Colombo, Sri Lanka – A week after suicide bombers killed at least 253 people in Sri Lanka as they celebrated Easter, churches remained closed and people stayed in their homes to observe mass, which was broadcast live on national television.
The Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith led the multi-lingual service from his official residence in the south of the capital. “Every human being is unique,” he told the congregation watching from home. “Each and every one is special.”
A two-minute walk from St. Anthony’s Shrine, one of three churches targeted in the attacks, brother and sister Velusamy Rajaratnam and E Puvaneswari were watching the service. Although Hindu, they regularly visited St. Anthony’s.
Last Sunday, their 49-year-old sister Sarojini Velusamy went there to celebrate mass. They have been searching for her since.
“I can’t feel anything watching the mass when the person I am looking for is still not here,” 55-year-old Velusamy said. “I just want to know whether she’s alive or dead.”
Sri Lanka has been on heightened alert since the bombers, stooping with the weight of the grey backpacks they had packed with explosives, walked into St. Anthony’s, two other churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo to set off their bombs.
At least 253 people were killed and hundreds wounded. The government has blamed a local hardline group, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) for the attacks and has banned the organisation.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility in a video released on Tuesday, two days after the attacks.
At St. Anthony’s on Saturday, the wooden pews remained piled up on the road next to the church as workers removed the last of the debris from inside. Men in Wellington boots and hard hats were hosing down the walls with jets of foamy water from high-pressure fire hoses.
“This is to clean off the spots of blood,” Father Jude Fernando, the priest in charge of St Anthony’s, told Al Jazeera, looking as if he had not slept all week.
The workers, deployed by the Sri Lankan navy, washed the street outside the shrine in preparation for a visit on Sunday by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Fear and mourning
Father Fernando was in his office next to the church when the bomber detonated his device. The priest conducting the Tamil language service was Father Jude Joseph Joy Mariaratnam.
That Easter morning, as Father Mariaratnam welcomed the people to church, the mood was festive and many of the congregation members were wearing their best clothes. There was a feeling of joy and hope, he remembered.
But halfway through the mass, as a member of the choir was reading the 4th Prayer of the Faithful, the bomber pushed his way into the church near the candle shop at the back. There was a massive explosion and the clock on the church tower stopped.
From his position at the altar, Father Mariaratnam at first thought the electrical transformer had blown.
“But it did not take me seconds to realise it was a bomb blast,” he told Al Jazeera. “I saw a head-like thing flying and could hear people screaming. But I was terribly shocked and for a couple of minutes I did not move, to be honest, not because I was in a sense frightened, but because I was shocked.”
He tried to get to the place where the bomb had gone off.
“I saw bodies scattered here and there, pieces of flesh everywhere,” he said. “There was screaming and shouting and crying.”
At Alley 23, the first alleyway down from the church, residents mostly make a living driving three-wheelers or selling candles to people who visit St. Anthony’s. The church was “theirs” they said, regardless of religion or ethnicity. It was a place they all felt welcome.
When they heard the bomb go off, they rushed to help.
Ravi Chandran, 52, had just sold candles to a father and son and started to walk home to Alley 23. He ran back to help the injured, commandeering three-wheelers to ferry the wounded to hospital.
He realised that was not going to be enough and managed to flag down a bus, but as he went back to the church to see what else he could do, he saw what he thought was the head of a child lying close to the front door.
“I couldn’t take it any more,” he said, shaking his head with despair. “I just had to leave.”
The attacks revealed the dysfunction at the heart of Sri Lanka’s government, in which the president and prime minister barely appear to be on speaking terms.
A tip-off from foreign intelligence agencies that churches and hotels were at risk of attack over Easter, giving names, addresses and potential targets, was ignored. Government officials then sought to blame each other for the catastrophic error.
“It was not an intelligence breakdown,” investigative journalist and political analyst Lasantha Ruhunage said. “It was either a feigning of ignorance or a failure of the ability to assess the risks properly.”
Scores of people have been detained since parliament approved sweeping emergency powers for the police and military, and the president has vowed that every house on the island will be searched.
In Colombo, the pregnant wife of one of the bombers blew herself up – along with her son – when police arrived at her house on Sunday night.
Two days ago, 15 people, six of them children, were killed in a ferocious gunfight between police and suspected attackers in a town at the east coast. Police said the dead included three suspected suicide bombers and the wife and child of Mohamed Zahran, NTJ leader and alleged mastermind of the attacks.
Weapons, swords and bomb-making equipment have also been seized in raids across the island, with the authorities saying they also found a black ISIL flag and dark grey robes the bombers had worn in their video.
On Sunday, Jesudasan Pushparani, 52, came out onto the street outside St. Anthony’s to join scores of other residents saying prayers and lighting candles for the dead, in defiance of warnings about the security risks.
Dressed in white and clutching a pink handkerchief, Pushparani said she had come to remember her brother, a 38-year-old fisherman from Mullaitivu in the northeast, who had arrived in Colombo two days before Easter. A Catholic, he had decided to celebrate the mass at St. Anthony’s on Sunday.
“He was a highly respected member of his community,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “Even when the soldiers saw him, they would salute him as they went past. He was always there for everyone.”
Black and white streamers have fluttered across the street since Sunday in remembrance of those who lost their lives. Above alleyways and on street corners, flower-filled shrines to St. Anthony have long watched over the tightly-knit community of Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists.
“Honestly, I do not know how to console them,” said Father Mariaratnam. “But I do say not to lose hope … It is not easy to rationalise, but I am strong and convinced something good will happen.”