Frontline World

Sri Lanka - Living With Terror


Synopsis of "Living with Terror"

34 days in Sri Lanka

Interview and Analysis

Profile of Rajan Hoole


Excerpt from the Novel

Sri Lanka News and Information




Excerpt from Anil's Ghost
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 Ondaatje’s Anil’s 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 Anil’s 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.'...

IN 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. ...

WHENEVER 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 years earlier.

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.' ...

SOMETIMES 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 the publisher.