Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Australian Professor Talks of His Experiences

Teaching & Working in Tamil Eelam

by Eelam Nation, December 28, 2006

I told them that I was a Christian, and I believed in 'Agape,' a god of love. I said that I had difficulty in understanding how there could be a god of love and at the same time, such suffering and injustice. Nevertheless, I said to them then, and I will repeat this to you tonight, it is my prayer that the god of love will bless these people and this homeland. I don’t mean simple love, I don't mean a love of benevolence. That love, of course, contains a backbone of justice.

At a recent presentation of the Australian Medical Foundation at the Parramatta campus of the University of Western Sydney, Miss Yathugiri Logathassan invited the professor to make the presentation.

Professor John Whitehall is Director of Neonatology at the Townsville Hospital, North Queensland. He is a paediatrician who graduated from Sydney University and has worked in a number of developing countries. Most recently, he spent five months in Sri Lanka, where he hopes to return with post-graduate students of Tropical Paediatrics, which he teaches in the School of Public Health at James Cook University. John is married with six grown children and is a member of a Baptist Church.

Professor Whitehall said:

Thank you very much for your invitation this evening. That's an exaggeration that I would have some understanding. I have only been in Sri Lanka for about six months in the last two years. Therefore, I count myself merely as a beginner in the understanding of the complexity of it. Nevertheless, my experiences have been profound. I commend you on the Fred Hollows initiative. One of the saddest moments of my life, in fact, was spent on a little school for the deaf and the blind. It's on the road from Killinochchi to Mullaitheevu. I had called in to see some children and they were worried. One of them was blind as he had a tumour in his eye and he was in pain. We had done something, and I had called back in a few days later to see how he was going. In the meantime, the generator had exploded and the place was in complete darkness and all we had to look at his eye was a little torch. So, I looked at his eye and I was glad that he wasn't in too much pain. Then, it came time for him to go back to his bedroom. The poor little fellow was only this high; he slipped his hand into mine, as if I was going to take him to his room. I was speechless, and I stood there looking at him. To my rescue came another little boy just slightly bigger who could just see a little bit. That little boy took the hand of the totally blind chap and off they went, into the darkness.

Iranamadu Tank -

Iranaimadu Tank, photo courtesy

I've seen a number of blind children, from Mullaitheevu in the clinics through to other places in Kilinochchi, and I commend it to you. I commend the diagnosis and the treatment, and even more than that, I commend initiatives to teach these children, to teach them Braille. And in our own small way, with money that was given very generously from the people in North Queensland, we have done a little bit.

But, there is a great deal left to do, in terms of the children. I was with medical students that I will tell you about, if I have time, but one of the projects of the medical students was to measure the heights and weights of children in Kilinochchi. I only just – because it has been an exceedingly busy year – I had only just got to put them into the computer in the last couple of months. I was surprised and saddened. As a population, compared to the west, the children of Kilinochchi are stunted and wasted from chronic under-nutrition.

There are many reasons for this, but one of them, I believe, are the sanctions – the economic sanctions that have been imposed and the lack of access. My heart grieves for the two, three, five lakhs of people in Jaffna at the very moment. Their food supply and state of malnutrition has been worsened by the economic sanctions and the blockades that you know more about than me. There are many, many, many moving things, many, many stirring things.

It was my great pleasure to get to know some of the medical students. I had taken some long service leave and someone had said to me to go to Kilinochchi and teach some students. I thought, 'Yeah, why not'. I had passed through that area before and I knew that the situation was poor.

When I got there, there weren't just a few students, there were in- fact thirty-two students. They weren't young people, they were in their mid-thirties. I began to wonder, I hadn't questioned where they were from, and it turned out that they were final year graduates of the Medical School of Tamil Eelam. I had never heard about this. (applause)

In the three months that unfolded, I began to learn about these people, and I will confess to you, I grew to love them. But in the middle of last night, I received a phone call from Thooyavan – I'll tell you a bit more about him – and we chatted and it took me back. Now, in my beginning to understand these people, was when I thought, 'Okay, we'll go back to square one and we'll just see how you go about examining people. We took a man as a volunteer. I said "Would you please take your shirt off?" and we just practiced how to use the stethoscope and other stuff. A few seconds after he took it off, I noticed he had a huge hole in his chest. I said "Oh…what happened to you?" He said "Oh…it was shrapnel", and I said "Ah… that's bad luck".

Then, the girl who was examining him was reaching forth her arm and she had a big chunk out of her arm. I said "You too?" and she said "Yes". Suddenly they all began to laugh. Well, I thought I was going to be funny and I said "Well, how many of you have not been seriously injured." At this stage I could see them wondering about what sort of doctor I was. Only about ten of the thirty-two students had not been seriously injured. At this stage they could see, wondering about what sort of a doctor I was, because I had noticed these things. Then, one of them said, "Didn't you see that three of us have artificial legs?" And I said, "Well, no, I didn't".

Then they began to show me their pieces that had been lost. I learnt that they had all been soldiers to begin with and had been selected from the ranks because someone thought that they would be good doctors. They began a parallel school of medical studies in 1992. 1992! They were just finishing, and it was my good fortune, because the thing that they had lacked to that stage was formal teaching in paediatrics. So, instead of staying for two weeks, I ended up staying twelve weeks.

I had to set a new curriculum, examine them, fail two of them, feel sorry for them, then re-teach them and made sure that they passed. We then had research projects to do, looking at public health aspects, and then we had a final meeting. I got to know them. I got to know their commitment. I asked, "Well, why did you join? What motivated you to take up arms?" They told me a whole range of stories.

"I was moved because my school was bombed."

"I joined because the occupying army in Jaffna had done this to my aunty and uncle."

"I felt that the only thing left for me to do was to take up arms."

I wondered whether they were a particularly violent bunch. "Had I fallen upon a bunch of psychopathic killers?" I wondered, quite frankly. But I got to know them and watch them. I watched them relate to each other. I watched them relate to their children. I watched them relate to other people and patients. I began to see that there was a deep and profound humanity.

Thooyavan is a poet and I began to learn to know what he has written. He didn’t speak English that well, so they showed me some initial translations. Very quickly, I became involved in this all-encompassing task of going over his work line by line, and trying to paraphrase it into English. We finished the second version about 3 hours before he had to leave and we were working on the third.

These were stories of humanity, of a man's love for his fellow being, of his suffering, of injustice. I wasn't going to get sucked into the politics of it, and in one sense I'm not, but I was proud to be of a little help to him, as I was, because I recognized that he was a man, a human being. They had suffered an enormous lot. I didn't just take Thooyavan's work. When he told about one of the others, I went to them as well.

I ended up sending out a questionnaire to the class. I double-checked the stories. In the end, I even went to the battlefields, where he said that 'this is where these stories had happened,' and 'this is where we had our field hospital.' He then said that there had been a massacre, so we went and the sun was setting, we went and we found bones. I was convinced by his story; I was convinced by his dedication.

I asked them, "You have children. You're in the army. Things don't look good. What will you do?"

They said, "It is inevitable. We will continue."

I said, "What will your children do?" 

"They will go to our mothers and fathers, and we will continue."

I was moved, in the middle of the night, to hear from Thooyavan that a number of the students were in danger. Amuthan and Johnson and others are now in field hospitals around Trincomalee and Batticaloa. Thooyavan is himself a war surgeon in Kilinochchi. I was convinced, and I had never been convinced before, by their humanity and dedication. Lastly, I was convinced by the suffering.

Almost one year ago, on the 26th of November – that was hero's day – I went to the big war cemetery at Kilinochchi. I can't begin to explain the effect it had on me. As the sun set in a great ball across the horizon with the coconut trees, they began to light candles. I could feel the grief. About 17,000 people, young people, around the age of my own children. Mothers and fathers weeping out of compassion, and yet out of determination. When it was over, there was no fanfare, no band. There was just silence, and the shuffling of feet as they moved off into the darkness of the night to the task that remained to be done.

I told these students – I wasn't lying – I had come to love them. I told them that I was a Christian, and I believed in 'Agape,' a god of love. I said that I had difficulty in understanding how there could be a god of love and at the same time, such suffering and injustice. Nevertheless, I said to them then, and I will repeat this to you tonight, it is my prayer that the god of love will bless these people and this homeland. I don’t mean simple love, I don't mean a love of benevolence. That love, of course, contains a backbone of justice.

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