By Emma Batha
LONDON (Reuters) – Thousands of people fleeing Sri Lanka’s war zone are arriving at hospitals with horrific injuries and severe trauma, doctors said on Thursday.
Some are dying in buses on their way to hospital, according to doctors working round the clock to treat wounds from shelling and gunfire. Many patients are also deeply traumatised after seeing loved-ones killed in front of them.
“About three-quarters of the injured coming in now have suffered from blast injuries, and the rest are gunshot wounds and mine explosions,” said Paul McMaster, a surgeon working with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) at a hospital in Vavuniya.
“We are doing a lot of amputations. Many of the lower limbs are severely, severely injured and blown off … We had a young woman of about 19 who is breastfeeding that I had to do a major leg amputation on. I just wonder what the future for her life and child will be.”
The military says more than 100,000 civilians have poured out of the battle zone since Monday when troops blasted through a massive earthen wall built by the Tigers. But the United Nations says tens of thousands more could still be trapped.
E G Gnanakunalan, a Red Cross doctor at a field hospital in Pulmoddai, about 40 km to the south, said many people were extremely traumatised.
“They need some kind of psychological support. They are mentally and physically tortured,” he said.
“One lady came and she had been eating with her husband and children. A shell fell on the house and her husband and some of the children died and she lost both her legs. She was crying and asking what would she do in future. There are a lot of sad stories.”
The hospital, which has received more than 6,400 people since mid-March, is treating people evacuated by Red Cross ships from the war zone – a narrow strip of land on the northeast coast.
Gnanakunalan said three to four ships had been arriving every week bringing 500 people a time.
Doctors said it was impossible to say which side had caused the injuries. The Sri Lankan military denies Tamil Tiger accusations that it shells civilian areas.
The government is putting people fleeing the war zone into temporary camps in Vavuniya, about 60 km to the southwest.
MSF’s Sri Lanka medical co-ordinator Lisabeth List said staff at the 600-capacity hospital were overwhelmed, with close to 2,000 patients needing treatment.
“It’s completely overcrowded. You might have two people in a bed and one lying under the bed and one on each side,” she said.
“They are lying in the corridors and outside on the walkways. One ward was so crowded that all the beds were pushed together to make one giant bed.”
Many people coming out of the battle zone are also suffering from hunger and dehydration. List said staff had seen one man collapse and die from dehydration shortly after reaching camp.
A U.N. spokesman in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss, said people coming out of the war zone were in “very poor condition”.
He said a U.N. survey of the camps found a quarter of young children had severe malnutrition and he expected children emerging now to be in even worse health.