Thursday, 28 March 2013

Anil's Ghost

When we were first married in 1987, S's work took us to the new town of Embilipitiya in southern Sri Lanka. It wasn't the prettiest of towns, indeed it reminded me a bit of Swindon, for it was full of people who were a long way from their families, posted there for work. But it was exciting to be in the tropics and our lush tropical garden was full of delights and interest. A huge monitor lizard visited from time to time.

I'd left the life and death work and 100-hour shifts of a junior hospital doctor for the life of a memsahib in the steamy Indian Ocean. I wanted to do something useful and thought it would be easy to set up clinics for local children and mothers. I found a relaxed male nurse to organise and translate for me and felt I could make a difference. S's project funded the medicines, and I looked forward to setting up a team of volunteers who could deliver health education and improve the lot of the poor.

People were - of course - interested. Some days I'd struggle to see nearly 200 patients. Other days though only three or four hopefuls would come to see us, and when I asked why more hadn't come, people would say that they were told to have nothing to do with us. The local Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna / Peoples' Liberation Front had said we were linked to the government and should therefore be boycotted. People we frightened. People disappeared. In the northo f the island there was a different war going on involving the Tamil Tigers. One of S's Tamil colleagues went home to Jafna on leave to see friends and family and was shot - by Indian 'peacekeepers' because he had arranged a 'political' meeting.

Driving to clinics sometimes, there'd be a group of people gathered around a house and when I asked about it, Mr D'd simply say 'Someone has been killed.'

Michael Ondaatje's powerful novel Anil's Ghost is set in these terrible times, and I see further sobering evidence of the attrocities is coming to light...

Reading reports like this reminds me... We really don't know how lucky we are to live in such untroubled times here in the West. The NHS is struggling but patients are still getting looked after - and no-one has death-threats for attending the GP surgery.

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