Sivachandran Mayuran, a 24-year-old who lost his leg in 2008, says he doesn't want t be a burden (Photo by Amantha Perera)
Every day, 58-year-old Velu Arumugam wakes up at six in the morning, straps on his prosthetic leg, gets on his bicycle and begins a daily routine that covers more than 40 kilometers.
“It is very hard for me to ride for so long, but I have to. If I don’t, I will not make any money. My kids will starve and I will have to pull them out of school,” said Arumugam, who lost his leg during Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war.
Arumugam makes a living by selling betel leaf that he buys in a local market and then sells to small shops along his route, which takes him into the interior dirt roads of Mullaitivu district in the former conflict zone.
His two daughters, ages 11 and 16, attend an area school. The eldest is preparing for an important exam that will determine whether she can sit for the university entrance exam in two years time, and Arumugam wants to make sure that she does not feel any pressure.
“She has already suffered too much in her life. I want to make sure that at least now she has the chance to do something she wants to do: to study. Maybe when they both stop schooling and find some kind of employment, I can take a rest,” he said.
Until the last phase of the country's civil war, Arumugam and his family had lived their entire lives deep inside territories controlled by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Even basic necessities such as electricity, functioning toilets, cooking oil, transport and sometimes even a full school term were luxuries, said Arumugam.
Then, in early 2009 when Sri Lankan government forces pushed deep into LTTE territory, his family was forced to flee the advance. By April they found themselves in a narrow stretch of land on the northeastern coast, along with tens of thousands of other civilians who had become trapped by intensified fighting. When the war finally ended a month later Armumgam’s wife and his only son were dead, killed in the same shelling attack that took his leg.
The Sri Lanka Foundation for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled estimates that, out of a total population of 1.1 million, there are at least 110,000 disabled people in the Northern Province. Other groups working wth disabled persons say the figure could be even higher given that there has never been a proper study carried out to determine the number of war-disabled in the province.
What is clear is that amputees have a difficult time earning a living and supporting their families.
Sivachandran Mayuran, 24, lost his leg in February 2008 and now walks with the aid of a crutch.
Mayuran, who is Arumugam’s supplier of betel leaf, says that he can only earn Rs500-700 (about US$3.85-$5.40) per day, which is barely enough to buy necessities.
And despite his disability, he must provide for his family.
“I have to take care of my elderly parents and a younger brother who is in school,” he said. “Our house was completely destroyed. We are still living in a temporary hut five years after the war ended.”
There are few disabled-friendly facilities in the Northern Province. Both Mayuran and Arumugam say that they prefer to avoid public transport since they need someone else’s help to get on and off buses.
“I don’t like to be a burden, but I am. I will always be a burden. That is what the war did to me,” said Mayuran.
Vellayan Subramaniyam, president of the Organization for Rehabilitation of the Handicapped which operates in the Northern Province, said there is “a social stigma attached" to handicapped people, and the overarching view is that they "cannot take care of themselves”.
“Many employers are reluctant to offer them jobs because they are not sure if the job can be done,” he said. “These social attitudes will need time to change.”
Subramaniyam, who himself was blinded by a wartime injury, said that despite the significant number of persons with debilitating injuries from the war, there has never been a large scale initiative to help them.
“We needed some kind of sustained program soon after the war to make sure that these people were able to live at least a tolerable life. For many reasons like lack of funds and lack of specialized personnel, that did not happen. Now most of them have to fend for themselves, which is sad,” he said.
Sellamuththu Sirinivasan, additional district secretary at the Kilinochchi Divisional Secretariat, admitted that there was a lack of a coordinated government plan to assist disabled persons in the province.
“There are no major programs that assist the disabled in the region. We have not had a large program targeting that group. Here and there we have had small programs, but nothing on a large scale,” he said.
One of the few non-government programs set up to assist disabled persons in the Northern Province is run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In the past two years, the program has given assistance to 333 persons with disabilities and is scheduled to expand its scope of work.
“We try to help the most desperate cases. It is obvious that this is an ultra-vulnerable community that will need sustained assistance,” said KSM Kamil, head of the ICRC’s Economic Security Department.
Mayuran is one of the beneficiaries of the program and says that he is grateful for the Rs50,000 ($385) grant he received earlier this year.
“Without that I would not have been able to set up my small business. And in my state, I find work like construction work or helping in the paddy fields very hard. I did that kind of work before and it was very painful,” he said.