A report from ground zero
V Shoba | 25 Apr, 2019
SEATED ON A PLASTIC chair in her porch with friends and family, Kachakaduge Chandrani Fernando, 45, casts back to Easter Sunday in Negombo, a seaside town in Sri Lanka floundering in the despair of losing over 100 people to the deadliest of the six co- ordinated bombings in churches and hotels on April 21st. “We were sitting right here,” she says, glancing in the direction of her only daughter, nine-year-old Diniti Nitsarani, who seems implausibly happy pretend-riding a visitor’s scooter. Fernando’s husband, Warnakulasuriya Diluk Fernando, 38, should not have died in the terrorist attacks that Sunday on St Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya, Negombo. Their small, tile-roofed house, set back in the compound by about 20 ft, sits directly behind the church, across the road that has never before seen the kind of traffic that has driven through the town in the past three days. The Fernandos were late for the morning mass and while Chandrani was disappointed that she could not flaunt her new outfit—a flowing dress, accessorised with a watch and her favourite handbag—at church, the family decided to participate in the prayers from their private vantage point. “Even when we saw the explosion, we did not think it would claim one of us,” Chandrika Fernando says. Her husband, seven years younger than her, died in her arms of multiple shrapnel wounds. “My husband was a carpenter and I always joked that he would die of inhaling sawdust. I could not believe his body was cold already,” she says.
Fernando’s and her daughter’s stories have been partitioned into two clear realms, a life of fulfilment even in the face of dire poverty—the family struggled to make a living on a monthly income of 12,000 Sri Lankan rupees—and the long afterlife of loss where the survivors must now not only cope emotionally but also find their financial and social footing afresh. “We never had a TV, not even a radio. We have always rented, we don’t own any property. But never have we felt so poor. Will you take us to India? We don’t feel like we can live here anymore,” Fernando says. The house, a decrepit two-room rental with barely any furniture and a rustic kitchen at the back, is teeming with people, including a crime-scene investigation crew that is busy reconstructing the events of Sunday. An engineer in a white shirt and a dark tie, surrounded by policemen in neon bibs, draws an image of the black gate, highlighting the small hole to the upper corner that a flying piece of shrapnel must have made on its way in. His colleague photographs tiny shards of glass from a window. Other such crews resume investigation at the bombed-out church building even as the tight-knit Catholic community of Negombo struggles to piece itself together amidst mass funerals and the search for missing bodies. Survivors walk around with memories of curling up in shock and pain amidst the pews and of waking up to the ubiquity of death, barely recognising themselves in the photographs of their emotional annihilation splashed across front pages over the past few days.
The walls in the neighbourhood are plastered with portraits of entire families that perished in the attack. White streamers and flags flutter tenderly against the sultry summer sky. Mango trees laden with fruit guard the gates of handsome residences, hiding the gloom that prevails within. “Overnight, life as we knew it has vanished. Now, we have to live with the pain of not being able to save our friends and family,” says Dantika Ramari De Silva, 57, a helper and cleaner at St Sebastian’s who pulls herself together to sound the gong as three hearses pull into the precinct for a funeral service on the April 24th afternoon attended by dozens of locals, priests and nuns, and cardinal Albert Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Sri Lanka. Intensely musical Sinhalese hymns ground the experience in a sense of communal bereavement. “We brought my mother home after the post-mortem on April 22nd because the undertaker had 16 other funerals lined up before we approached him. There are only three florists here and we found ourselves on the waitlist for flowers too,” says Christy Ajith Rohan, 45. His mother, MD Celine Mary Magdalene, 73, who died of shock when the blast rocked the church, is among the three victims to be buried today. Rohan’s sister and her 12-year-old daughter, who had accompanied Celine, escaped unscathed but the family, which has lost 15-20 close friends, says it could be a while before they can return to normalcy. “There may be terrorists out there and there certainly are more bombs to be found in the days to come,” fears Rohan.
The tangible dread in Sri Lanka—whose Parliament on April 24th approved the implementation of emergency regulations for a month, giving police wide-ranging powers to arrest, detain and interrogate suspects without a court order—cuts across communities. Colombo by evening is a stark, silent city abandoned by tourists and locals alike. News of bomb squads conducting controlled explosions has set commuters on edge; car parks, hotels and cinemas are on alert; schools and colleges remain shut; some areas of the capital including the road to Colombo’s main airport are subject to closure at the first whiff of trouble. But the fears run deeper still. Muslims, a minority in Sri Lanka at 9.7 per cent of a population of 23 million, and Christians, who total about 7.4 per cent—Sinhalese and Tamils among them, have enjoyed a decade of relative peace after the end of the 26-year-long civil war that killed over 100,000 civilians; they now worry they may never again experience more than a short-lived sense of security or freedom. While the country seems to have set aside ethnic and religious differences to caution against the targeting of the moderate Muslim community, facts emerging from the investigation into the Easter bombings point to a steady radicalisation of a small section of Muslims in pockets along the east and west coasts.
The tangible dread in Sri Lanka cuts across communities. However, Muslims, a minority at 9.7 per cent of the country’s population, and Christians, who total about 7.4 per cent, now worry they may never again experience more than a short-lived sense of security or freedom
The attacks on April 21st that killed over 350 people and wounded hundreds defy recognised patterns of terrorism. With the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS) claiming responsibility and releasing an as-yet-unverified video of the purported suicide bombers, the Sri Lankan government billed the episode as an act of retaliation for the attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15th that killed 50. But it is not clear yet if the National Thowheed Jamath, a local extremist group led by the radical preacher Mohammad Zahran or Zahran Hashim that is thought to have masterminded the attacks, was directly operated, funded, trained or advised by the IS, or why Sri Lanka, a soft but small target, interested the IS in the first place. Whether the motivations were local or IS-driven, the units had to have mobilised much before Christchurch. Addressing a media briefing on April 24th, the country’s state minister of defence, Ruwan Wijewardene, stopped short of admitting the state had been aware of radicalised Islamists operating in hot zones along the coast for a while now, and that it did little to contain them. Following the vandalism of statues of Lord Buddha in Mawanella, Kegalle district, in December 2018, a raid conducted in January in Wanathawilluwa in Puttalam district in the northwest had yielded over 100 kg of explosives. Several arrests were made, but two suspects with political connections were allegedly released before a full enquiry could be conducted. Opposition leader and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa has sought a clarification in Parliament about the suspected involvement of the two men from Mawanella in the Easter attacks. Ruwan Gunasekara, attorney-at-law superintendent of police director and media spokesperson, has said, however, that none of the suicide bombers had a serious criminal record. “Some were involved in petty crime but nothing serious,” he said, speaking to the media. Investigators have identified eight of the nine bombers, including a woman, and busted safe houses in Dematagoda, Colombo, the site of another explosion, and in Negombo and Panadura to the north and south of the capital. Over 60 people have been arrested so far, all of them Sri Lankans. Many were educated and independently wealthy, and some of them had degrees from the UK and Australia, Minister Wijewardene added.
It is now clear that a major lapse on the part of the government, which had slipped into a holiday mood ahead of Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, made the attacks possible. At the heart of the problem is an unimaginable failure to disseminate specific intelligence about the blasts, provided by India and other countries, time and again, to the president, the prime minister and others in the government who claim to have had no knowledge of what was going to happen. A letter addressed to the inspector general of police (IGP) by the head of the National Intelligence Unit and a former CID director Sisira Mendis on April 9th warned of a possible attack on churches. The letter was then forwarded by the IGP to a number of deputy inspector generals, none of whom apparently acted on it or informed ministers of the threat. Further, India supplied specific intelligence to the Sri Lankan police, listing possible attacks and even giving phone numbers of suspects. The rift between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to be another fault line in communications that has seriously undermined the credibility of the government. “It is very unfortunate that information was not passed on to us. The intelligence apparatus was active and functioning during the war, but after the war, especially after the new government coming in, there has apparently been a spirit of complacency. They lowered their guard,” said Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, talking to Open. “They should have told us and we would have stopped all the masses. These people came to the church with a lot of trust and hope and faith and their lives have been completely shattered.” The archbishop, hailed for his efforts to maintain communal peace, said representatives of Muslim communities had called on him and he did not believe they had anything to do with the attacks. “It looks like a Christian-oriented attack. The bulk of the people who died were from the three churches. And they picked a date important to Christians. Then, the three hotels they targeted had advertised special Easter breakfasts and brunches. So there was an Easter nuance. They expected Christians to be there. Unfortunately, even Muslims have died,” he said. “I have told the Catholic population not to attribute the attack to Muslims, not to raise a hand against them. The Holy Father has been conducting dialogue with Muslim envoys from various parts of the world. I have personally been friendly towards Muslims since we have a common ancestor in Abraham.”
Western Province Governor Mohamed Azath Sanoon Salley claims Muslim leaders warned the government of radicalised groups three or four years ago. “We have alerted them at least five to six times. But the roots go back to 1994 or even earlier. Unfortunately, when the state doesn’t act on our reports, it is our people who have to fear reprisal when an attack happens.”
Muslims are extremely embarrassed, says Mohamed Azath Sanoon Salley, governor of the Western Province. Many older Muslims in Sri Lanka possess the unique advantage of speaking all three languages—Tamil, Sinhala and English—but this is disappearing under the current schooling system where only some schools offer bilingual teaching from Grade 6 onwards, with subjects like mathematics and science taught in English and others in the mother tongue. “With this attack, a large number of Muslims employed in sectors like hospitality could become unemployable,” says Salley. “Over the years the education system had become segregationist—Sinhalese Buddhist-run schools would rarely admit Muslims, for instance—but the government is trying to remedy this. It has also expressed interest in banning the burqa and niqab in Sri Lanka. These are welcome measures but, on the other hand, when Tablighi Jamaat leaders are campaigning on the ground for calm to prevail, they are being arrested as suspects,” Salley says. The governor claims Muslim leaders first warned the government of radicalised groups in the country three or four years ago. “We have alerted them at least five to six times. But the roots go back to 1994 or even earlier. Unfortunately, when the state doesn’t act on our reports, it is our people who have to fear reprisal when an attack happens,” he says.
Hardline Buddhists from the ethnic Sinhala community have in the past tried to whip up sentiment against Muslims by emulating Myanmar. In 2013, they targeted mosques and Muslim establishments in Colombo in a series of clashes that saw the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) emerge as a front for Buddhist activism. But now, even the BBS has said it stands with Muslims in their hour of anxiety. “We are not against Muslims, though we get blamed for any attack on them. The Easter attacks have not succeeded in that sense—all communities stand together and will not tolerate any more bloodshed,” BBS spokesperson Dilanthe Withanage told Open in a rare statement of solidarity. “We are, however, concerned that successive governments are allowing Muslim radicalisation to happen in the country for fear of antagonising the community. Minority politics may be the flavour of the day but political opportunism and complacency cannot take precedence over national security,” he added.
For Sri Lankans who still nurse the wounds of war, the mind snaps shut at the possibility of running down chaotic streets confronting a new and horrific threat. “We felt like ants living in constant fear of the shadow of the shoe looming over us,” says AS Raja, 51, a Catholic Tamil—Tamils are 16 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population—from Kilinochchi who is waiting at Gate 3 of the National Hospital of Sri Lanka in Colombo. “We moved to Colombo 13 years ago after my father lost both his legs in an LTTE blast. To face the threat of war again is unthinkable,” says the haggard-faced cab driver. His family survived the attack on St Anthony’s Church in Colombo, where they are regulars, with relatively minor injuries—his wife’s sister is still getting treated for minor burns on her face and his 18-year-old son Kevin has shrapnel lodged in his upper arm that needs operating. But Raja is disconsolate. “This feels like the beginning of something,” he says. “The church is visited by a lot of poor Tamil devotees. Being Christian and Tamil makes us feel doubly at risk.”
Elsewhere in the city, stories of near-misses keep dinnertime conversations from straying into sadness. At artist Senaka Senanayake’s tranquil residence, his wife Jennifer talks about friends who decided to stay home that fateful morning and about their own visit to Cinnamon Grand Hotel, one of the sites where tragedy struck, the previous night to celebrate their daughter’s birthday. She only mentions in passing, however, that the roof of the patio we sit talking under had caved in from an attack during the civil war. “Sri Lankans forget and forgive easily. I am sure we will bounce back from this attack as long as there are no extreme reactions,” Senanayake says.
Are the attacks and the cloud of suspicion hanging over Sri Lanka a harbinger of worse to come? Even as search operations are underway and reports of further arrests, seizure of arms and raids on other terrorist safehouses across the island are trickling in, police sources say a Muslim reaction after Friday prayers at prominent mosques in Colombo may exacerbate tensions. Ironically, they are just as worried about a possible attack on moderate Kuppu palli and Awuliya palli mosques by extremists. But should the day pass without incident, it will mark the beginning of an era of watchful co-operation among the religious groups of Sri Lanka. “I have seen hospitals turn mortuaries during the civil war, and I can tell you no Muslim, Christian or Buddhist deserves to be in a place like that,” says Mary A (name changed), a nurse at the National Hospital, who watched the stretchers lurch urgently on Easter, most of them bearing lolling heads and mutilated bodies. Fifty- one victims were wheeled into the hospital, including 11 foreigners. A hopeless rain drums the shelter outside the gate where crows and journalists hang around all day. Old wounds ache more, and Mary’s are burnt into her eyes. “Only when we stop counting the dead can we start treating ourselves,” she says.