Cigarette-fetching errand costs 7-year old a broken leg

by Namini Wijedasa
Pix by Jude Denzil Pathiraja

old1.jpg (19320 bytes)Nirangesh Mendis was scared that ‘van uncle’ would twist his ears if he did not cross the street and buy him a cigarette. Usually it would tingle for one hour after van uncle twisted his ears, he grumbled.

So when the driver of his school van parked on Perahera Mawatha around the Beira lake and ordered the seven-year-old kid to run across the road for a cigarette, Nirangesh promptly obeyed.

"Send a cigarette with that kid," the driver yelled to the woman who was behind the counter at the boutique. Completing the transaction, Nirangesh grabbed the cigarette and stepped onto the road, his eyes on the van with its driver waiting impatiently for his smoke.

The accident happened very fast. A car, which Nirangesh remembers as being black in colour, slammed into his left leg as he moved forward. The force of impact caused the boy to swivel around and grab another car parked behind his. His leg bone was snapped in two. His shoe was found some 25 to 30 feet away.

The car pulled up ahead and both drivers ran to Nirangesh. When the car owner showed concern and offered to take the boy to hospital, the van driver reportedly told him to go way.

"Van uncle told that uncle to go way and that van uncle will look after me," Nirangesh told the Sunday Island. "That uncle was big and fat and black colour."

The car drove away. The van driver carried Nirangesh to the vehicle. There was only one other boy that day for the return journey home. Both were from St. Thomas College, Mt. Lavinia. It was May 13 and other kids who travelled in the van were on holiday. Apparently confident that he could mask the true facts of the case, the van driver threatened both boys to maintain that Nirangesh had broken his leg falling down a school staircase.

"He told me to tell my mother that I had fallen down the stairs and said to watch out if I didn’t," Nirangesh recounted. "He said that even if my parents kept asking, I was to say I had tripped down the stairs. He scared me."

The van driver wanted to take Nirangesh to hospital but the boy insisted on being taken home. Giving heed, he drove Nirangesh to his home in Maradana where his mother, Ranga, had been scanning the road for the van which usually brought her son by 2.30 pm. She was wondering about the delay that day.

He told Ranga that the boy had broken his leg in school and offered to take both mother and son to hospital. He even claimed that he had carried the boy to the van from the school premises. Worried and upset by the sight of the silent Nirangesh, Ranga was gratified by the offer and immediately accepted. The driver took them to the accident ward of the Colombo National Hospital where Ranga telephoned her husband, Nirmesh. She sent the van driver home after Nirmesh made arrangements to arrive at the hospital immediately.

Doctors at National Hospital told the anxious parents to take Nirangesh to the accident ward of the Lady Ridgeway Hospital because he was a mere child. The x-rays confirmed that his leg had snapped in two. It was placed in a cast, a move which meant that Nirangesh would not be able to attend lessons in school for at least two months.

Later in the evening, discussing the accident, Ranga and Nirmesh felt decidedly grateful to the van driver who had taken the trouble to bring their son safely home. Nirmesh said he would buy the man a shirt in order to express their thanks.

The accident would have passed off as a mere misstep down a school staircase if the owners of the boutique on Perahera Mawatha (from where the van driver bought his cigarette) hadn’t thought the case worth pursuing. Concerned that such incidents may be repeated — they had seen it happen before — they requested another van driver to tell the relevant authorities in Nirangesh’s school what had happened.

The morning after the accident, Nirmesh visited St. Thomas College to inform the principal that his son would not attend school because of an accident which had occurred on the institution’s own premises. The facts available to the parents showed negligence on the part of the school, Nirmesh observed. The class teacher would be particularly blameworthy. The school was concerned.

A few hours after Nirangesh left, however, the boutique owners’ message arrived. It prompted the class teacher to visit the shop with the intention of investigating the matter further. Armed with full details, she went to Nirangesh’s parents and related the story.

Nirangesh had been prayerfully maintaining so far that he had fallen down the stairs. Also terrified of repercussions, the other kid who had been in the vehicle echoed his story. On questioning, however, both children came out with the truth.

It was also discovered that the van driver, a 22-year-old youth, had previously sent children across the road for cigarettes. "When Salome is there, he doesn’t do it," Nirangesh said. Salome was the van owner’s daughter who travelled in the same van.

Nirangesh’s victimisation at the hands of his van driver was discovered only because two responsible adults in a wayside boutique decided they could not let the matter go. Police have now started proceedings against the errant party.

However, as Nirangesh’s own parents pointed out, this particular incident is a minute drop in a sea of undetected abuses in school vans.

"For this one isolated case of abuse which came out, there must be hundreds of others which go unreported," commented Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne, programme officer at UNICEF handling the learning, adolescence and protection section.

"We are finding out that what we usually think as safe zones for children — schools, institutions, the home and the school van — are really not safe zones because adults in these zones are abusing the kids," she lamented.

In Nirangesh’s case, she noted, the van driver obviously used the child in a manner which was not remotely in the interest of the child. In one sense, he legitimised and promoted smoking by telling the child to buy the cigarette for him. "Secondly, he was wrong to send him anyway," Wijemanne criticised. "He should have gone himself instead of sending a seven-year-old child across the road by himself."

People, she said, must understand that children have rights and that they need to be protected — not only their own children but those of the entire society. "This man may not have sent his own child to buy that cigarette," she observed.

"We feel it is our fault that we did not inquire more deeply into the background of the driver into whose care we entrusted our son," Nirmesh said. "Parents must be more careful, they must investigate. For instance, our son was being driven around by a mere 22-year-old who may not even have the ability to handle kids that age."

Nirangesh confessed that the van driver was given to twisting the ears of children who did not behave.

"Some school vans on the roads are not fit to carry chickens, let alone children," Nirmesh continued. "The police usually apprehend these vehicles only for traffic offences."

Some parents don’t press about the quality of the service because they were so thankful for having found a van that travels the route they required, Ranga said. She said that she knew of many mothers who kept quiet about "minor" inconveniences (such as overcrowding) because they did not want to lose the service. Finding another van was often a tortuous task. For instance, they had searched for months before finding a van which travelled from Maradana to Mt. Lavinia.

Wijemanne said that much worse cases of abuse occur in school vans, particularly sexual. Ignorant about what is being done to them, children are subject to various sorts of harassment that may never be revealed. She stressed the importance of stringent laws and even stricter enforcement. There has to be a concerted effort on the part of society and law enforcement authorities to combat the problem. There also has to be protective education for children.

Commenting on Nirangesh’s case, Wijemanne saw an important development: the boutique owners acted responsibility showing greater conscience in society. "They were excellent," she praised. "This is what we want."

"We must conscientise society and get as many people as possible to condemn incidents such as these," she urged.

Back at home, Nirangesh sat in his wheelchair near the entrance of his home and stared wistfully at the kids playing in a nearby Montessori school. He would be laid up for more than two months but the gutsy guy said that he wasn’t scared any more. "Why should I be scared?" he scoffed with bravado.

The question to ask, rather, is that why should he ever have been scared?