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Sri Lanka limps on from bloody Easter Sunday

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Vesak, this year, turned out to be eerily quiet. Single strings of lights lined houses and government buildings. The wind fanned fallen leaves through empty streets.

A security officer stands alert as students return to school following the reopening of schools across Sri Lanka on 6 May, in the wake of the Easter attacks. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)Vesak in Sri Lanka is a national holiday, held every May to celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. During Vesak, Sri Lanka is usually full of tents offering free food to the masses. In Colombo there are lamps, multicoloured lanterns and religious installations. Though the holiday is a religious day, it is celebratory, and a chance for communities to socialise. This year, the mood was tainted by the Easter Sunday attacks, which had occurred just weeks previous.

A couple of days after Vesak, Sri Lanka's Muslim communities celebrated the end of Ramadan. Wattalapam, a coconut custard pudding made out of condensed milk, is a staple during this period. Usually, the dessert evokes happy memories in many Sri Lankans. This time it, too, evoked memories of a peaceful period that had been cut short by violence. 

On Easter Sunday, several suicide bombers entered churches during service and luxury hotels during breakfast. They exploded bombs in rapid succession that killed 257 people and injured another 496. Victims included locals and international visitors.

Waves of sadness rippled through local communities that had been prepared to celebrate a decade of peace since the conclusion of the Civil War in 2009. Neighbourhoods in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa experienced the deepest pain as families and friends perished in the blink of an eye. Pictures of mass funerals for victims in Negombo's St Sebastian Church are particularly heartbreaking.

While my family attended funerals on the morning of 22 April, I got ready to report on the crisis that unfolded throughout the country. I found it challenging to lay aside the intense pain I experienced and focus on my job. At night, memories of people's tears slipped into my dreams.

We visited Kochikade (or St Anthony's church), a church that my grandmother regularly prayed in. The area is usually busy, full of buses, cars and tuk tuks passing each other in rapid succession. Now, blue guards stood in a semi-circle in front of the church. An unsettling stillness pervaded the entire area, broken only by busy reporters hunting stories and photographers clicking cameras.


"Our freedom has been extinguished by the events of one morning. Anxiety and vigilance have become part of our daily routines once again."


We visited the house of Delicia Fernando, a local from Kotahena. She had lost her husband, the primary earner and caretaker of her family. As she sat huddled among family members, friends from the local community and clergy, Delicia described the bomb that had exploded at 8.45am during morning Mass. The church clock remains frozen in time. She detailed the chaos inside the church and her surprise upon realising her husband's fate.

Throughout the next couple of days, I gained exposure to similar scenes at hospitals, mortuaries and local neighbourhoods. No one complained. They continued doing their jobs, but a deep numbness radiated from their bodies during our short conversations.

Entire communities were in shock. They could not comprehend the events, much less process the emotional trauma they had experienced. Many people brought up stories about their life during Sri Lanka's three decade long Civil War, but explained that it never compared to an event of this magnitude.

For the past ten years we had the freedom to live freely. Soldiers no longer patrolled the streets. Security checks and checkpoints ceased to exist. No one rushed home after spending time outside. Suspicion and paranoia had seeped out of the country. Our freedom has been extinguished by the events of one morning. Anxiety and vigilance have become part of our daily routines once again.

All of this could have been prevented. The government had intelligence reports about the attack. They failed to respond to them. People's lives have been mercilessly lost because of bureaucratic negligence. Neither the President nor the Prime Minister has resigned. No one has been held accountable. Ethnic tensions heated, up leading to a series of riots in May. The government responded half-heartedly by banning social media.

Trauma has become a strong undercurrent running through the fabric of our country.

During Poson, a celebration of the entrance of Buddhism into Sri Lanka, I passed three tents presenting free sago, tea and jaggery to pedestrians. Though the fanfare of past years did not exist, it appears the country, though still damaged, is limping through to recovery. The question is, can this recovery be sustained if the emotional pain is still to be unpacked?



Devana SenanayakeDevana Senanayake is a political reporter and radio producer focusing on intercultural racism, immigration, de-colonisation, diasporas and food. In 2017, she won Writer's Victoria Women of Colour Commission for her essay Misplaced in Pop about the misplacement of South Asian actors in Western media. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @dsenanayake16

Main image: A security officer stands alert as students return to school following the reopening of schools across Sri Lanka on 6 May, in the wake of the Easter attacks. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Devana Senanayake, Sri Lanka, Easter Sunday attacks



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Existing comments

Religious communities can play an important role in helping people heal. Today I spoke to a group of school children about what being 'one' meant to them. I received some very thoughtful answers. Sri Lanka has been crushed by this ferocious attack and memories will continue to be painful and raw. There has been so much trauma in recent decades that advising about being 'one' may sound trite. Yet festivals like Vesak must continue.

Pam | 25 June 2019  

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