China’s humble ‘Ark of Life’
Text and pic by Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
China and Sri Lanka established formal diplomatic ties in 1957, which were promoted to a 'strategic cooperation partnership' in May 2013. The Chinese Naval task group, comprising missile destroyer 'Changchun' and comprehensive replenishment ship 'Hefei', made the first port visit to Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka in 1985. From then on, there have been more than 10 batches, totalling over 20 ships, which made port call or berthed in Sri Lanka. In May 2017, the Chinese Naval oceangoing task group, consisting of missile destroyer 'Changchun', missile frigate 'Jingzhou' and the comprehensive replenishment ship 'Chaohu' visited Colombo.
The latest vessel that sailed from China to Sri Lanka's Colombo Port was not another submarine or a warship with multi barrels or missile destroyers as we have seen of late, but an extraordinary vessel carrying medicines and medical experts from the land of China, the country that is becoming one of the most powerful players in the global arena.
The gigantic floating sea hospital 'Peace Ark' authorized by the Central Military Commission of the People's Republic of China began its voyage with a goodwill mission to treat people from all walks of life on 26 July this year and reached the Colombo Port 6 August and left the island on 9 August. Colombo is the first port for Peace Ark to visit this year.
The 8-level white long ship – 178 mt in length with 24 mt beam, weighing 14,300 tons was built in 2009 by the Chinese. With the Red Cross emblem painted on the ship to be visibly spotted by other vessels and aircraft, it commissioned its duty in 2010.
She was set a sail on this particular Mission Harmony on 26 July from Zhoushan, Zhejiang Province of China, under the command of Rear Admiral Guan Bailin, Deputy Chief of Staff of East Sea fleet of the Chinese PLA Navy and senior Captain Jin Yi, former Political Commissar of Shanghai Naval Garrison.
Its state-of-the-art hospital is equipped with 300 beds and a medical cabin area of 4,000 square metres. There are eight surgical theatres with state-of-the-art equipment, seven doctors' offices and eight nursing stations as well as advanced medicinal practices comprising Western and the traditional Chinese medicine experts who could treat ailments using methods such as bottle cupping therapy, acupuncture, massage, and traditional physiotherapy, etc.
Advanced medical practices using CT scanner, DR and colour ultrasound scanners and Z-8 rescue helicopter operation with its own pilot and medical unit, 10 life saving boats and one high speed boat are some of the extraordinary features found on the ship. For self-defence it has light arms too. "It's an international humanitarian mission, we are protected and so, we never faced any confrontation on the sea," a crew member said.
First mission to SL
The team was very happy that for the first time they have sailed to Sri Lanka to begin their mission in the second half of this year.
The doctors and nurses, all in baby pink uniforms and white coats, was a delightful sight.
Extremely hospitable, they stood at the main nursing station at the entrance of the ship with its captain welcoming everyone, giving the impression that this is how they would welcome and treat a patient. The hospital ship also allocated hours for the Chinese living and working in Sri Lanka.
All in smiles, they welcomed the Ceylon Today writer too. On board the ship there were many Sri Lanka Navy officials and many had come with their medical files, for a health check-up. "Yes, today is the day for the Sri Lanka Navy," said Henry Liu, who accompanied the writer. It was a public day too for patients to visit the ship. We could see young and senior citizens boarding the ship. The ship also treated the Sri Lanka Forces and the Police too. Dental, eye and traditional Chinese medicine clinic were the busiest clinics that day.
Many Sri Lankans also opted for Chinese traditional medicine, which seems to work better than Western medicines, as many think. The traditional medicine experts on board could do a quick discovery of the pains and aches and treat with Chinese massage, acupuncture and cupping. They were so fast in diagnosing the pressure points and nerves that are weak or blocked before they could treat that area – the specialty of Chinese treatment.
There were nearly 200 medical experts and nurses from China. They come on the mission once a year selected by the Chinese administration, the writer was told.
Zhang Yan Zhao, who is in his early 40s, is a traditional Chinese medical practitioner and he has been on board this hospital ship for the last six years. He is also a physiotherapist. "I am a trained practitioner in Chinese medicines and to complete my studies it took five years," Yan Zhao said. He is happy to visit Sri Lanka for the first time and added this mission on the ship has given him the chance to meet many people from various countries. The mission for this year ends in December and all the staff will take a break and visit their families before they start the next sea mission in January next year.
Peace Ark was dispatched by the Chinese Navy to carry out a series of missions from 2010 and it has visited 29 countries and regions in Asia, Africa, America and Oceania and conducted free medical and humanitarian services for more than 120,000 people. The crew also told that they have visited the USA and have stationed at Hawaii and have visited many other Western countries too.
Henry Liu said China has 55 ports around the world and the ship Peace Ark is also sort of carrying a diplomatic mission to strengthen ties with their friends around the world.
Peace Ark will sail to another eight countries after she set sail from the Colombo Harbour last Wednesday and the Task Force will reach Djibouti soon. From there, she intends to reach the ports of Sierra Leone, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania and East Timor with the same mission of offering free medical services, and humanitarian assistance and conduct exchange and cooperation along with the armed forces of these countries to further consolidate and promote friendly relations and deepen professional exchange and pragmatic cooperation between the Chinese, the crew said.
Asked whether they would come to Sri Lanka again, one of the doctors said, "Yes, we'd love to but do not know when."
The SL Navy had welcomed the ship and bade goodbye in a spectacular event, to wish them well on their mission of emergency medical support platform at sea and carrying out medical treatment and transfer of the wounded and sick at sea.
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