The streets filled with families, bicycles and motorbikes, tractors, trishaws and bullock carts loaded with possessions double their weight. It was almost impossible to move, and time was ticking away. In half a day, most people travelled just a few metres. Simmering impatience exploded into futile fights: a story did the rounds that a man had slit the throat of a motorist who ran over his foot.
People were desperate to get out of the town, but most couldn’t. Tiger units forbade them to seek protection from the army. Mother wanted to leave for the no-fire zone, fearing she would go the same way as the old man, but father could not make up his mind. If they left before Divyan got in touch, it would be difficult to find each other later. Others in the bunker were ready to cross over to the army’s side, but it was clear that first the pregnant girl would have to be calmed down. She was now borderline hysterical. She was sure her child had died inside her womb. “See, akka? See? There is no movement. Touch and see!”
Mugil decided to take the girl to the town hospital and have her own badly infected shin examined.
Mother asked her to get food on the way, or at least water, lemon and salt. The children were wilting with dehydration. Kalai was sucking her thumb and clawing at amuda’s dry breast.
The road to the hospital was not as treacherous as Mugil expected; the firing had stopped for a few hours and the town was streaked with bloody sludge. Families leaving for the no-fire zone had removed mud-caked bodies from the road and placed them by the side, so their tractors, vans, bikes and cycles could pass. Almost skidding on an abandoned slipper, Mugil had an odd thought – that there must be twice as many desolate slippers as dead people.
The PTK government hospital looked like a crowded market for wounds and flies. There were people moving through the gate, through the compound and up the steps. Others had spread straw mats or saris and lay on them in the heat, waiting for a doctor to call or come by. Insects buzzed everywhere. A toddler was sitting on a bench outside, his left eye bandaged, his right teary. Someone had given him some candy, which he ate dreamily.
She had expected there to be blood everywhere, but all she saw were several colours of infection. Very few had fresh wounds; most were days, weeks, months old, often with fraying temporary bandages. The usual hospital smell of antiseptic was overpowered by the putrid stench of decay.
When they entered the corridor, they saw a grieving man throw himself on a small shrouded body.
A child’s feet, wearing thick silver anklets, stuck out from under the dirty bed sheet. A woman crouched next to the child, looking away. A doctor, his once-white coat smeared with many shades of rust, stood with a pad and pen in his hands. A man and three women were hassling him, pulling him in different directions. He walked to an old woman sitting below a window, her eyes closed. He sat down next to her, holding his back as he did so.
That’s when Mugil noticed a long piece of bark lodged in the woman’s side. Her abdomen seemed to have closed in around it, as if trying to digest it. Mugil watched the doctor talk continuously to the woman in Tamil while his orderly yanked the bark out in one motion. Anticipating the woman’s scream, Mugil clapped her hands to her ears and turned away.
Doctors were operating in open rooms or right there in the corridors. There was no electricity, so large vats of water were being boiled in the backyard on wood fires. The medical staff just dipped the steel clamps, knives and other surgical implements in cloudy hot water before plunging them into people. They were already rationing supplies of gauze, asking people to rip up their own clothes and use them as bandages. As hundreds came for treatment every day, the doctors worked for long stretches without sleep, sometimes forgetting to take a break or eat until they fainted.
Behind Mugil was a doctor whose fingers poked inside a man’s forearm. A woman who acted like a nurse but wasn’t dressed in white fed the patient a few spoonfuls of glucose. Mugil went up to her with the pregnant girl and asked if she could tell whether the baby was dead. When she was done with the male patient, without a word, the nurse touched the girl’s belly and put a stethoscope to her wrist and neck.
“It is alive, but the heartbeat is very faint. Maybe it has twisted itself in the umbilical cord. Leave her here, we’ll see,” the nurse said.
Mugil looked at the pregnant girl, who nodded that she would be okay in the hospital. “Just send my grandmother here when you get home.” She’d referred to the bunker they’d shared as home.
Mugil then pointed to her own shin. “I can’t walk. Will the infection spread? Will this go away?” she said to the nurse, trying to speak fast and clear.
“Is there something inside?”
“I felt around. Something might be there. I’m not sure.”
“You have some antiseptic or hot water? or sugar?” the nurse asked.
Mugil smiled. “No, I only have an X-ray machine in my bunker,” she said.
The nurse responded with a tired smile. “Okay, here,” she said, handing Mugil half a strip of headache tablets. Mugil asked if she really had nothing else. The nurse swivelled her head, inviting Mugil to look around. “Army is not letting the ICRC or UN people bring in the proper medicines,” she said. The government didn’t want the Tigers accessing emergency painkillers like ketamine for their battle-injured fighters. Because of the embargo on fuel, cold storage sections in the hospital were not able to preserve blood or store oxygen either. The nurse hurriedly showed Mugil how to place a splint on the back of her leg and tie it on with a bandage. “It’ll help you walk. There’s nothing else i can do for you.”
Outside, for a few hundred rupees, from the Tigers’ cooperative lorry, Mugil bought a piece of pumpkin, 100 grams of milk powder and a bottle of supposedly clean water, which had tiny things floating in it. The supplies came from the UN and the Indian government, but somehow it was the Tiger cadre that was distributing them. They didn’t have any lemons. A handful of salt, dirty and wet, was 1,000 rupees. Mugil wished she had kept the Tiger tooth. It was gold-plated.
She hobbled back to the bunker and sent the pregnant girl’s grandmother to the hospital. They hugged and said they would meet sometime soon, when all this was over.
The next day, on 1 February, the Sri Lankan army rained artillery shells on the PTK hospital for more than four hours.
Excerpted with permission from The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid The Ruins Of Sri Lanka’s Civil War by Rohini Mohan, HarperCollins India.