Family urges Sri Lanka to release Damilvany Gnanakumar, who treated victims of conflict, from detention camp
A British woman who was working at a hospital helping victims of Sri Lanka‘s civil war has been interned in one of the island’s detention camps, prompting her family to plead for urgent diplomatic help to secure her immediate release.
Speaking to the Guardian, relatives of Damilvany Gnanakumar – known as Vany – said that she was detained a fortnight ago as the Sri Lankan army moved in to finish off the remnants of the Tamil Tiger rebels after a military onslaught that left thousands dead and sent many more fleeing for their lives.
The British passport holder, who has a background in biomedical science, called the family home in Chingford, Essex, on 19 May, to beg for help.
“She said: ‘I’m in this camp, you have to get me out of here,’ but then the phone went dead,” said her sister, Subha Mohanathas, 29, yesterday. She said that her mother, Lathaa, 45, was desperately worried, but she believed that her sister would pull through.
“Vany is one of the strongest people, she can do whatever she likes because she is not really frightened of anything.
“I just want my sister back with me as soon as possible. My mum is crying and we need her back. We didn’t have anything to do with the war.”
Gnanakumar had spent the last few months working in temporary hospitals in the no-fire zone, where doctors have struggled to save the lives of civilians injured during intense fighting.
Diplomatic efforts to secure her release have so far been unsuccessful and last night her family appealed to the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to allow her to return to the UK.
She is being held in the Menik Farm camps outside the town of Vavuniya, a sprawling, sweltering expanse of tents across hundreds of acres of barren scrubland.
Gnanakumar’s family arrived in the UK as refugees from Jaffna, in Sri Lanka, in November 1994. She married in 2003, but the relationship was troubled and in February 2008 she returned to Sri Lanka without telling anyone she was leaving.
The family said that Gnanakumar had been staying in Mullivaykkal – the scene of some of the heaviest fighting – and had called in January to say that she had been caught up in the conflict and was unable to leave. On 12 May they saw her on a Tamil television programme working in a hospital.
“We had not heard anything from her until then, we didn’t know whether she was still alive, whether something had happened to her,” said Mohanthas.
Her father, Kandasamy Kumaran, 51, who has written to his MP, Iain Duncan Smith, appealing for help, said she had come into contact with some doctors and had said she was willing to help because of her background in biomedical science. She had also had training and work experience at a British hospital, he said.
“She was recruited by the Mullivaykkal hospital to help and nurse the injured. In fact, I saw her [on television] assisting and looking after the wounded patients,” he said.
Gnanukumar’s uncle, Navaratnasamy Naguleswaran, said the family had decided to make a public appeal because they were concerned that attempts to secure her release through the Foreign Office had so far proven unsuccessful.
He said the family had received a call last Friday from the Foreign Office to say that it was seeking her release, but that information since then had been sparse.
In an email to the family, the Foreign Office said that staff from the British high commission in Colombo had been in touch with the Sri Lankan ministry of defence, via a military liaison officer, to arrange a phone call between Gnanakumar and her family in the UK and “to expedite her early release”.
The email said that the liaison officer would send instructions to his colleagues in Vavuniya to initiate the screening process of Gnanakumar and that once that was complete, “they will be able to take a decision on her release”. A British high commission spokesman said: “We are in discussions with the government of Sri Lanka and are actively seeking her release and return to the UK.”
Mahinda Samarasinghe, the Sri Lankan human rights minister, was unavailable for comment last night.
But last week, he insisted that the Sri Lankan government was determined to return those held in the camps to their homes at the earliest possible opportunity.
“These are our people and we are going to ensure that they are resettled,” he said.
But he added that the government needed time to screen those being held in the camps to establish whether or not they were members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). An estimated 270,000 people are being held in camps in the north of Sri Lanka. The government says that it has so far identified more than 9,000 former LTTE members.
In an exclusive interview with the Guardian from the no-fire zone on 13 May, Gnanakumar described the horrors of the final days of the 26-year war. A shell had exploded at the hospital where she was working, killing 47 people.
“This is really a disaster. I don’t know really how to explain it. At the moment, it is like hell,” she said at the time. “For us, shell bombing is just a normal thing now. It is like an everyday routine. We have reached a point where it’s like death is not a problem at all.”
The Sri Lankan government maintains that civilian casualties were the result of attacks by the LTTE designed to generate adverse publicity for the military. But the UN has described the civilian toll as “unacceptably high”. Estimates for the death toll this year alone range from 8,000 to more than double that number.