Mass funerals mark Sri Lanka's day of mourning

As Sri Lanka buries its dead, grief turns to anger amid reports that authorities were warned about possible attacks.

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    Negombo, Sri Lanka - Six weeks ago, Jude Fernando threw a party to welcome his sister and her three young children home to Sri Lanka. Now, after the Easter Sunday bombing of the nearby Church of Saint Sebastian, he is holding a wake.

    His mother lies in a polished wooden coffin, her portrait on display among white chrysanthemums. Next to her, dressed in a favourite outfit and lying on a silky white cushion with fairy lights flashing in green, is the tiny body of his nephew.

    He was eight months old.

    "I had only had the chance to know him for one and a half months," Fernando said tearfully as mourners sang liturgies for the dead. Fernando had to identify the boy's bloody and battered body because his sister was too badly injured to do so.

    Tuesday marked a national day of mourning on the multiethnic and multi-religious island, but in the communities most affected by the weekend's bomb attacks, it was a day of wakes and funerals.

    In the streets around Saint Sebastian - where, on Easter morning, an attacker walked into the building and set off a bomb that was so powerful it blew off most of the roof and buckled the windows, throwing fragments of stained and mirrored glass into the bougainvillaea-filled garden - it seemed the entire city came out to express its grief.

    The first ceremonies were held under a giant canopy next to the damaged church, where forensics experts continued to carefully pick their way through the debris littering the floor.

    Some 1,000 people came to pay their respects, sitting on plastic chairs on the sandy floor and crowding into the compound to recite prayers and liturgies. As the service drew to a close, the congregation sang Ave Maria and the pallbearers, led by distraught families, walked the coffins slowly through the crowds to the waiting hearses.

    The mass funeral was guarded by members of Sri Lanka's armed forces [Kate Mayberry/Al Jazeera]

    Father Cyril Gamini Fernando said the church decided on the mass funeral to allow more people to attend, but also because the security forces had advised it would be better. Mourners were required to go through bag and body checks before entering the church grounds, and soldiers, some drafted from the island's north and east, were on duty along the wall outside.

    "For the people, it is easy when we have the funeral service together," Father Fernando said. "They died at the same time and we wanted to have all the funerals together."

    Anger rises over intelligence failure

    But amid the grief, there was also growing anger.

    After the coffins had been taken away for burial, 70-year-old Joe Fernando stayed behind, sitting quietly with some female relatives. Together, they were remembering other members of their extended family - a mother, a father and their three children - who had lost their lives while celebrating one of Christianity's holiest days.

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    "My family, the whole family, all finished," Fernando said.

    With reports emerging that Sri Lankan officials had been warned of the risk of attacks on church services and hotels over Easter, Fernando said the government should take responsibility for the tragedy - a view repeated at the many wakes being held in homes along the streets leading to the church.

    Some 321 people are now known to have died in the bombings, which took place not only here in the seaside city of Negombo, but also at a popular Catholic shrine and three luxury hotels in Colombo and at an evangelical church in the eastern town of Batticaloa. The authorities have given no breakdown of casualties at each of the locations, but Saint Sebastian is thought to be one of the worst-affected places.

    A man mourns at a grave of a victim at Sellakanda Catholic cemetery in Negombo [Thomas Peter/Reuters]

    "It's their fault, that's what I think," said one young woman who had lost both her parents in the attack. Her grandmother had been taken to hospital, but was now missing because, in the chaos of the disaster, the hospital had been unable to register her properly. "The attacks would not have happened like this and people would still be alive if the government had acted," the young woman said.

    Sri Lanka's intelligence service, acting on a tip-off from international agencies, sent a memo to key security officials on April 11 warning that plans were being made for attacks on churches, hotels and the High Commission of India. The communique gave the names, addresses and phone numbers of suspects, but the authorities apparently did not act.

    President Maithripala Sirisena visited Negombo on Monday morning. "Why did he even come here?" asked the young woman, who preferred not to be named.

    "They have failed," said Father Fernando. "They should have informed the church. It was written in [the letter]. We would have cancelled the services."

    'I don't want to live here any more'

    Security across Colombo has now been intensified, with police roadblocks on access roads and the kind of security checks that were common during the island's 25-year civil war. Armed soldiers stood guard metres from the altar during the service in Negombo, and were also present several kilometres away at the burial site that the church had dug especially for the victims of the bombing.

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    Also watching the funeral service was Danthika Ramari De Silva, 67, who has been a helper and cleaner at Saint Sebastian for the past year and who lives in the church grounds. A former domestic worker who lived in Lebanon during the civil war, Danthika rushed to get water for an injured woman in the moments after the attack. But by the time she returned, the woman had died.

    "I am shocked that this could have happened in a place of worship led by fathers who are so kind," she said.

    A popular church in the city, Saint Sebastian is a place where many families have regular pews where they sit each Sunday. About seven percent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people are Christian, and most of these are Roman Catholic.

    Some, like Jude Fernando, have become evangelicals in recent years.

    Fernando, who returned to Sri Lanka after years spent working overseas, is now left wondering why he returned home. He is disappointed at the government's response, and he is pessimistic about the future.

    "All those years I was away, I loved my country," he said, as barefoot mourners, dressed in white, continued to come in and out of the house. "I wanted to come back, but if living here is like this, I don't want to live here any more."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News