DESPATCH FROM COLOMBO | International

The painful pace of recovery from the Easter bombings

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby paying homage to victims of the Easter Sunday attacks, kneeling at the spot where the suicide bomber detonated explosives, at St. Sebastian’s church in Katuwapitiya village, Negombo, on August 29, 2019.   | Photo Credit: Eranga Jayawardena

Leaning rightward, as if he were weighed down by the helmet in his hand, a middle-aged man stood in front of the board under a neem tree at the St. Sebastian’s Church. There were 115 names in all on the board, listed in clear black Sinhala font. They ran into four columns.

“Those who sacrificed their lives for their fate,” read a line on top, running across the board. Right behind was an image of Christ.

Last Sunday, the St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya had many visitors, several from Colombo and some from as far as Kandy. “Earlier we would come here every now and then, but this is the first time I am coming after the bombings. I was terrified,” said Warnakulasooriya Philomena Fernando in fluent Tamil. Like many Negombo residents of her generation, the 76-year-old was comfortably bilingual. “Though my mother tongue is Sinhala, I like speaking in Tamil because that was my medium of learning in school, it comes more naturally to me,” said Ms. Warnakulasooriya . “It’s unbelievable — what has happened here. What were those cruel bombers thinking?”

A popular church in Negombo city, located some 40 km north of Colombo and often called “little Rome” for its Catholic flavour, St. Sebastian’s comes with history spanning at least a century. But four months ago, its story took a tragic turn when one of the nine Easter Sunday bombers blew up himself on its premises, taking the lives of dozens of people, including those of children.

Sunday Mass is now held in a nearby block, while a team of military men rebuild the main shrine where the blast occurred. The young men stood on scaffoldings, giving finishing touches to the reconstruction work as some people walked in slowly, taking measured steps into the prayer zone where their fellow believers met their unfortunate fate four months ago. Near one of the aisles, the floor bore craters from the bomb explosion covered with sturdy glass, preserved perhaps as an April 21 memory.

Three-pronged programme

“With the guidance of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith [Archbishop of Colombo], we have devised a three-pronged programme to address social, spiritual and psychological needs of the affected community here,” said Fr. Manjula Niroshan Fernando, who recently moved to the church after his predecessor sought a transfer following the tragedy.

“The fear has come down, but the trauma remains,” he said, pulling out neatly bound files with details of those in need of help. “Some women, whose husbands were killed need a livelihood and some source of income. Some are still in hospital and need financial support for treatment. Some have lost their immediate families and children and need solid psychiatric support to cope with the trauma,” he said.

Over 250 people died in the Easter day serial bombings, across three churches and three luxury hotels, that authorities say were carried out by local Islamist radicals. Dozens were injured.

A few of those injured at the St. Sebastian’s blast are still in hospital, over four months since. At least four persons were paralysed, while one lost her voice. A few children are undergoing treatment for skull injuries, according to church authorities.

One woman has started a nursery, while another has begun a boutique with the church’s support. Asked if they might be willing to speak, Fr. Fernando said: “No, they have categorically asked me not to send any media to their homes. They are already struggling to cope. Revisiting that episode again and again doesn’t help them in any way.”

In addition to rebuilding the church, the government is currently offering some financial and housing support to families of victims, but the people are angry.

“They are unable to come to terms with the fact that despite prior intelligence warning, they [the officials] allowed this to happen. And till date, we don’t know the truth about how and why,” said another church source, requesting anonymity.

The church’s outreach includes providing one doctor, one priest, two nuns and a counsellor to every affected family. “It is going to take time,” said Fr. Fernando.

There is trauma and then there is anger. “One lady who lost her husband and children was in hospital recently, where she saw a Muslim woman playing with her children. She couldn’t bear it, she broke down right there and yelled at her about her own loss. That is the level of hurt, what do you do?” However, the community will not disobey the Cardinal, said the priest, pointing to his repeated calls for calm and restraint. “It’s not easy for a victim.”

Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent.


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