The Sinhalese doctor defying the ethnic odds

You don’t have to look far to find stories on how divided Sri Lanka still is. Granted, this website is no different. Despite the end of the Tamil war in 2009, there is still a deep dividing line between ethnic groups in the country. And yet there are people who defy these ethnic lines and just do what they think is necessary to heal the scars left behind by the 30-year war. Dr Panagamuwa Bandara is one of them.

Dr Bandara is Sinhalese, born in Sri Lanka, but raised and educated in the UK. He trained as a doctor and went on to become a surgeon in Birmingham, specializing in artificial limbs and prosthetics.

But in 2009, shortly after the Tamil war ended, he decided to go back to his native country to work in a local hospital in the north-western, Tamil-dominated town of Mannar.

Dr Panagamuwa observing a patient with a synthetic limb

Sad sight
“I felt I had to go back,” he now says. “When I came here in July, 2009, this place was a sad sight. The hospital was old and dilapidated. People were sleeping in the corridors on newspapers. But it was the only safe place at the time.”

Dr Bandara knew that a lot of work needed to be done. First he built a couple of new hospital wards. After that, a steady stream of patients came to his hospital once they’d heard of this Sinhalese man who was defying all the odds by working in a Tamil region.

Missing limbs
Most patients who visited the hospital had one thing in common: they were missing limbs, in 95% of the cases casualties of war. But because of that war, many amputees hadn’t yet received proper medical care. Now the war had ended, Dr Bandara and his staff could start working on rehabilitations.

While treating his patients, Dr Bandara rarely ever discusses the cause of the injuries. He doesn’t talk about the war. “Does it matter how the person got injured?” he asks rhetorically. “I don’t think it does. What matters is that the wounds are healed and that the patient is capable of living a fairly normal life in the future.”

Click here to watch a video of Dr Bandara’s work in Sri Lanka. Video produced by Kannan Arunasalam for Groundviews.

“It’s important to know what his or her ambitions and aspirations are. We try to get them in a state where their condition or handicap is not a deciding part of their life anymore. That’s what we do, regardless of their background or ethnicity.”

Dr Bandara’s work in Birmingham with artificial limbs and prosthetics spurred his ambition to give back to his native country. “Sometimes a patient would get a brand new, expensive artificial limb but it wouldn’t fit. We had to simply throw that material away, as we were not allowed to recycle it. I thought that was silly, so I collected these materials, kept them in my garage and shipped them to Sri Lanka.”

Love and kindness
His work was recognized by colleagues and friends, who helped him to found a professional organisation, Meththa, or ‘love and kindness’ in Sinhalese. “That’s what we wanted to base our work on. No financial gain, no profit, no political motives, no different treatment for different ethnic groups. We simply help those who need help.”

He’s already helped dozens of patients. Some get a simple prosthetic with which they can get their lives back on track, other receive discarded artificial limbs donated by UK hospitals. For them, a whole new life begins. “My people should get the best. Not just a ‘Third World’ artificial limb of inferior quality,” he says.

Through his work, Dr Bandara has gained the trust of many people in the Mannar region, most of whom are Tamil.

Dr Panagamuwa producing artificial limbs

“I’m not responsible for being Sinhalese,” he says, almost apologetically. “As a Buddhist, I believe this is my karma. I’ve had the opportunity to study and become a doctor. I didn’t ask for it, it just happened. So it is my duty to use my skills here. The fact that someone is Tamil, white or Sinhalese doesn’t matter. We’re just trying to help people.”

He’ll continue working in Mannar for as long as he’s needed there. “We had a war for 30 years. Now we have a choice: either go back to war, or try to leave it behind us and give peace a chance. I choose the latter. Let people get on with their lives.”

Dr Bandara is also featured on this week’s edition of South Asia Wired. Click the icon below (or click here) to listen to the show.

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