01 April 2012
It may be almost four months away, but Thusha Kamaleswaran is already eagerly anticipating her seventh birthday on July 20. Her excitement is heightened by the tragically unrealistic expectation that she will be able to enjoy the only present she truly wants - to be able to walk and dance once more.
When the youngster - who became Britain's youngest gangland victim after she was caught in the crossfire between two groups of violent youths - asked her parents if her wish would be granted, they were left in a terrible quandary. How do you tell a bright and lively child, brimming over with energy and enthusiasm, that she is crippled for life?
'We haven't told her that the doctors say she is permanently paralysed from the waist down because we don't want her to be upset,' explains her worried father, Jeyakumar, known as Sassi. 'We just said that she will be out of her wheelchair in time for her birthday party.'
Praying for a miracle: Thusha was finally discharged from hospital on Friday, a year after the attack. He and his wife Sharmila have also chosen to hide the painful truth from her brother Thusan, 13, and her four-year-old sister Thushaika.
Thusha has regained slight feeling in her legs and can, occasionally, move her toes. Her parents recently bought her a specially made £1,300 pink bicycle from the US to help build up her leg muscles. Yet despite these apparently encouraging signs, doctors have warned that it is extremely unlikely she will walk again.
And if the miracle her parents pray for doesn't happen this summer? Sassi's eyes flash with fierce determination. 'We want to give her hope that everything will be all right and that one day she will be able to do all the things she did before, so we'll keep lying to her for as long as we can,' he says.
It was just over a year ago, when Thusha was just five years old, that she was shot, one of two innocent victims of local gang rivalry. Moments before, she had been happily playing in the aisles of her uncle's convenience store in Stockwell, South London. CCTV footage shows her being pushed aside as two men run into the store, trying to escape three men outside. Shots are then fired into the shop.
The horrifying images show Thusha collapsing after a bullet hits her in the chest, damaging the seventh vertebra of her spine. Her heart stopped twice and she was revived by paramedics, even before arriving at hospital, where she underwent three emergency operations to save her life.
The other victim, Roshan Selvakumar, a 35-year-old local man who was buying groceries, was shot in the face. Thusha, six, with her mother, Sharmila, father, Sashi, and sister Thushika. Thusha has regained slight feeling in her legs and can, occasionally, move her toes.
Last week, Nathaniel Grant, 21, Kazeem Kolawole, 19, and Anthony McCalla, 20, were unanimously convicted by an Old Bailey jury of causing grievous bodily harm with intent and of attempted murder of their intended victim, Roshaun Bryan. They will be sentenced on April 19.
The Kamaleswaran family are not vengeful people, but they hope the judge will impose long sentences. In their first interview since the tragedy, the couple say this will send a clear message that carrying a gun is wrong. 'Those gang members didn't care who got caught in the crossfire,' says 35-year-old Sharmila, speaking through an interpreter.'They were just filled with bloodlust. It's a miracle that no one was killed. 'We could have lost all three of our children and our own lives as well - the shooting was indiscriminate.
Coming from Sri Lanka, which has experienced terrible civil war and killing, we thought our children would be safe in London. For Thusha to be shot in her uncle's shop is a terrible warning that gun crime is out of control in Britain.'Our lives have been destroyed. Thusha was an ordinary, active child, who loved dancing and playing with her friends. Her dream was to become a traditional Tamil dancer and musician. 'She's been practising from a young age but now it looks like it's all been in vain. She should be outside enjoying the sunshine, skipping around. It's hard to see her confined to a wheelchair. And it's harder still to understand the senselessness of it all. Thusha knows she's been hit by a bullet, but she doesn't understand why. When she asked, we told her that it was an accident because we wanted to protect her.
'After the court case we told her the bad men were going to prison and she said, "Good." I think she was relieved. She had been suffering terrible nightmares and was anxious that they might come back for her brother and sister.' Sharmila and Sassi, 37, arrived in Britain as asylum seekers in 2004, settling with their son in Southall, West London. Thusha and Thushaika were born in the following years. Sassi says: 'Thusha was a happy, quiet child who was keen to learn. She is very bright and loved looking at books from when she was nine months old.'
He smiles, recalling how his spirited daughter once demanded to go to school even though she had a high temperature. 'As she grew up she also loved dancing and singing,' he says. 'She has so much energy and was always moving so fast.'
In 2008, the family moved to Ilford, Essex, and, after being given indefinite leave to remain in Britain, Sassi took a job in a factory that made plastic milk bottles. He worked 12-hour shifts from 8.30pm to 8.30am, five days a week and Sharmila looked after the children. Money was tight, Sassi says, but they were happy.
'We felt safe and that was what we wanted more than anything else. We were not dreaming of material things. Our priority was to educate our children and teach them to be good citizens,' he says. But their contentment was shattered by an outburst of mindless violence on a chilly night in March last year, when Sassi was helping out at the Stockwell Food and Wine shop.
Sharmila had taken the children to collect their father and to wish their uncle, shop-owner Mahadavan Vikneswaran, a happy birthday. The youngsters played happily in the aisles before joining their mother in the back office. Sassi recalls: 'Just before 9pm, two men came running into the shop and took several bottles of alcohol from a fridge and started to throw them at the entrance door. There was a lot of noise from the broken glass and I noticed blood coming from Roshan's nose.'
Sassi called 999 and then went into the back room to check on his family. 'Someone was on the floor holding Thusha in his lap,' he says. 'I thought she'd had a fit. There was no sign of injury but she was obviously in distress and whispering that she couldn't breathe. Someone unbuttoned her top and we saw a tiny hole on her chest. I was confused because there was no blood.'
But it soon became clear that she was seriously injured. 'In the melee, I hadn't even realised that a gun had been fired, let alone that Thusha had been hit,' says Sassi. As he talks, Sharmila, a woman who exudes quiet dignity, starts to weep silently.
Specialist surgeons at King's College Hospital, in Denmark Hill, South East London, worked tirelessly through the night to staunch catastrophic internal bleeding and keep Thusha alive. Sassi spent the night in the hospital, while Sharmila waited anxiously at home for his frequent telephone updates. She says: 'The other children were crying and I was praying. It was a terrible time, but somehow I never thought she would die.'
Nothing, however, could have prepared them for their first sight of their little girl lying unconscious in intensive care.'She looked bloated, as though she had put on weight,' Sharmila says. 'Needles and wires were coming out from all over her body. It was frightening - we realised it was touch and go. We stood around her bed and cried.' The couple maintained a bedside vigil as Thusha lay unconscious. 'We hardly slept,' says Sassi, who moved into a family room next to the ward. 'I did not eat, I could hardly think.
'Everyone was phoning, asking what had happened, but I could not speak. To see her lying in a hospital bed just took all of my heart away. My other children couldn't understand why this had happened. I cannot think of a worse time in my life.'
Thusha did not regain consciousness for a week. When she did, she was unable to speak because of the tubes in her mouth, so she gestured for paper and a pen and scribbled a single word on it - 'Dad'. 'When we saw the note, we started crying all over again,' says Sassi. 'But she just raised her hand and gestured, "No, don't cry." Then she started crying too.'
From the outset, the couple, who have been married for 13 years, have been determined to shield their daughter from the horrific reality of what happened to her. They initially told her she was in hospital because she had flu. But over the following days, Thusha had to endure two more operations, which doctors said she had only a 50 per cent chance of surviving. The first was to remove a lung clot affecting her breathing. Three days later she needed surgery to correct the position of her diaphragm. Despite the odds, both procedures were successful.
'We waited outside the operating theatre hoping for good news,' says Sharmila. 'Luckily, it kept coming and we realised hope was not lost. Our little girl was fighting her way back to health very slowly. But we knew she would have a long battle ahead.'
It was not until three weeks after the shooting that Sassi and Sharmila learnt of the devastating extent of Thusha's injuries. 'We were crying then and we've been crying since,' says Sharmila. 'We didn't ask the doctor any questions about it because we didn't want to hear him repeat that she was never going to walk again.'
So they cling to the hope of a medical breakthrough. It is a desperate hope but not, they insist, a futile one. Thusha began to have some sensation in her left leg last July and has since experienced sporadic sensation in both legs. She says she can feel it when someone tickles her feet.
'On a good day she can move her toes,' says Sassi. 'Today, for example, she can't - the feeling comes and goes. It is a sign that she is making progress, but the doctors have warned us not to expect too much. They told us she may get more movement but she may not. We are praying day and night that she will recover. Stoke Mandeville has done a brilliant job, but there's still a long way to go.'
Buoyed by her parents' optimism, Thusha believes she is on the mend. Smiling shyly, she says: 'Since I have been ill I have missed playing with my friends at school and I am looking forward to going back. I really miss dancing and I hope I will be able to dance again soon, when I get better.'
Sassi says Thusha's siblings have been traumatised by the events and are worried for their sister. 'They've seen things they should never have seen and I fear they may carry the emotional scars for many years,' he says.
And he is also concerned for Sharmila. 'My wife's health has deteriorated and she now suffers from chronic insomnia,' he says. 'I've not been able to work because I've been spending all my time at the hospitals.'It's been very hard for all of us, but we've had a lot of support from so many people - from the paramedics who saved her life, to the doctors and physiotherapist and also the police. Several officers are doing a charity run to raise money for Thusha.'
Despite these acts of kindness there are moments when, looking at his wheelchair-bound daughter, Sassi regrets having come to Britain. 'But then I remember how bad it was in my homeland,' he says. His main worry now is the financial cost of her many care needs.
Kara Smith of Stewarts Law is representing Thusha in her claim to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. It is a protracted process and it could take up to five years for Thusha to get any money. Even then, the most the family can expect is £500,000, the maximum payout possible from the Government-funded scheme. Comparable injuries would attract payouts of about £5 million had they been caused in a road traffic accident, as they are settled by insurance companies.
Although Thusha has been spending more time at home in recent months, it was only on Friday that she was officially discharged from Stoke Mandeville. It is a significant milestone, and the family can now only pray that her birthday wish will be granted.
'There's a special temple that we like to go to for a Hindu goddess,' says Sharmila. 'People tell us that many miracles have come from this temple and we hope the same thing will happen to us.'