Despatch from Colombo | International

Portraits of the victims

Just after the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka on April 21 last year, Ramesh Raju featured in a few media reports.

From eyewitness accounts, it appears that the father of two had sensed some danger that Sunday morning. He tried to intercept the backpack-wearing young man at the Zion Church in Batticaloa in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province. Except that he couldn’t. As the young man — later identified as a suicide bomber — blew himself up, Raju, along with the dozens gathered there on Easter Sunday, including at least 14 children, died.

In the desperate clamour for information on who was behind the ghastly terror attacks that shook Sri Lanka’s relative peace after its civil war, the story’s focus soon shifted away from the victims. It turned to the nine suicide bombers, their murderous mission targeting churches and plush hotels in Colombo, nearby Negombo and Batticaloa, and their likely motives. Those who died were all clamped together in a number, reportedly over 270 now, after a few seriously injured succumbed months later.

The thought terrified Tahira Rifath, a 28-year-old illustrator based in Colombo. “I’ve lost a couple of people very close to my heart in the past few years. I knew that these families who lost their loved ones wouldn’t want people to remember them as just a statistic or a number,” she told The Hindu, speaking of her ongoing initiative that began soon after the tragedy.

She began illustrating each of the victims on her Mac, using a software application for sketching. Sourcing images from their families and friends, she decided to draw each of them. While everyone knows how they all died, few know how they had lived until then. Who were they? What sort of clothes did they wear? What did they do? What did they dream?

Ms. Rifath’s illustrations, which are portraits of the victims, are in bright colours and backgrounds. Many are in their professional attire and smiling as they would on a good day.

For instance, in the portrait of Shantha Mayadunne, a celebrity chef, you see in the background light strokes of vegetables and spices that had a key presence in Mayadunne’s world.

Toddler Seth’s portrait has colourful dinosaurs in the background, indicating he must have loved them. Kieran dreamt of becoming a neuroscientist, so Ms. Rifath shows him attired in a white lab coat, against a backdrop of an image of a brain and neural circuits.

So far, Ms. Rifath has completed 51 portraits. The tributes are taking longer than she expected. It was easier to get some information soon after the serial blasts but accessing personal details of several people proved harder with time. “During the first few months, I started off reading news articles online, and browsing through social media to see if I find something. Once I got some information about a person, I messaged individuals who knew them and double-checked if the details are correct. But this worked only for some of the victims. In other cases, individuals came forward with details of their loved ones,” she said, speaking about the process involved.

Big dreams

Depending on how much she has been able to find out and verify, Ms. Rifath decides on the kind of detail she would include in a portrait. It is important for her to see each of them as people who had “lived full lives, had big dreams and did amazing things”.

“The victims had big dreams for themselves and others, but because of an act by a group of very selfish individuals, they no longer can fulfil them. I just want to say don’t waste your life or take it for granted. Yes, living can be exhausting, but push through, dream big, work hard, do good and be kind,” she said.

While looking at each victim as a person, getting to know more about the life he or she lived, Ms. Rifath had to connect with their families. She felt she must try and help them heal “even in the smallest way” she could.

“To the people who lost their loved ones, these victims would have meant the whole world... I want to try to understand the pain of these families. Perhaps that is what is driving me to keep telling their stories.”

Ms. Rifath is considering making a documentary interviewing survivors and crowdsourcing funds to provide them psychosocial support. Eventually, Ms. Rifath wants to create a book and an online platform compiling her tributes. “I want to point out how ugly racism and extremism can be and the price we all have to pay for it.”

Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent.

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 8:46:13 AM |

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