Remembering victims of Sri Lankan massacre

Nazarul Islam | Updated at 11:44pm on April 22, 2019

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Sri Lankan security personnel walk through debris following an explosion in St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, north of the capital Colombo, on April 21. — Agence France-Presse/STR

ANOTHER dark day that has scarred the wits out of our troubled existence. The evil in our lives touched us again, with its vicious and uncompromising ferocity. We have all been drawn into fresh conflicts to defend our values and beliefs one more time. Was this incident only a ‘cowardly’ act perpetrated by those who harbour extreme ideologue? As we have liked to do in the past, we lean on sheer sympathy to defend the misguided killers.
The events are familiar and the responses are textbook copies where victims are encouraged to hold on to the same thread of sympathy that they will need to move on with the remains of the Easter Sunday horror. We continue to live our lives at the mercy of God’s paradoxes.
The Sri Lanka police have reported that at least 207 people have been killed and 450 hurt in explosions at the churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. Eight blasts were reported, including at three separate churches in Negombo, Batticaloa and Colombo’s Kochchikade district, carried on during Easter services.
The Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels and one other, all in the capital Colombo, were also targeted.
Then followed the usual rhetoric. A national curfew has been put in place ‘until further notice’ and social media networks have been temporarily blocked.
A foreign ministry official said that 27 foreign nationals were among the dead.
The first explosions were heard at about 03:15 GMT — with six blasts reported close together, at churches and luxury hotels. St Sebastian’s church in Negombo was severely damaged in one explosion, with dozens being killed at the site.
Images from inside have shown blood on the pews and the building’s ceiling shattered. There were also heavy casualties at the site of the first blast in St Anthony’s, a hugely popular shrine in Kochchikade, a district of Colombo.
The UK’s gigh commissioner to Sri Lanka, James Dauris, has said that British citizens were caught up in the explosions but has not confirmed further details. One Dutch citizen is among the dead, foreign minister Stef Blok said in a statement that two Turkish citizens were also killed. A seventh explosion was later reported at a hotel near the zoo in Dehiwala, southern Colombo, with police sources reporting two deaths.
An eighth explosion was further reported near the Colombo district of Dematagoda. Media say that it was suicide bomber and that three people, believed to be security personnel, were killed during a police raid. Local media report that the military has been deployed and security has been stepped up at the country’s main Bandaranaike International Airport.
Colombo resident Usman Ali told the BBC there were massive queues as he joined the people trying to donate blood. In the aftermath of the fresh calamity, everyone had just one intention and that was to help the victims of the blast, no matter what religion or race they may be. Each person was reportedly helping another out in filling forms.
Quite expectedly, rumours of more attacks have been rife and the police have ordered people to stay inside their houses and remain calm. But there is some element of panic. There is a heavy military presence in front of all major state buildings. No one was expecting this… it was a peaceful Sunday morning… everyone was going to Easter services.
And reportedly, the priests who were in the church were really shocked as were the police officers. It was all a well-planned, coordinated attack and officials believe it is too early to say who is behind it. After the Tamil Tigers were defeated in 2009, Sri Lanka has not really seen this kind of incident.
President Maithripala Sirisena has issued a statement calling for people to remain calm and support the authorities in their investigations. Sri Lanka’s prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has chaired an emergency meeting. He had strong words of condemnation to offer. He had condemned the cowardly attacks on the people of Sri Lanka on that fateful Easter Sunday. He has repeatedly called on all Sri Lankans during their tragedy and urged them to remain united and strong.
Pope Francis, in his traditional Urbi et Orbi speech at the Vatican, has also condemned the attacks in Sri Lanka, calling this to be a ‘grave and cruel violence’ which had targeted Christians celebrating Easter.
Again, Cardinal Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, told the BBC: ‘It’s a very difficult and a very sad situation for all of us because we never expected such a thing to happen and especially on Easter Sunday.’
In the years since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, there has been some sporadic violence, with members of the majority Buddhist Sinhala community attacking mosques and Muslim-owned property. That led to a state of emergency being declared in March 2018. The civil war had ended with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, who had fought for 26 years for an independent homeland for the minority ethnic Tamils. The war is thought to have killed between 70,000 and 80,000 people.
Theravada Buddhism is Sri Lanka’ biggest religion, making up about 70.2 per cent of the population, according to the most recent census. It is the religion of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority. It is given primary place in the country’s laws and is singled out in the constitution. The Hindus and the Muslims make up 12.6 per cent and 9.7 per cent of the population respectively.
Sri Lanka is also home to about 1.5 million Christians, according to the 2012 census, the vast majority of them being Roman Catholics.
According to Open Doors charity, global Christian support network, Sri Lanka ranks in the 46 position among 50 countries, where Christians face the most extreme persecution. A rising number of attacks have, meanwhile, been reported across the region, including in Pakistan, Myanmar and India which has ranked tenth on the checklist. The southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu now has close ethnic ties with Christian minorities in the island of Sri Lanka.
Evangelical to Alliance of Sri Lanka, representing more than 200 churches, had reported in 2018 that they had verified 86 instances of discrimination, threats and warnings against Christians. The Alliance has further reported 26 similar incidents so far this year.
One more time, the perpetrators of religious fanaticism have succeeded in creating a scare in human hearts. Old wounds have opened. The Christians were caught off guard by the repeated attacks. Much bitterness and grievance remain in the country, where war is still an unfinished business, for some.
Although no one has claimed the responsibility for the massacre, only a few have reportedly been apprehended. Attackers could be foreigners or home-grown terrorists. The motives are still not very clear. Almost simultaneous targeting of three luxury hotels in Columbo city that were popular among foreign tourists suggests that explosions could be the product of anti-western or anti-government hostilities or hatred born out of religious fanaticism.
Perhaps another possibility exists that all the firepower was somehow linked to or intended to dramatise the next month’s 10th anniversary of the bloody end of the decade-long civil war between the government forces and Tamil tigers.
Sri Lanka’s overall failure to come to terms with its violent past may form a part of the context for Sunday’s attacks. Much bitterness has prevailed and for some, on both sides, the war is still unfinished business. Sri Lanka has obviously failed to come to terms with its past. The government had fought for three decades a long civil war against separatism, culminating in the bloody suppression of the Tamil tigers, who had pushed for an independent state. They are too determined to say that they do not condone torture and are committed to the adherence to human rights. Reconciliation, however, has proved elusive.
The tragedy in Sri Lanka also may be viewed against the backdrop of a sharp increase in the persecution of Christians and minorities across the Middle East and South Asia. It was the Catholic congregation of three churches that appear to have suffered in the biggest casualties on Sunday as the overall toll of the dead and wounded rolled past several hundreds.
Could the massacre in Sri Lanka be the harbinger of revival of hostilities against the forces that had never reconciled in the country? Perhaps another, long and dreaded civil war? Perhaps not.

Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.