The day I broke my neck
When I woke, the engine noise was gone. So, judging by the light, was the tinted windscreen. My face was hard against the minibus dashboard, I’ve lost my glasses and there was blood in my mouth.
My neck hurt like hell, and I couldn’t move anything below it.
I paused, made to take a breath — and realized I had no control of it at all. None of my chest muscles had any conscious function. I was breathing lightly, automatically — my diaphragm and autonomic functions were still operating. I was clearly alive, felt likely to remain that way. But I must have broken my neck, pulverized my spinal cord.
And with that, I knew very clearly. I wanted to die.
Actually, it was more complex. What I was suddenly aware of, I realized, was a crushing inability to quickly and easily kill myself.
The ability to commit suicide had never been something I’d particularly consciously considered. But now it was gone, its absence was agonizing. Instinctively, my mind raced to the last easy point to end it. It had been about an hour earlier, stopping for breakfast at a truck stop in central Sri Lanka.
It had been a good breakfast, bread and fish curry. A terrible waste to end my life before. As soon as it was done, however, I now thought I should have killed myself, emerged from the restaurant and thrown myself under a truck. God knows what other people would have thought, but in that moment I wished I’d done it.
I halted that train of thought, trying to we focus. Clearly, something devastating had happened to our vehicle. I was a 25-year-old reporter for Reuters news agency, this was the height of the Sri Lankan civil war. Judging by my last memories, we were somewhere between two chunks of rebel territory on the main road across the eastern front. There were three others in the vehicle: a local photographer, TV cameraman and driver. And they were being very quiet.
I’d like to say my concerns flew to their welfare, but they did not. Either they were dead, or likely less seriously injured than me, I thought — and either way, I envied them. But they were also my best hope of home and rescue.
“Buddhika,” I called out to my photographer, sitting somewhere behind me. My voice was incredibly faint — with no lung control, no force of breath behind it.
Without sensation in my body, I realized realized I had no real idea the extent of other injuries. I couldn’t see any. My initial assumption after regaining consciousness had been that I was lying on a dead body — it was crumpled and unmoving. Then I realized it was wearing my clothes.
Still, I thought, I might well have suffered other catastrophic damage. Moving me out the vehicle might kill me. It was worth finding out. Dying or not, I couldn’t stay here all day and if I was to have any hope of recovery, I was going to need a hospital.
Buddhika’s voice came from behind me. There had been a crash, he said. His ankle was broken.
“I’ve broken my neck,” I said. Vocalizing it made it worse.
By now, a small crowd of soldiers and villagers had gathered around the vehicle. Under the direction of Buddhika, they lifted me down and laid me by the side of the road. He cradled my neck, trying to move it has little as possible.
“I don’t want to live,” I told him.
“Don’t say that,” he said, crying. We’d been together through some hairy scrapes elsewhere, and I knew he cared a lot. Best not mention wanting to die again, I thought — it clearly wasn’t helping.
The minibus had hit a tractor, he told me. I had him remove my satellite phone from the pocket of my jacket, relieved I had not simply left it loose. He walked up and down the road on his broken ankle, calling our bureau chief Simon in the capital Colombo.
He held the phone so I could talk. Simon was crying, but he got what needed to be done. He would phone the country’s Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, he said, negotiate a helicopter. I just needed to stay strong. I would be better and back having a drink with him and the rest of the foreign press corps at the Galle Face Hotel in no time.
“Yes, I snapped. “Through a fucking straw.”
Then I had Buddhika photograph the crash site. I still wasn’t confident this wasn’t an attack. And if someone had done this to me deliberately, I had no intent whatsoever to let them get away with it.
REPORTING CHILD SOLDIER RECRUITMENT
It was supposed to be a quick and easy reporting trip, at least compared to some of the more robust conflict action of the previous month.
When I had arrived in Sri Lanka in November 2005, the island had still been at peace, recovering from the Indian Ocean Boxing Day tsunami the previous year. The wheels had quickly come off a 2002 cease-fire, however, first with an election boycott by Tamil Tiger rebels and then a series of increasingly brutal bombings, gun attacks and battles.
By August, the ground war was underway in earnest and we’d been at the heart of it. We had covered massacres, shelling, assassinations of people we knew and a bomb outside our office aimed at a passing Pakistani diplomat. It was exhausting, but I felt we were reporting the conflict well, holding both sides to account.
This trip was explicitly aimed at that. For months, a breakaway government-backed paramilitary group had been abducted local Tamil children to act as child soldiers. With the eyes of the world now on Sri Lanka, I was determined to tell that story.
There was heavy fighting in the neighborhood, but we were not aiming to approach the front lines directly. Instead, I hoped to also interview refugees fleeing the Vaharai pocket, a small enclave of rebel territory now under near continuous government attack. That would give us the stories we needed while exposing us to minimum danger.
My 10 months in country had been fascinating, but also very tough. The assignment in Colombo had been the only one going that would keep me in the field, but taking it had meant agreeing to take local pay. That meant earning just in excess of 10 dollars a day — a major step down from that site received in London or as a an international reporter in South Africa. Surviving on it meant eating local food, walking across a tropical capital instead of taking rickshaws.
My reporting had been good enough to earn my reputation, and I hoped other jobs would follow. Like the rest of the team, though, I was already increasingly ground down by what it now felt would be a never-ending conflict.
We drove through the night, into the early morning. My last memory was crossing the bridge at Welikanda to head towards the coast. Then either I fell asleep, or the crash wiped my memory.
PONDERING MY FUTURE
Lying by the side of the road, I looked up at the sky and wondered what would happen next.
The villagers and soldiers stayed close to the roadside — much of the local area was mined, and the trucks scatting their way around the wreckage of our vehicle were passing within barely a meter of my body.
I still wasn’t dying, I thought. Indeed, I suspected that, aside from the injury to my spinal cord, I was relatively uninjured. [In fact, that detail would shortly cause the military to briefly cancel my helicopter evacuation, concluding that I was basically fine until the paralysis was bluntly explained to them].
I looked at the scene, trying to memorize every detail. Clearly, if I survived. I was going to find myself track back to England, perhaps my family home in Essex. I was only 25, relishing my independence and a career barely 3 years old. Now I pondered spending the rest of my life and my parents sitting room, immobile and irrelevant.
The villagers brought the water. It tasted salty, and I remembered some of the nearby wells had been contaminated by the tsunami. Buddhika talked on the phone to Simon in Colombo.
A tanned, Caucasian face pulled into my eye line. It was a former US Marine, now working for a local landmine clearance contractor. They’ve been flagged down by a fisherman on a moped who told them a white guy was dying by the road.
They had a basic neck collar. I wondered whether my luck was beginning to change.
It wasn’t, at least not particularly. Not believing a helicopter was truly on the way, they loaded me into their ambulance. It bounced its way across the rough roads. We’ve been barely in it. A few minutes when a Sri Lankan Huey helicopter gunship roared overhead, heading for the crash site.
I cursed, swore and politely suggested we stop. But we drove a few miles to the nearest tiny hospital. I was barely unloaded when the helicopter landed. The crew pulled my stretcher aboard, cramming the three members of my team into the interior. My head was out one side, my boots the other and I was looking up at the door gunner as he scanned the jungle below.
Even with my crew aboard, I’m afraid I hoped quietly for a surface to air missile to blast us out the sky.
GRENADE IN MY POCKET.
The helicopter landed a few meters from the hospital. I was unhappy to discover we have not reached the capital, just a major district general hospital in the center of the country. With the war at its height, the gunship clearly had other people to either save or kill, and it was back in the air in seconds.
A group of journalists were gathered around the entrance to the hospital. As one of the few foreign reporters in the country, I was relatively well known. But I was used to being part of the group watching the wounded come in, not being the casualty myself.
Inside the receiving room, a junior doctor asked me how much of my body. I could feel, prodding and touching me as he did so. “I can’t feel a thing,” I said. “I’d rather not talk about it.”
My eye caught a glimpse of a couple of policemen in the corner of the ward, assault rifles, by their side. I would shortly be leaving the conflict area, I thought, and with it the jumpy men with guns.
“What would you say if I told you I was faking and had a grenade in my pocket,” I asked the doctor. He didn’t say anything.
It was a pointless, futile gesture. I looked nothing like a Tamil suicide bomber, and even if I was, it would hardly have been worth that much effort to blow up a small and half empty hospital receiving room. He consulted briefly with the policemen and nurses. The policeman backed away, two nurses kept cutting away my clothes.
“You don’t know this is permanent,” he said. “There’s such a thing as spinal shock — sometimes paralysis goes away. You’ll just have to wait and see.”
He was right, I later discovered — even if my injury turned out to be more permanent. At the time, I don’t think I believed him. But I let them continue, removing my clothes, putting in a catheter.
Buddhika was on the phone to Simon in Colombo, trying to arrange a further air evacuation to the capital. The road to get there by ambulance was rough, bouncy and long, and even if I survived. It would obliterate any remaining chances of recovery.
It was hot, and the hospital was dark. I was, I later discovered, now clad in only a sarong.
After a while, we got good news. An ambulance was coming to take us to the nearest airbase.
A STRANGE AIRBASE INTERLUDE.
We parked up under a tree, awaiting a transport aircraft. We were initially told was almost ready to depart. An hour passed. Still, nothing was coming.
The Air Force personnel around us had also changed their aspect. When we initially arrived, they had been friendly and welcoming. Now, they were becoming outright, threatening, particularly when one of my crew asked to go and find someone in authority.
Then the excuses began. The aircraft was not available, it had been re-tasked together and form the rebels and refugees at Vaharai. That was news to me — I knew the government had used barrel bombs from transport aircraft in the past, but I haven’t heard of it. In this stage of the war. [Nor seems there any evidence of it now, so I suspect this was merely an excuse].
I could live with that, we said. They could put us on the plane, do the raid and then fly us to the capital.
I pondered the morality of that. It felt a little dubious, but it wasn’t as if I was enabling the bombing. I had to get home somehow — and I still wanted the rest of my crew to get decent medical treatment. It might, I reflected, be about the last worthwhile thing I might achieve.
More time passed. It was getting brutally hot, even in the shade. Still no news.
I began to wonder whether it was deliberate. A month earlier, I’d been an inconvenient witness to the aftermath of the killing of 17 local aid workers after a brutal battle. My reporting had clearly pointed to the involvement of security forces, and that have been very inconvenient for the government. Perhaps they would rather I didn’t make it back.
That irritated me. I might still want to die, but the thought of being murdered to cover up a massacre still rankled. Bloody-mindedness kicked in. I wanted to get home.
Or maybe it was just the heat.
Another Air Force official came over. They were cleared to put me on the plane, he said — but clearance to take the rest of my team with me have not been granted.
That didn’t sound so good. Firstly, I was still determined to bring my crew back with me and get them treated. Secondly, I didn’t give much for my survival chances on the plane alone. It would be all too easy to close my airway, kill me off and land with my body in Colombo. Everyone would thank them for trying, and I didn’t like the idea of them getting away with it.
I wondered briefly if I was getting excessively paranoid. I knew I was starting to ramble.
Suddenly, I realized I still had one card to play. The TV camera still worked, and the cameraman was just about able to operate it.
I had them film what I’m told was a rambling, incoherent, and fairly traumatizing piece to camera, mentioning that we were stuck at the airbase against our will.
Within a matter of minutes, they were ushering us towards the plane. The only problem was that the doctor with us was not cleared to fly, they said.
Leave him,” I said. “I’m happy to take the risk.”
They let the doctor come.
Soon, I was carried into the cavernous belly of an Antonov transport plane, and we were rumbling down the runway for the capital. My boss had ambulances on the runway waiting.
As we raced across town to the main hospital, I tried to tell him about the day. Clearly, whether I got better or not, a long time in hospital awaited. I was thinking of writing the story of covering the war, I said. It had been a fascinating experience, and I thought it should be told.
It’s taken 12 years to begin to actually do it.
Peter Apps also writes on his disability and other topics at www.pete-apps.com