Sri Lanka mourns the lives lost in Easter Sunday bombings

April 22, 2019

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A Sri Lankan couple mourns as they leave from a mortuary after identifying the body of their relative killed in a blast, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. — AP
A Sri Lankan couple mourns as they leave from a mortuary after identifying the body of their relative killed in a blast, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. — AP

In North of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, people have gathered at St Sebastian's church in Negombo to pay their respects at the site where dozens of people were killed during Easter prayers yesterday.

The death toll from a devastating series of eight bomb blasts that ripped through high-end hotels and churches holding Easter services in Sri Lanka on Sunday has risen to 290. The violence was the deadliest the South Asian island country has seen since a bloody civil war ended a decade ago.

With the lifting of a nationwide curfew early on Monday morning, people began to emerge into Colombo's streets, where security was heavy.

Schools and the stock exchange are closed, but some shops opened their doors and public transport was functioning.

A mother and son poured tea for security forces in a show of support, as cleaners wearing face masks cleared shattered glass and splintered wood inside the church.

Buddhist monks joined priests, nuns and ordinary people arriving to offer condolences to the victims.

“I woke up this morning and thought 'what can I do to help?'” said Churchill Karunaratne, 52, weeping as he laid flowers outside the church.

He had rushed to the church after the blast a day earlier hoping to help and found scenes of horror.

“I came after the blast and saw dead bodies everywhere,” said Karunaratne, a father-of-three.

“My kids have seen it all on the TV and now they are very scared about going to church,” he added.

“They are asking many questions such as 'where is God?'"

Bhanuka Harischandra was running a little late for his meeting on Sunday.

As a car carrying him pulled into the back entrance of the luxury Shangri-La Hotel in Sri Lanka's capital of Colombo, he realised something was wrong.

People were telling him not to come in, it wasn't safe. Still, the car pulled around to the front of the hotel and Harischandra saw the aftermath of a bombing.

People were being evacuated, others were being dragged. Blood and ambulances were everywhere.

“It was panic mode,” Harischandra, a 24-year-old founder of a tech marketing company, said by telephone later in the day. “I didn't process it for a while.”

He decided to go to the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, where he thought it would be safe. But just after he was dropped at the luxury hotel and about to enter the building, he heard another bomb go off.

Now he was being evacuated. Soot and ash fell on his white sweat shirt.

His car had left, so he hailed a motorised rickshaw and went to meet friends at a coffee shop. They contacted other friends, trying to make sure everyone they knew was safe.

It was too soon to think about what it might mean.

Many Sri Lankans remember well the terror of the 26-year war. But not Harischandra, who was just a teenager when it officially ended.

Toward the end, the conflict was not in Colombo. Growing up, he was mostly aware of his parents' anxiety about safety, not of actual fighting.

Now their anxiety is back.

“For them, it's a bit of a different situation,” he said. “They're afraid this might start racial violence.”

On Sunday night, he was with his family, observing a curfew. He said there was “a lot of tension” in the air, but he was also hoping that the worst might be over: It had been a few hours since the last blast.

Harischandra was heartened by the fact that his social media feed was flooded with photos of the lines of people waiting to give blood. Lines so long “you can't see the end. “

As Shantha Prasad carried children wounded in Sri Lanka's deadly attacks into a Colombo hospital, memories of the country's deadly civil war flooded back.

“I carried about eight wounded children yesterday,” he told AFP on Monday, a day after a string of blasts hit hotels and churches, killing nearly 300 people.

“There were two girls aged six and eight, the same age as my daughters,” said Prasad, who helps carry stretchers into the hospital's triage area and wards.

“Their clothes were torn and drenched in blood. It is unbearable to see this kind of violence again.”

For many Sri Lankans, Sunday's attacks against churches and high-end hotels brought back painful memories of a conflict that lasted three decades and killed as many as 100,000 people.

During those years, bomb attacks were a regular occurrence, and left many Sri Lankans on edge in the streets and on public transport.

In the capital, street sweeper Malathi Wickrama said Monday he was now nervous doing his job.

“Now we are afraid to even touch black plastic bags with garbage,” he said.

“The string of blasts yesterday brings back memories of the time when we were afraid to go in buses or trains because of parcel bombs.”

Imtiaz Ali, a tuk-tuk driver, was looking for customers in the capital, but said his family was in mourning over the death of his nephew in the blast that hit the Cinnamon Grand hotel.

“The boy was just 23. He was a salesman at Cinnamon Grand hotel and he was to be married next week,” Ali told AFP.

“We had made all the plans to hold the wedding at home, but today it's a funeral house.”

When Ali stopped at a petrol station to get a back-up container of fuel, the attendant said police had banned the sale of petrol and diesel in cans and bottles for fear they could be used to improvise bombs.

Elsewhere in the city, some residents were making their way into work, determined to maintain a semblance of normality despite the tragedy.

“We are resilient people,” said Nuwan Samarweera, a 50-year-old office worker.

“We have seen so much violence during the civil war. For the outside world it may be big, but for us life goes on,” he added. “We have to gather ourselves and move on.”