They say I'll dance again

Welcome to Ilford, in Essex. We’ve come to watch a little girl walk. Not something you would usually travel far to see, but the girl in question, the youngest recorded victim of the gun epidemic blighting our inner cities, was previously told that she would never walk again.

She’s not walking yet, mind you, because I’ve just arrived. So we’re sitting on the sofa together, me and Thusha Kamaleswaran, aged 7, along with her sensible older brother, Thusan, 14, and her cheeky five-year-old sister, Thushika. Their parents are in the kitchen, fixing tea, so I ask Thusha to draw in my notebook a sketch of the exciting occasion, late last year, when she first started to walk again at Stoke Mandeville hospital.

Taking my pen, she draws herself, a stick figure with long hair. She looks extremely pleased, though I will rapidly conclude that Thusha beams all the time, even when discussing being shot at. And it turns out that she’s not the only member of the family conspiring to keep the others happy by hiding behind a cheerful mask.

Next, Thusha draws the rest of the family in a similar style, but with shorter, spiky hair for the men. I ask her to draw a speech bubble, and write how she felt at the time. She draws two: “I’m happy”, says the first. The second one says: “I’m tired.” She beams again, and hands me back my pen.

Then her brother shows me the fish tank and, unexpectedly, asks for my phone number so that he can send me a text message – of which more later. And their parents arrive with my tea.

Sassi and Sharmila Kamaleswaran came to the UK nine years ago as asylum seekers from Jaffna, one of the cities worst affected by Sri Lanka’s civil war. Their son was five. Thusha was born the following year, and the second girl soon after.

In 2008 the family were given indefinite leave to remain in the UK. Sassi, who in Sri Lanka had been managing director of a profitable rice mill, worked 12-hour shifts as a packer in a plastic milk bottle factory. When Sharmila’s brother joined them in London, to work in a shop in Stockwell, ten miles away, Sassi went to work there too, on the two days each week when he was not working in the factory.

And he was working there one Tuesday two years ago when Sharmila brought the children to visit the shop, so they could all go home together. It was a school day, but visiting the shop was a treat – because they would be allowed to help themselves to sweets.

“My favourites are Skittles,” says Thusa, who was five years old at the time. “Especially the green and red ones.” Her brother likes Skittles too, but her younger sister declares a preference for strawberry chewing gum.

Stockwell Food & Wine was much like any other small shop of its kind. Catering to some of the most deprived parts of south London, it had a counter to the left of the door as shoppers entered, where Sassi manned the till. Further back, basics and essentials were stacked on shelves around the walls and on a solitary island in the middle. The shop floor was not neatly rectangular but slightly bent towards the left as you come in. At the back, there was an office, and a store room that the children liked to play in because it was always full of sweets.

But on the evening of 29 March 2011, the whole family was in the shop, waiting for Sassi to finish. Thusa, dressed in red school uniform, with her hair tied back in pigtails, was dancing in front of her parents. At around 9pm, two men came flying in from outside, pushing into Sharmila and knocking her son aside. The men 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. Thusha fell to the floor. Before anybody really knew what had happened, the intruders had gone.

It hadn’t occurred to any of the family that Thusha had been shot. But she wasn’t the only one. Another Sri Lankan, Roshan Selvakumar, who lived above the shop, had been hit at the top of his nose. When Thusha’s uncle, Vicknes Mahadevan, heard the noise he came rushing out of the office. “There was blood everywhere,” he remembers. “It was horrible.”

Thusha told her parents she was having difficulty breathing, so they took off her cardigan and they found a tiny hole, where a bullet had entered the front of her chest. Beneath her was a growing pool of blood. Later they would see the hole in her back, marking the bullet’s exit, and learn that the bullet had passed through the seventh vertebrae in the then-five-year-old’s spine. It’s a miracle that she was not killed outright – but it was clear at once that she had sustained grave damage.

Sassi called the emergency services, and while they waited witnesses came inside the shop to say what they had seen. Three youths on bikes had chased two others, on foot, from the nearby Stockwell Park Estate and into the shop. The riders, wearing white masks over their faces, clambered off their bikes and one of them fired twice into the shop.

Thusha said she could not feel her legs. “We were very worried,” her mother says, speaking through an interpreter. “I looked calm on the outside but inside I was fearful and sad, because we didn’t know what might happen.”

Her brother remembers getting in quite a state too. “I wasn’t saying anything,” he says. “But inside I was panicking.” After nine years in London schools, he speaks much better English than his parents.

Thusha fainted.

When paramedics arrived, they decided to operate on Thusha at once, to stabilise her and ensure she could breathe, before taking her to hospital. Twice, she went into cardiac arrest. Astonishingly, some bystanders jeered at the paramedics. One reportedly asked a policeman why they were bothering, as the victim was “just a Paki”.

Sharmila took the other children home, and Sassi accompanied their unconscious daughter in the ambulance to King’s College Hospital, where surgeons worked through the night to keep her alive. Sharmila waited at home for news. “The other children were crying and I was praying,” she remembers. “It was a terrible time.”

The other victim, Selvakumar, was taken to hospital too, and likewise treated as critically injured.

For a week, Thusha did not regain consciousness. Her parents held vigils by her bed, and Sassi moved into the hospital to be nearby at all times. Soon after, he gave up work to do this. When Thusha did finally come to, they wanted to protect her from the awfulness of what had happened, and told her she was in hospital because she had flu. Unable to speak because of the tubes in her mouth, 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.”

Mere flu couldn’t explain why Thusha needed surgery – lots more surgery – in the weeks that followed. On one occasion doctors said she had only a 50 per cent chance of survival.

That period was the worst, says Sassi. ““Everyone was phoning, asking what had happened, but I could not speak,” he said. “To see her lying in a hospital bed just took all of my heart away.”

Three weeks after the operation, doctors told Thusha’s parents she would never walk again. She was paralysed from the chest down. The muscles and nerves in her legs and lower body still worked but were no longer controlled by her brain. Damage to her spine also affected her legs, bladder and bowels.

It soon became clear that she remembered a little about the shooting – men in white masks, and being caught in crossfire. She couldn’t understand why she had been hit by a bullet, and started having terrible nightmares. She worried that the gunmen might come for her brother and sister. 

Gradually, to the doctors’ surprise, she recovered some sensation in her legs, and physiotherapists at Stoke Mandeville worked to get her back on her feet with a technique called “stepping” – using Thusha’s weight to get her muscles into the pattern of walking, using muscle memory rather than brain control. Her brother shows me what this looked like, in footage on his smart phone: much like walking, on a treadmill, though Thusha sat in a harness to take most of the weight.

A year ago, when Thusha was finally discharged after 12 months in hospital, her parents told a newspaper that they would continue to embellish her prospects. ‘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,” her father said.

Bearing that in mind, I wondered when I came here if the miracle recovery might have been overstated. So I’m eager to see her walk. First, her father fetches a child-sized zimmer frame. Then he carries Thusha to stand behind it, and the photographer, Akira Suemori, arranges the family around her. She manages to move her left leg forward, but to bring the right foot alongside it requires a gentle shove from behind, from Sassi’s foot.

Next, Sassi lowers his daughter onto the floor, straps on her leg braces and a kind of corset over her dress, and lifts her tenderly into a kind of “standing wheelchair”, which Thusha balances on to move from the tiny sitting room into the kitchen, and back. When they leave the room, accompanied by the photographer, I get the first moment alone with Sharmila (and the interpreter). Thusha’s mother has not said much till now, because even when I asked her questions directly, her husband has tended to answer.

I’m startled to see tears running down her cheeks.

“I am disappointed and sad that Thusha is not walking,” she says. “But I don’t show her that. Thusha has a lot of hope, and always tells us she has hope. So in front of her we always talk about her making a great recovery. We say that one day, instead of us fetching everything for her, she will make the tea for us. That’s what she says she wants to do.”

Thusha can, of course, do many other things that ordinary seven-year-olds do. I’ve seen her drawing, she has toys and computer games, and she often has friends over to play. But I’m unclear, after this exchange, whether she really can expect to walk again. She’s obviously doing much better than doctors said she would a year ago, but she’s not there yet. I phone later to ask Sassi what her expectations are – in a conversation translated by Thusan – and I’m assured that Thusha will dance again. Is he embellishing again?

Sharmila has suffered insomnia and depression, put on weight, and recently had a minor stroke. She says she has twice only narrowly avoided being killed in traffic, because she wanders about in a daze, thinking constantly about Thusha’s predicament.

Her son, who has shouldered a lot as the best English speaker in the family, says his friends at school have never mentioned what happened to Thusha. And he’s grateful for that – but has occasionally broken down with his teachers, asking if his sister will ever get up and walk again.

If Sassi seems stronger, it’s perhaps because he has thrown himself into busyness, carrying his daughter everywhere and doing everything else too. He gets up at 5.30 to start preparing the children for school (bathtime for Thusha isn’t easy). He takes his son to school first then goes back to drive the girls to theirs, comes home for three or four hours to look after the house and prepare dinner – his speciality, a family favourite, is Chinese noodles and chicken – then shoots out again to collect the children from their different schools. Sharmila can’t drive, and the schools are far away, so Sassi sees no prospect of returning to work soon.

His energy, and sheer determination, will not be enough.

With neither parent good at English, after nine years here, the family faces enormous difficulties. They don’t seem to know where to turn for help. And the stairlift is broken, but to mend it would cost £120 and the family can’t afford that. The dilapidated, rotting wooden lean-too beside the house was supposed to be converted into a downstairs room for Thusa, but nothing happened. And Sassi says the council has not made any modifications to the lavatory either, as they promised to do.

I ask if I can help by phoning their MP, and do so. Within minutes, Lee Scott MP is telling me he wrote to the family at the time of the shooting and never heard back. He gives them his mobile number and tells them not to worry because everything will be sorted out.

I think he means it, but that’s a big promise.

The family will have to pay for Thusha’s care, which could run into millions, and the most they can expect from the government-funded Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority is £500,000, the highest payout possible. Comparable injuries would attract payouts of about £5million if they were caused in a road traffic accident, as they are settled by insurance companies.

“We have lost everything,” says Sassi. “We have no money and we don’t know what will happen to us in the future.”

Police who investigated the shooting launched an appeal to raise £30,000, last year, by climbing the three highest peaks in the UK. Others too have contributed.

And Thusan, the dutiful older brother, has turned into a dogged fundraiser: that text he sent me, within three minutes of arriving in his house, which arrived while his sister was still drawing her moment of triumph at Stoke Mandeville, provided me with bank details, for making a donation.

First published in The Sunday Times