KILINOCHCHI, SRI LANKA, Feb 8: Thiyagalingam Kumaradasan, 39, says he was blinded a decade ago when he was caught in a shelling attack during Sri Lanka's civil conflict.
Kumaradasan lives with his wife and 18-month-old daughter in a village in Kilinochchi, a district in Sri Lanka's Northern province. He does not work because of his disability.
Before he went blind, he was studying to be a doctor. He wanted to learn indigenous medicine so he went to study with an indigenous medical doctor in Mullaitivu, another district in the province. But that is also the year his dream of being a doctor ended.
"Still I can remember that day in 1992," he says. "There was huge shelling attack in Mullaitivu. Lot of people died. Some were injured."
He says he could not remember what had happened to him immediately after the incident. When he woke up several days later, he started to scream. He felt a few people touching his body, which was in pain, but he could not see them.
"I heard voices of some people," he says. "I screamed. Few people came and talked to me. But I could not remember what they told. Still I did not know what happened to me."
After he recovered, he says that the hospital staff told him that he had been in the mortuary of Jaffna Teaching Hospital for days because they had thought he was dead.
"No one knows that I was alive," he says. "Once I screamed only the mortuary staff got to know that I was alive and forwarded me to hospital ward."
He says he eventually realized he was in the hospital.
"But I could not see anything," he says. "Then I realized that shells damaged my eyes."
He underwent many operations, but the doctors said the nerves were too damaged for him to regain any vision. His father looked after him until he got married in 2008.
"Still my father gives 5,000 rupees [$45] for my family every month, which he earns from his small cigarette-making business," he says.
From September 2008 to April 2009, the year the conflict ended, Kumaradasan and his family were displaced seven different times. Finally, they ended up in Ramanadan camp for Internally Displaced Persons in Vavuniya district. He says his disability made the journey difficult.
"At that time, my wife was pregnant," he says. "But she helped me lot with her all pains. We walked two kilometers on the water and getting to the buses."
His daughter was born while they were living in the camp.
"I [would] love to see the faces of my daughter and wife," he says. "But I cannot. I cannot do anything for them."
He says he is at least grateful he has them in his life.
"Now my little daughter calls me 'Appa,'" he says, which means father. "I'm happy at least I can listen to her voice."
He always wears a pair of black spectacles because he does not want his young daughter to see his wounded eyes.
His wife, Kamalini Kumaradasan, is a thin, young and spirited woman. She uses her husband's facial expressions to make sure he is always comfortable.
"We return back to this village on June 19, 2010," she says. "This is my sister's land. We temporary settled here. One NGO helped us to build this temporary shelter. Our relatives are helping me to look after my husband and child."
Kumaradasan receives a Public Assistance Monthly Allowance from the government every month. But he does not get any additional compensation for his disability because he doesn't have a police report from the incident. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the faction that was at war with the government, controlled Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts during the conflict, so there were no government police stations. But he says he has registered with the Social Services Department under the Ministry of Social Services and Social Welfare and is waiting for compensation.
Although Sri Lanka's 26-year civil conflict ended several years ago, life is still a daily struggle for the large population of citizens who were disabled during the war. As the government continues to transition from relief to recovery this year, it is strengthening education and rehabilitation programs for those disabled in the war. These people say their biggest concerns are compensation and livelihood opportunities so that they can support their families.
Civil conflict between the LTTE and the government plagued Sri Lanka for three decades in the Northern province. More than 1 million of people were displaced in the Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi districts, which were largely controlled by the LTTE, according to local media outlets. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees puts the number at 800,000.
The government announced victory over the rebels in 2009, but life was forever changed for the many people who were disabled during the conflict from bombings, shelling attacks, land mine explosions and massacres. Out of the 218,773 people living in welfare centers for IDPs in Vavuniya, 4,912 incurred disabilities during the war, according to a 2009 assessment by the Ministry of Social Services and Social Welfare. Nearly 2,000 of these newly disabled people were from Kilinochchi district, like Kumaradasan.
The U.N. refugee agency noted this year that trends signaling a shift from humanitarian relief to recovery and development last year would likely continue in 2012.
Thiruchelvam Sivakumar, 25, is another victim who was disabled during the war. She now uses a wheelchair after a gunshot paralyzed her.
"I cannot walk," she says. "I cannot do my work by myself. For each and every thing, I have to trouble to my husband."
During the conflict, the LTTE enforced a custom in the Northern province that one person from each family had to join the rebels - despite whether they supported their cause. With no brothers, Sivakumar was forced to join the LTTE as the eldest child in her family.
Sivakumar says she did not want to join the LTTE, so her parents decided to arrange her marriage because they thought it would enable her to avoid recruitment. But soon after the marriage, the rebels forced her to join them anyway.
As she recalls the story, her facial expressions change and she begins to scream.
She trained under the LTTE for one month, then escaped to her home. But a day later, the rebels came and forcibly took her back to training.
"It was a very tough training," she says. "I learnt many things from them. But I was not happy. My husband and my parents were not with me."
Three days later, she tried to escape again. Once again, the rebels dragged her back to training and punished her. A day later, she ran away from the training. This time, they opened fire on her.
"They [shot] me," she says. "I can remember only that. When I got alive, I was at the Kilinochchi Hospital. I got to know that my spinal cord has injured, and I could not walk again."
She says she underwent many operations and spent 2.5 months in the hospital.
"But nothing happened," she says with tears in her eyes. "Still I am on the wheelchair."
She says this incident occurred in August 2008 and was not the end of her troubles.
"In February 2009, we got displaced due to the last incidents of conflict," she says. "We [were] displaced to four different places."
In May 2009, they reached a camp in Vavuniya.
"I do not like to remember," she says. "When we were displaced from here to Vavuniya, my husband suffered a lot. He is the one [who carried] me."
She says she worries because she feels like she can't contribute to the relationship.
"I cannot do anything for him," she says, starting to cry.
She received a wheelchair from a nongovernmental organization, and the Social Services Department has helped build wheelchair-accessible facilities in her home. The government and nongovernmental organizations are also helping her family to construct a new house. Still, Sivakumar says it upsets her to be confined to a wheelchair when she sees others walking and doing their day-to-day activities.
The Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act serves to promote, advance and protect the rights of people with disabilities, also establishing the National Council for Persons with Disabilities to aid in this mission.
The government later approved the National Policy for Persons with Disabilities in 2003. In 2006, Parliament passed regulations to increase accessibility for people with disabilities.
In the Northern province, community-based rehabilitation programs for people with disabilities were set up soon after the conflict. Shantha Kumara, the national coordinator of community-based rehabilitation under the Ministry of Social Services and Social Welfare, says the institution's volunteers train people with disabilities to improve their daily activities.
"We have trained 8,700 volunteers all over Sri Lanka on CBR program from 1997 to 2011," he says.
He says the volunteers have been supporting the programs to disabled people during the conflict, in addition to serving people with disabilities nationwide.
"Through this volunteer team, I believe that at least minimum of 30,000 persons with disabilities were reached," he says.
Nishanthi Fernando, provincial coordinator of special education in the Northern province's Department of Education, says that after the conflict, the department established 10 special educations units in schools in Kilinochchi and allocated 10 teachers trained in special education.
"We are trying to admit all the children with disabilities to special education units," he says. "But it's a big task because most of the parents do not want to send their children with disabilities to schools. They are thinking those children could not have good education. We are conducting awareness-raising programs for parents to overcome this issue and ensure the education rights of children with disabilities."
More special education teachers are also receiving training every year both in Sinhala and Tamil languages. In 2011, there were 40 Sinhala and 41 Tamil teachers trained, according to the Non-formal and Special Education Branch of the Ministry of Education.
Construction projects in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu have also prioritized accessibility to public places for people with disabilities. For example, a newly built railway station and court complex are accessible to disabled citizens.
The Kilinochchi district government collaborates with local governments to collect disabled citizens' information in order to assure them their rights. People disabled in the war say that their main concerns are compensation and a lack of livelihood opportunities.