Reuters Edge

WITNESS: Waking up paralyzed in Sri Lanka's war zone

Reuters correspondent Peter Apps was paralysed below the neck on Sept. 5 in a road accident in Sri Lanka, while covering the country’s conflict. In the following story, he describes the experience and his determination to return to journalism. Apps, who is 25, is now being treated at a spinal care unit in England, where he dictated the story to his brother, John, and a friend, Rachel Dipper.

Reuters correspondent Peter Apps was paralyzed below the neck on Sept. 5 in a road accident in Sri Lanka, while covering the country's conflict. Apps, who is 25, is now being treated at a spinal care unit in England. REUTERS

AYLESBURY (Reuters) - When I came round, I thought I was lying on a corpse. Then I realized it was wearing my clothes and I couldn’t feel anything below my neck.

After months of covering Sri Lanka’s growing civil war, it seemed viciously ironic to be involved in a simple road smash a short way from the front line between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

As violence spiraled from April, work had become busier, bloodier and more dangerous. I lost count of the number of dead and wounded I’d seen and the sound of distant artillery became a familiar backdrop to trips into the field.

It was hard but intensely rewarding. Frequently, we were in places few other outsiders, and no foreign journalists, had visited.

Once or twice, the mere fact a story had been written seemed to reduce the killing. More often, it didn’t, but at least it made it harder to deny that it was happening.

This was supposed to be a relatively simple trip; a few days in the eastern town of Batticaloa covering child soldier recruitment by the rebels and another group, widely believed to be government backed.

I couldn’t feel anything below my head but I could see I was slumped forward over the dashboard of our rented minibus. I tried to yell to my photographer, Buddhika Weerasinghe, but my breathing was weak and the sound barely came.

“Buddhika, my neck is broken,” I said.

From behind me in the shattered vehicle he said there had been an accident and that his leg was broken. Later, they told me the minibus had hit a tractor.

Despite his injuries, Buddhika and some passers-by lifted me from the wreck and laid me by the side of the road, careful not to move my neck.

Buddhika dug my satellite phone from my pocket and hobbled up and down the road to get a signal so he could call for help.

I stared up into the faces of worried-looking soldiers and farmers as trucks and buses inched past the wreckage, driving along a verge only a meter (three feet) from my head.

My rescuers wanted to load me onto a tractor and take me to the nearest hospital but I refused to be moved without a neck collar.

Fortunately, an American landmine clearance team happened by with a first aid kit and soon I was in an army ambulance headed for a tiny local hospital.


Three ambulances, two hospitals, a helicopter gunship and an air force transport plane later, I was back in the capital Colombo.

The next 10 days passed in a flurry. They operated for seven hours to put a metal plate in my neck to stabilize the three cracked vertebrae.

Friends, colleagues and family who flew out were constantly at my bedside. President Mahinda Rajapakse sent flowers. The Tigers sent their best wishes through the Nordic ceasefire monitoring mission.

Now I’m back in England, pursuing rehabilitation at a hospital in Buckinghamshire. Much sensation has returned, bringing with it savage, stinging pains. Violent spasms wrack most of my lower body.

There is still no real conscious movement below my neck, but the staff say it’s simply too soon to say what will happen next. Some are optimistic, some much less so.

More importantly, after fighting off pneumonia, I seem to be getting stronger. Every day, I get into a wheelchair for longer. I’m training a computer to recognize my voice -- and training my family and nursing staff to take my dictation.

Before long, I hope to be out in the local area. Even if no movement returns, the staff agree there is little good reason I can’t return to some form of journalism.

Whether I get out of here on foot or in a chair, in some shape or form I will be back.