Reconciling with loss and pain, one year since a tragic Easter

As Sri Lanka marks the first anniversary of last year’s bombings, scars remain for many in the affected neighbourhoods of Colombo & Batticaloa

April 20, 2020 11:39 pm | Updated April 21, 2020 12:41 pm IST - Colombo

Grief and prayer:  A church worker on April 12 preparing for  an Easter service at the St. Anthony’s church, Colombo, one  of the sites attacked last year.

Grief and prayer: A church worker on April 12 preparing for an Easter service at the St. Anthony’s church, Colombo, one of the sites attacked last year.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has called on all citizens to remember the victims of the Easter terror blasts that shook Sri Lanka on April 21 last year, claiming over 270 lives and injuring more than 500 persons.

The serial blasts, which was carried out by an apparently IS-inspired squad of suicide bombers, targeted three churches in and near Colombo, and in the eastern Batticaloa district, and three luxury hotels in the capital. Coming exactly a decade after Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war ended the ghastly Easter Sunday attacks delivered a major blow to the island’s hard-won, relative peace.

Intelligence lapse

“The intelligence service of a friendly country had provided advance warning to the then Sri Lankan government... this attack could easily have been prevented,” Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa said in a statement. Weeks before the attacks, India is said to have alerted Sri Lankan authorities at the highest level of possible terror attacks in the island.

Also read:An artist is paying tribute to victims of the Easter terror bombings through her illustrations

Following the bombings, at least three different committees — a parliamentary select committee and two commissions appointed by former President Maithripala Sirisena and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who succeeded him in November —have been tasked to probe the terror attacks.

Based on testimonies it collected from 55 persons over 24 mostly public hearings, the parliamentary panel accused Mr. Sirisena of “actively undermining” government and security systems, leading to serious lapses ahead of the Easter terror attacks. It also blamed Sri Lanka’s intelligence chief for “failing to act on multiple terror warnings” received in advance. Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told the panel that he had not been briefed about the threat of the   attacks.

Police action

While the Rajapaksas have squarely blamed Mr. Sirisena’s government for negligence leading to the terror attacks — President Gotabaya Rajapaksa contested the November presidential election mainly on the plank of national security — Mr. Sirisena and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party have since politically re-aligned, joining the Rajapaksa brothers in power. The former chief of the State Intelligence Chief has been transferred to the Eastern Province as senior DIG.

Also read |The inside story of the 9 suicide bombers behind Sri Lanka’s savage Easter attacks

Following regime change, a new team in the police Criminal Investigation Department (CID) has been assigned the probe. The team that worked under the previous administration arrested some 200 persons linked to Easter attacks mastermind Zahran Hashim’s jihadist network. Twenty-six of them were identified as “highly involved” in the plot, a source familiar with the investigation told The Hindu .

Further, the outgoing team of investigators has also handed over three files to the Attorney General’s department. They pertain to three events -- the killing of two policemen in November 2018, the vandalising of Buddha statues in December 2018 and a shooting incident targeting a former minister’s secretary in March 2019 -- considered precursors to the bombings, leading investigators to vital clues.

The current CID team has made “key arrests” recently, including that of a prominent lawyer Hejaz Hisbullah. His family has denied he was involved in any terrorist activity, and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka has expressed concern at his arrest whose reason, it said, was unknown. Police on Sunday said ongoing investigations have revealed “a second attack” had been planned by perpetrators, but it is unclear what specific evidence prompted the inference.


Healing with time

Even as investigations take their course, those affected by the deadly attacks are still struggling to cope. “When I think of that morning, I am terrified even now. It is only prayer that is helping us survive,” said Fr. Jude Fernando, pastor who narrowly escaped the bombing at the St. Anthony’s shrine in Colombo.

Michelle Mahesan went even closer to danger. As she spotted a young man on the church premises on Easter Sunday, she went up to him and invited him for the service, barely minutes before he blew himself up. “I went to our house a few feet away and heard this deafening noise. Even our home’s ceiling came crashing,” said Ms. Mahesan, wife of the church’s pastor Roshan Mahesan, who was abroad then. Dozens, including at least 14 children at Sunday school, died at the Zion Church in Batticaloa.

“It has been a year, but neither our church nor our home has been rebuilt,” she said. The church has been providing counselling services to the affected families for a year now. “It is not easy reconciling with this sort of pain. We believe that the victims are in the hands of God. That belief is our only assurance,” she said.

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