In the 1980s and 1990s, Sri Lanka was torn apart
by a bloody civil war. The Tamil Tigers in the south and JVP
in the north separately fought against the government.
From the author of The English Patient, Michael Ondaatjes
Anils Ghost is a fictional account of this period.
The protagonist, Anil Tissera, returns to her native Sri Lanka
after 15 years away. She comes back as part of an international
human rights fact-finding mission, and soon discovers that the
killing, secrecy and atrocities are emerging from all sides.
Some passages from Anils Ghost are excerpted below.
THERE HAD BEEN CONTINUAL EMERGENCY from 1983 onwards,
racial attacks and political killings. The terrorism of the
separatist guerrilla groups, who were fighting for a homeland
in the north. The insurrection of the insurgents in the south,
against the government. The counterterrorism of the special
forces against both of them. The disposal of bodies by fire.
The disposal of bodies in rivers or the sea. The hiding and
then reburial of corpses.
It was a Hundred Years' War with modern weaponry, and backers
on the sidelines in safe countries, a war sponsored by gun-
and drug-runners. It became evident that political enemies were
secretly joined in financial arms deals. 'The reason for
war was war.'...
A FEARFUL NATION, public sorrow was stamped down by the
climate of uncertainty. If a father protested a son's death,
it was feared another family member would be killed. If people
you knew disappeared, there was a chance they might stay alive
if you did not cause trouble. This was the scarring psychosis
in the country. Death, loss, was 'unfinished,' so you could
not walk through it. There had been years of night visitations,
kidnappings or murders in broad daylight. The only chance was
that the creatures who fought would consume themselves. All
that was left of law was a belief in an eventual revenge towards
those who had power. ...
A BOMB WENT OFF in a public place, Gamini stood at the entrance
of the hospital, the funnel of the triage, and categorized the
incoming victims, quickly assessing the state of each person--sending
them to Intensive Care or to the operating theatre. This time
there were women too, because it had been a street bomb. All
survivors in the outer circle of the explosion came in within
the hour. The doctors didn't use names. Tags were put on the
right wrist, or on a right foot if there was no arm. Red for
Neuro, green for Orthopaedic, yellow for Surgery. No profession
or race. He liked it this way. Names were recorded later if
the survivors could speak, in case they died. Ten cc's of sample
blood were taken from each of the patients and attached to their
mattresses, along with disposable needles that would be reused
if they were needed.
The triage separated the dying from those who needed immediate
surgery and those who could wait; the dying were given morphine
tablets so time would not be spent on them. Distinguishing the
others was more difficult. Street bombs, usually containing
nails or ball bearings, could cut open an abdomen fifty yards
from the explosion. Shock waves travelled past someone and the
suction could rupture the stomach. 'Something happened to my
stomach,' a woman would say, fearing she had been cut open by
bomb metal, while in fact her stomach had flipped over from
the force of passing air.
Everyone was emotionally shattered by a public bomb. Months
later survivors would come into the ward saying they feared
they might still die. For those on the periphery, the shrapnel
and fragments that flew through their bodies, magically not
touching any vital organs, were harmless because the heat of
the explosion would sterilize the shrapnel. But what did harm
was the emotional shock. And there was deafness or semi-deafness,
depending on which way one's head was turned on the street that
day. Few could afford to have an eardrum reconstructed.
In these times of crisis junior staff members did the work of
orthopaedic surgeons. Roads to larger medical centres were often
closed because of mines, and helicopters were unable to travel
in darkness. So all versions of trauma, all versions of burns,
surrounded the trainees. There were only four neurosurgeons
in the country: two brain surgeons in Colombo, one in Kandy
and one in the private sector--but he had been kidnapped a few
Meanwhile, far away in the south, there were other interruptions.
Insurgents entered the Ward Place Hospital in Colombo and killed
a doctor and two of his assistants. They had come looking for
one patient. 'Where is so and so?' they had asked. 'I don't
know.' There was bedlam. After finding the patient, they pulled
out long knives and cut him to pieces. Then they threatened
the nurses and demanded they not come to work anymore. The next
day the nurses returned, not in uniforms but in frocks and slippers.
There were gunmen on the roof of the hospital. There were informers
everywhere. But the Ward Place Hospital remained open. ...
'WE HAVE SEEN SO MANY HEADS stuck on poles here, these
last few years. It was at its worst a couple of years ago. You'd
see them in the early mornings, somebody's night work, before
the families heard about them and came and removed them and
took them home. Wrapping them in their shirts or just cradling
them. Someone's son. These were blows to the heart. There was
only one thing worse. That was when a family member simply disappeared
and there was no sighting or evidence of his existence or his
death. In 1989, forty-six students attending school in Ratnapura
district and some of the staff who worked there disappeared.
The vehicles that picked them up had no number plates. A yellow
Lancer had been seen at the army camp and was recognized during
the roundup. This was at the height of the campaign to wipe
out insurgent rebels and their sympathizers in the villages.
Ananda's wife, Sirissa, disappeared at that time.' ...
BODIES WASHED IN onto the shore, the combers throwing them
onto the beaches. On the Matara coast, or at Wellawatta, or
by St. Thomas's College in Mount Lavinia where they, Sarath
and Gamini, had learned to swim as children. These were the
victims of politically motivated murders--victims of torture
in the house at Gower Street or a house off the Galle Road--lifted
into the air by helicopter, flown a couple of miles out to sea
and dropped through the fathoms of air. But only a few of these
ever came back as evidence into the arms of the country.
Excerpted from Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje. Copyright
2000. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may
be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from