is the only one who works, she does everything from farming, bathing the cows, cleaning the stable, and clearing the cow dung. I feel sorry for her, because I cannot help her in any way. I go to Jaffna using the money which she brings home.

I was asked to come for a blood and urine check on January 27th 2019. The doctor said that the operation can be performed that day itself and asked me to be ready. I immediately called my younger sister and informed her. Four doctors operated on me for five and a half hours. I opened my eyes after around seven hours. I was at hospital for four days.

I am not healed completely. Doctors have asked me not to bend down. However, we don’t have the necessary toilet facilities to make this easy, so I use a chair for that purpose. I don’t need any help, I will somehow manage this situation as well.

We handed over two of my brothers and my brother-in-law to the military. We would be grateful if you could help us locate them.”
“I think it was in 2009 in Pachchaipulmottai. Our entire family was being constantly displaced. There was shelling from all sides.

We could not figure from where the rounds were coming from. We then heard a thundering noise very near to us. That’s all I remember. That was the time I was injured. Even though it was not a serious injury, pieces of shrapnel had gone into my chest and thigh.

Up until now, I have gone to get medicine only twice. They asked me to come for an operation once the piece stabilises in one place. Sometimes, the piece in my chest remains in one place for a long time. However, even if I decide to go, my heart stops me from going. If something happens to me during the operation, who will look after my family? Therefore, I decided to bear the pain somehow and work as long as I live.

I work odd jobs in the fields, building houses, and work in the temple. I also know how to drive a tractor. However, I cannot carry heavy things and work for a long time. If I do, then I get a sharp pain in my chest. My leg also hurts. I can’t stand in the sun for a long time.

My father died in 2010, in an accident that took place when my father was digging a well. I have one younger brother, four younger sisters and my mother to look after. My youngest sister and brother cannot talk.

I am the only one who is working. The entire family will have to be without food if I go to get medicine, and do not go to work for one day. How can I go for an operation in this situation?"
“I was injured when we were displaced to Suthanthirapuram in 2008. A piece of shrapnel from a shell was lodged in my forehead.

We moved into the military-held area after that injury, from where I was taken to Vavuniya and then to Anuradhapura immediately. Having examined the scan reports, doctors said they could not remove the piece.

I was alright for a few days after being resettled, but I began to get fits afterwards and I suffered a lot. By God’s grace, I have not got fits for the past two years. I cannot work in the sun, as I get a sharp piercing pain in my head. They say that I talk nonsense. Therefore, I pour water on my head the moment I get the piercing pain, or else I sit in the shade for a little while. Who would want to give me work in this situation? Would they pay us if we do not work? Later, I sold ice palam using a bicycle, that too only for a few days. I could not bear the heat even if I wore caps, so I stopped that as well. It was only recently that I got a job in a company, and I have been working there for the past two months.

All three of my children are going to school. The salary I get paid is inadequate. My wife goes to the seaside to tie the fishing nets. If they catch fish, she would be given some fish for curry, and Rs. 200 to 300, or else we get nothing.

Her elderly parents also live with us, so we have to look after them as well. We have started collecting old rounds (bullets) and selling them since we did not have enough income. We check each old bunker from 3pm to 6.30pm, scrape and dig the soil like dogs to unearth rounds, and pick them up. We collect them and give them to the scrap metal shop every week. The shop owner buys a kilogram of the metal from us for a mere Rs. 20. We are managing with the money that we get from that as well. Picking up rounds is dangerous work, we know, but we need to eat somehow. It is only my wife and I who go. We never take our children.

The thought of removing this piece in my head has never occurred to me, that is why I never went for a checkup anywhere else. If I do go, then the entire day would be spent on that. Feeding my children is more important for me than that.”
“March 6, 2009. I still remember. How can I forget the day that my daughter went to be with God, right in front of my eyes? My entire body trembles whenever I think of that day.

We were being displaced, and we were in a huge crowd. If we were walking somewhere here, my daughter was walking at a distance where that tree is. Suddenly, we hear a very loud noise. I felt something on my feet. I could hear the cries of people ahead of me, but I could not stand up. I was worried because my daughter was walking at the front. I dragged my injured leg and crawled forward between the people, and there I saw her, lying motionless. I knew at that moment that she had gone to be with God.

She was the only daughter I had.

The pain in my leg from the wound remains to this day, just as the pain in my heart. I never knew there was a piece of shrapnel lodged in my limb - the pain has only been there for the past year. I went to the Jaffna hospital on my husband’s insistence. The X-ray showed one big piece of shrapnel, and about five to six small shards. The doctors said these cannot be removed as they are lodged inside my bones.

I cannot walk properly, and I get a sharp pain in my leg as soon as I walk a little distance. The pain increases when the sunlight and heat intensifies, and sometimes I cannot sleep because of the pain. Therefore, I do not travel much.

My husband drives a three wheeler, and we depend on the income he earns through driving.”
“I was injured during the final phase of the war in Mathalan. A piece of metal pierced the back of my neck. My right hand and leg started going immobile even before we could reach the area controlled by the military.

They took me to Vavuniya as soon as I reached the camp. They sent me to Kandy after checking me there. I was treated in Kandy for almost a month. What was the point of the treatment? My right hand and leg were not cured. I can, at least, move my right leg a bit, but I cannot move even a finger in my hand. I have wondered whether there is any point in living like this. It was very difficult. Non-governmental organisations have provided me with some help, but nothing has come from the State.

I cannot do any job properly. Even then, I go to the beach and ask for jobs purely because I need to ensure the future of my children. They only call me to tie the fishing net, for which I’m given around Rs. 200 to 300 per day. Sometimes, I might be given a fish to take home.

Once, I went to the Jaffna hospital for checkup. Upon examining the X-ray, doctors said they cannot remove the piece as it is lodged into a nerve; they said I would be paralysed for the second time if I removed it. So I left it at that.

Now I go to the clinic at Mancholai hospital. They give me medicine to treat the muscle pain, but sometimes they only give me Panadol. Therefore, I do not go there during certain months."
“There is a set of rounds lodged between my left shoulder and the chest, and I cannot lift this hand. There are pellets lodged in my leg, I can feel them when I touch them. I seem to look like a normal human being. But I cannot do anything.

It has been nearly 20 years since I got injured, and I have faced many problems because of this. Even though I have thought about removing them from my body, I decided against it for fear that it could cause some complications. Who will look after my wife and children if something happens to me tomorrow?

In addition, I will need a lot of money to remove the pieces from my body while here we are, not having enough money to eat. We have to work each day if we are to eat every day. You can see that I am not in a position to even fix the fence around the house, and the cows in the village are coming into the garden. These cows graze whatever little crop we have. Fixing the fence would not cost much; we can cut some trees for the fence, but we need to buy barbed wire. More than that, I will have to stay at home that entire day without going for work. How would we find food for that day?

It is the same situation if I go to get medicines, therefore, I do not go to the hospital for this reason, but now I feel that I have to go. I cannot wait in the sun as I used to; I get a headache, I feel dizzy, so I just sit down immediately.

I am also not in a mindset to go and ask for help from others. I will live with whatever I have.”
“I am a mason, but I don’t work much. I can’t stand in the sun as I have a piece of shrapnel lodged inside my head. My eyesight dims, I feel dizzy, and I feel numb.

I have therefore stopped mason work and now I go fishing. I go to the lake in the evening and return in the morning. Sometimes I cannot remain in one place if it is too cold. I sometimes feel like removing my head and keeping it elsewhere. I sometimes get angry if anyone speaks to me.

I was injured when we were being displaced in 2009. I only went to the camp for the displaced and then took medicine from the Vavuniya hospital, I never went anywhere else after that. I think removing that piece would relieve me of pain, but I do not have the facilities to do it. I have to go to Mallakam, I will have to get X-rays as well.

All three of my children are studying. My wife cannot work, as she has fractured her arm after a fall. We need to remove the plate in her arm. We are already late in doing this. She cannot do anything until then. Having thought about all of these issues, I still do some work as a mason, as soon as I return from the lake.

I am compelled to work , rain or sunshine. What else can I do? Our time here will end soon, and we have to educate our children."

Produced by Maatram

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