Dr Susiri Weerasekera: A Man for All Seasons

Michael Roberts

A chance finding of an old article that I had written on “dedicated medical work” on both sides of the battlefront during the last stages of the war brought vibrant memories of Dr Susiri Weerasekera into my mind. Getting to know him well after I visited the Friend-in-Need Society opposite the Gangarama at Colpetty in mid-2010, I can assure all readers that he was a man to have alongside one in adversity. We became warm friends over the years.[1] My admiration for his dedication towards humankind, his industry, patriotism and sagacity is unbounded. He is alive still I believe; but I write in the past tense because he lapsed into a state non compos mentis about two years back and I find it distressing even to seek information on his state of body and mind.

This is a valedictory memorial in several parts.

Dr Weerasekera standing 2nd from right facing us with a visiting dignitary at the FINS buildng

He was a central figure at the working HQ of the Friend-in-Need Society at Colpetty when I visited the place in mid-2010. The visit was an eye-opener. The HQ comprise offices, workshops and hospital wards. FINS services amputees from all parts of the island by producing artificial limbs of the “Jaipur foot” variety and teaching these victims of disease, accident and/or wartime wounds to walk on their mechanical foot or feet.

Needless to say, the Eelam War multiplied the demand for artificial limbs. At times this work embraced the military personnel of the Sri Lankan armed services; but the clientele was largely civilian.[2] My impression is that from 2009-12 (if not longer), Susiri’s team of workers concentrated on servicing the new crop of demands associated with amputees in the IDP camps and among Tiger POWs in their special rehabilitation camps (in addition. of course, to the ‘everyday’ all-island demands).

The FINS workshop and its manager

I have come across two email memorandums where Susiri clarifies some aspects of this work in a highly informative manner. I shall commence with this ITEM and then list the detailed articles where I clarify the work done in Colombo and elsewhere on behalf of amputees by FINS and the parallel services provided by a centre in Jaffna that was financed by other sources – an institution that I was directed to by Susiri.

The expression on my face as one of the Tamil technical aides clarified some dimensions of her work to me in Jaffna serves as an indelible mark of the worth that can be attributed to this branch of medical help. Susiri was not alone; but he was a dynamic and vital cog in a service industry that requires praise and continuing support.

He was not only a working cog. He was a mine of information on many aspects of life in the island and supplied me with (a) vital contacts among those involved in the Manik Farm IDP operations: and (b) valuable pieces of ethnographic information on dimensions of politics and living in Sri Lanka.

EMAIL MEMORANDA from SUSIRI WEERASEKERA, 17 November 2012

ONE

This is the photo of a tent within the Chettikulam IDP camps, taken on 21st  Feb 2010 as we passed it. We were fitting artificial limbs over a 7 month
period. These were not paid jobs as for many NGOs. We spent our own money gladly. In fact in fitting 554 limbs over a 7 months period the Colombo Friend In
Need Society officials like me claimed a total of Rs. 24,000/ only and that was for a couple of trips fuel costs!

You be the judge of why we did that, as many others did for even a longer period. Compare that to some NGO work expenses.

Interestingly, you can easily see the thin barbed wire fences loosely constructed, easily breached, as indeed it was by inmates of adjoining camps, since the number of shops within were few. Please enlarge [the photo …alas misplaced]. This is the time that the famous international media were shouting out ‘ razor edged’ barricades! This is why I went livid at those falsehoods. Falsehoods among many.
jksw

TWO

Sending this to many of you Attached you will see photos of two LTTE doctors with us. [misplaced –to be located] This photo was taken at 2.40pm on 30th November 2009 at the Pompamadu camp for female LTTE detainees. Photo by Mr Karunasena, workshop manager. About 6 months after the hostilities ended.

It is time to highlight the vast multiplicity of 2009 efforts on behalf of the IDPs in the Chettikulam camp. Limb fitting was just a fraction of that whole. Colombo Friend In Need Society was requested by both the Ministry of Health and the Army to help the amputees there.

There were 1300 inmates lolling around within this large University premises. The captain at camp was a pretty young Sinhalese female who seemed much
liked by the girls within. Most were youngish.

Our technicians were busy in the open area beating out Jaipur Limbs.

Though all the females were walking about freely within, we were discouraged from taking photos. The photo is within the building with just one guard at
the entrance to the hall. He peeped in soon after we snapped the photo but I guess he decided to ignore everything. At this the two girls were worried
for our sake, but I assured them that we were quite in control. This gave them confidence in us.

As a doctor I was requested to examine non amputee patients too. This [PHOTOGRAPH] shows two of us with two former female LTTE doctors who gladly helped me examine about 30 patients with wounds and fractures which had all been treated but needed review. The selection of these patients was by the two ‘LTTE doctors’. Knowing English, they translated and also showed a good grasp of surgery.They said they had done tens of amputations by themselves and their competence gave credence to the claim. They had been at it for over a decade. I did not probe too much or record too much. We were so busy.

Within a few hours we were at ease chatting to each other. As for their future I said that as they were in their thirties they could try to be qualified pharmacists in the future. This seemed to please them much, possibly as they may have been very anxious about what would happen to them in their then uncertain future.

A few months later we received cards saying ‘Thank you, you gave us hope’. And so it was, all of them being sent home in a few months more. That thank
you card is enough reward for us. I will trace them to visit their home in Jaffna one day.

****  ****

 Susiri’s Report on the Artificial Limbs Service for IDPS provided by FINS from 8 July 2009 to March 2009 — dated  21st August 2011

Limbs supplied 556.   

Colombo Friend In Need Society- leading artificial limb suppliers in the country since 1985 is situated by the Beira Lake at 171 Sir James Peiris Mawatha. The society supplies about 70 limbs per month, having in its 26 year period of performance served 19,800 amputees all over the country. All prostheses are low cost and of appropriate technology, a combination of rubber foot piece Aluminium shank and, often, plastic socket.

These artificial limbs are all issued free supported by donations from individuals and groups and is completely independent of single large donors from any country. We are completely independent in our decisions.

With a well run Mobile camp unit, Colombo FINS had served 40 plus outstation camps by 2009.  We were the only organisation with adequate infrastrucure and infrastructure to run mobile camps.  We promptly took  up the invitation by the Ministry of Health, in their letter of June 6th 2009,  soon after the war, to help the IDP amputees.

As the war ceased on 19th May 2009, our compatriot doctors were ‘ informed’– wrongly as it turned out to be — that there were thousands and thousands of fresh amputees as a result of the escalated war in the last few months with large numbers of deaths( quote Dr. Panagamuwa of U.K.)

With  Meththa Foundation and the UK Doctors and Dental surgeons who joined up with us to serve the IDPs in the earliest stages, we were able to run our first Mobile Camp at the Govt. Mannar Hospital for two weeks. Working long into the night, we supplied 139 limbs. Most at Mannar camp received foreign components with often adapted local techno. to suit needs.

The support from the hospital staff was tremendous, as was the help from VAROD organization of Mannar.

Soon, large donations from a few individuals and a couple of religious organizations began to come in. I have to make special mention of the doctors, former students of the Jaffna Medical Faculty living in the USA who contributed generously.

These contributions allowed us to serve a total of 556 amputees from 10 ten mobile camps from July 8th 2009 to March 2010. These were at the Vavunia Hospital, Chettikulam IDP welfare villages, LTTE ex-combatant  rehab. Centres for males at Omanthai and for females at Omanthai University premises.

Collectively these constituted 90% of the total IDP population.

The work was tough and in the early stages tinged with anxiety of untoward happenings, going into so far inaccessible or dangerous areas. But the Ministry Of Health and the Defence Ministry were in control of all challenges with the Social Services Dept. too supporting. Locally at these centres we were supported throughout so that the gathering of patients, their welfare, interpreting were all possible due to these organizations helping.                                                     

By June 2009, the Ministry had clear statistics on the numbers of war injured and hospitalised (900+) in IDP regions. The amputees overall were a total of 500+ in the IDP  villages plus  Mannar and Vavunia hospitals, a low figure in reality compared to the thousands ‘estimated’ in the foreign media according to our UK partners.  

Mannar hospital, even with a large bed strength, was the most taxed, with many temporary shelters being erected to cope with ‘normal’ admissions and the war casualties. But all 139 amputees within the Mannar hospital had already been supplied with imported quality crutches. Surprisingly, the 100 wooden crutches we took to donate were not needed by any one, our items being looked down upon by the amputees sporting shiny Aluminium crutches.

Moreover most of the amputees we saw had been supplied limbs, partly by ‘White Pigeons’ set up in Kilinochchi over the previous years. I subsequently met and worked with one of them. Others had been supplied in Jaffna or other places.

Again we were pleasantly surprised, when on camp in Vavunia we were invited by Brig. Napagoda to serve the male ex-combatants at Omanthai. We served 39 of them in a semiclosed/open  camp. The inmates strolled around leisurely in the open ground and we selected the site as we pleased. It was August 2009.  Brig. Napagoda confided ‘ Doctor, we were fighting them in April. Now that is past. We have to win their minds over’. 

I never anticipated or expected such farseeing comment from recently embattled soldiers. They obviously had been educated/enlightened fast– so soon after the event.

We also thank Capt. Lakmali, young energetic, so obviously respected by the 1300 female ex-combatants occupying the North Central province Vavunia university  at Pompamadu who, backed by her superiors, helped us serve 70 amputees. Most of them were ‘old’ amputees- meaning that the injuries were old ones, not related to the last months of the war. The inmates again were free to roam about the large campus, confined loosely by simple fences of what we call ‘kambi’.

I examined about 40 inmates with various injury problems helped by two former female LTTE ‘doctors’ who had a good knowledge of their problems.  Soon the ‘doctors’  were at ease with us, seeing that we were as eager to help as they were to get it. They stated that over the years they had performed hundreds of amputations for the LTTE.

A few weeks later, we received hand crafted ‘Thank you’ cards from the two ladies for ‘giving them hope’.  To us, those words were enough reward!

Yes, hope materialized within a few months.  About 1000 of the females at Pompamadu had been sent out of camp to their homes, according to Capt. Lakmali. Each one carried away the new as well as the old artificial limbs.

Over the 11 months of our work with them, it was borne out that the Ministry figures were dependable about the numbers injured. On our assessments of the total served, majority of amputees did not fall into the category of recently injured.

Where ever and whenever we had dialogue with the IDPs — we had some Tamil staffers who got close to them — there was no hint of army misconduct, let alone mass killings.

On July 8th 2009, less than two months after the war ceased, passing by the Chettikulam camps on the way to Mannar camp, we noticed IDP camps, either western types or local, studding the many Kilometers wayside. Each zone was confined loosely by ‘kambi weta’.  Never did we see any touted ‘ razor wire’ fences. Anybody could have crept through them with ease, but that would have been a walk into the unfriendly desolate open stretches.

There were no queues at any spot visible to us, nor toilet queues. Order was apparent within, and that was more evident when we came in to conduct the subsequent camps at Chettikulam. We did note with some sympathy the soldiers standing single sentinel along the stretching hot road away from his mates and families! And we did not experience any harm to us at all in spite of fears of the unknown, except a couple of flat tyres to the bus in the months of our work.

Dr. Hemantha Herath and Dr. Thushara Ranasinghe of the Colombo Disaster Management Team were essential for our work, and later on as things stabilised Dr. Safras who was left in charge of all IDP villages.

The silver lining from the destructive Tsunami of 2004 was that our doctors of the Disaster Management Team had loads of experience from it and as such were masters at tackling the influx of the 288,000 IDPs.

We were aware and grateful that very many foreign countries had pledged help well before the final phases of the war so money, material and medical help were forthcoming at all stages. 

Since then, within the last year, I and my friends have travelled to Jaffna on two occasions, lived with the people, and found nothing but friendship. Those we engaged in conversation seem to have not faced the problems that far off countries are all too readily concocting.

I have kept in touch with the doctors overlooking the IDP welfare centres, noting that every month the numbers of IDPs kept decreasing, being told that the last 25,000 to 30, 000 IDPs may not wish to leave, the living conditions being a bonanza- food, health, TV, cinema children’s schooling compared what they were used to.

Together with all active participants, we take pride in our help, given in the hour of utmost need, to our brethren, Sri Lankans all.

Dr. J.K.S.Weerasekera FRCS …… Orthopaedic Surgeon, Coordinator  IDP Limb fitting camps Colombo FI ……….Former Senior Orthopaedic Surgeon National Hospital of Sri Lanka

Addenda

Breakdown of data available of amputees served at Mannar Hospital.

8th july to 23rd July.

Mannar hospital had received the heaviest load of injured patients, having over thousand beds and space for temporary camps.

Number of patients examined;                      146

Number of patients fitted with limbs            139

Shell injuries                                                         77

Land mine injuries                                              19

Aerial attack injuries                                          07

Injured  from Jan 1st  2009 till end of war      68

Injured from March 1st 2009  to end              34

Injured from April 1st  2009  to end                18.

The number of recent injuries in the IDP villages were much less though we missed recording dates there and at Vavunia hospital due to  an extremely limited time frame. …………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

**** ****

NB:

Susiri Weerasekera was among “the Resident Doctors of the Lady Ridgeway Hospital in 1965 and is seated third from the left, next to Dr. Patricia Alahakone. Buddy Reid is behind, standing in the middle and on [his left] is Dr. Jeyendran  Gunasekeram  who swam breast stroke for Ceylon.” …. Thanks to Buddy who is in Melbourne now

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY

Susiri Weerasekera 2012 Fitting Artificial Limbs for the IDPs and ex-Tigers, July 2009 to March 2010 — FINS at the frontline,” 23 September 2012, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2012/09/23/7108/ …. being a Report sent to the FINS donors, dated 21 August 2011

Michael Roberts 2010 “Feet across the Land, One and All”: The Vitality of the Colombo Friend-in-Need Society,” 27 May 2010, ………………………. ………………..  https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2010/05/27/%e2%80%9cfeet-across-the-land-one-and-all%e2%80%9d-the-vitality-of-the-colombo-friend-in-need-society/

Michael Roberts 2010 The Jaipur Foot in Lanka: Renewable Energy, Little People, Many Miracles,” 29 June 2010, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2010/06/29/the-jaipur-foot-in-lanka-renewable-energy-little-people-many-miracles/

ALSO NOTE

Michael Roberts 2014 Dedicated Medical Work Amidst the Heat of War, Death and Propaganda: In the Vanni Pocket, 2009,” 8 January 2014, …………… …………………….. https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/dedicated-medical-work-amidst-the-heat-of-war-death-and-propaganda-in-the-vanni-pocket-2009/

Susiri Weerasekera 2014 Hambantota Port: An Occasional Traveller’s Benign View,” 21 April 2014, ……………………………………………………… …………………… https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/hambantota-port-an-occasional-tavellers-benign-view/

END NOTES

[1] During one p working spell in Sri Lanka n the mid-2010s, he turned up at my sister’s house in Wellawatte with some arulu bullu nelli and medicine for my stomach troubles. He was also instrumental in linking me with personnel engaged in dealing with the aftermath of Eelam War IV.

[2] I Suspect that the SL Army, Navy and Air Force usually attend to their own; but one of Susiri’s reports on their ‘filed work in Trincomalee area indicates attending to a few military amputees.

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