Disabled veterans battle high cost of prosthetics, unemployment

One shirt sleeve flapping limply, war veteran and rights activist Asoka Dayaratna signs a document with his left hand, finishing with a flourish.

“I don’t usually use my artificial arm, unless it is for a special occasion,” says the former army commando who lost his right arm fighting Tamil Tiger rebels in Wilpattu, northwestern Sri Lanka, in 1985.

Although his Israeli-made prosthesis makes fine movement possible, he taught himself to write with his remaining hand. “I am afraid to use the artificial arm often, because, if it breaks, I cannot get it repaired here.”

The predicament has set Dayaratna, founder and president of the Association of Disabled Ex-Service Personnel (ADEP), on his current mission, to set up a local factory to manufacture artificial limbs that can be given either free of charge or at subsidised rates to injured servicemen.

“Sri Lanka has about 15,000 to 20,000 disabled [government] troops who use artificial arms and legs,” says Dayaratna whose organisation counts about 8,000 injured former soldiers and policemen. “Once they have been given an artificial limb by the army, they find it very difficult to maintain it or replace it.”

''Sri Lanka has about 15,000 to 20,000 disabled [government] troops who use artificial arms and legs. Once they have been given an artificial limb by the army, they find it very difficult to maintain it or replace it.''

He says government-issued limbs are prone to breakage. Better quality custom-made prostheses made by a private manufacturer cost between Rs 25,000 (about US$227) and Rs 75,000 (about $680), prohibitively expensive for many of the disabled who are either unemployed or barely eke out a living.

Sri Lankan government forces have been embroiled in a prolonged war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for over three decades during which an estimated 65,000 civilians and combatants have been killed.

Since hostilities escalated in December 2005, some 5,219 civilians, security force personnel and LTTE fighters have died, according to figures released by the government. In addition, 1,525 government soldiers have been wounded in the latest bout of fighting.

Big demand for prosthetic devices

The army’s Rehabilitation Directorate says up to the end of 2006 there were some 11,154 officers and soldiers “with some form of permanent disability who cannot be engaged in the fighting role”.

According to the government agency, 9,340 limbs for use by disabled soldiers had been manufactured locally up to the end of 2005 by its main welfare and rehabilitation centre, Ranaviru Sevana, and the non-governmental organisation, Jaipur Foot Programme.

Dayaratna, however, estimated that since 1983, when the battles first heated up, at least 22,000 government military personnel have been disabled.

His organisation is seeking funding to train four or five Sri Lankan technicians in Malaysia or Taiwan in the manufacture and maintenance of artificial limbs so that they can set up shop here to meet the pressing demand.

The prospect heartens amputee G. Jayatillaka who finds it hard on his purse even to buy the special socks that cover the stump before the prosthesis is put on it. “If I give my limb for repairs [to the army workshop in the capital, Colombo], I don’t know when I will get it back. There is a long waiting-list because the main concern now is to equip the new casualties,” he said.

Advocacy for war disabled

ADEP, the island’s only private outfit representing war-affected men and women, has started awareness and advocacy programmes that draw attention to the situation of disabled servicemen - particularly with the aim of increasing employment opportunities for them. The programme is funded by a World Bank grant of Rs 500,000 (about $4,545) that was recently given to the organisation.


Photo: Christine Jayasinghe/IRIN
Gamini Sarath, an ex-soldier who lost his sight in a land mine explosion, is helped by his wife, Thilaka Priyangani. ADEP, a Sri Lankan organization that advocates for the disabled is helping them expand their small candle-making business

ADEP is urging broad-based initiatives such as better access in public places for the disabled, improved transport facilities, and promotion of the status of war widows and orphans.

Using donor aid, Dayaratna helps war veterans living in specially designated communities called Ranaviru (war heroes) villages, integrated with neighbouring villages, and is even trying to establish contact with disabled LTTE members.

Of particular concern to the 52-year-old, battle-scarred activist is the blow the ex-soldiers take when they turn 55 and find the salaries they have been paid up to then take a sharp drop when they are commuted to pensions.

S.H.U. Jayatissa, who had both his legs amputated after being caught in LTTE mortar shelling in Mullaitivu, northeastern Sri Lanka, in 1996, lives with his wife and two children on his army salary. “I have no job now and I am really concerned for my future when my salary stops coming in,” he says.

Employment for war disabled

ADEP has embarked on imparting training in skills such as candle-making and the production of exercise books. It also provides low-interest loans for the purchase of three-wheeler scooter taxis to ex-servicemen whose artificial limbs do not hinder them from such employment.

''One of our biggest challenges is to help disabled soldiers spend the rest of their lives gainfully, without any tension and to be able to provide for their families.''

However, being successfully employed can be a challenge. “We have a small candle-making business at home. All of us, including our three children, are involved in it,” said K. Thilaka Priyangani, the wife of a soldier who lost his eyesight in a landmine explosion. “But, our main problem is finding steady buyers; we have to go from shop to shop to try to sell our products.”

Dayaratna is also keen to see veterans provided with psychological counselling and points out that scant attention is paid to the after-effects of war injuries.

“One of our biggest challenges is to help disabled soldiers spend the rest of their lives gainfully, without any tension and to be able to provide for their families,” he says, blaming post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the increasing number of crimes and violent incidents in which many ex-servicemen become involved.

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