Sri Lanka marks a year since devastating Easter Sunday attacks

Island nation commemorates attacks that saw six churches and hotels bombed, killing more than 265 people.

The clock at St. Anthony’s Shrine stopped at 8.45am. The time the bomb exploded. [Aanya Erinyes/Al Jazeera]
The clock at Saint Anthony’s shrine stopped at 8.45am (03:15 GMT), the time the bomb exploded [Aanya Erinyes/Al Jazeera]

Colombo, Sri Lanka – When Franklin Fernando saw the grey-and-white striped shirt on the body, he knew the worst had happened. He stepped out of the crowded accident ward of the Sri Lanka National Hospital and rang his mother.

On the morning of April 21 a year ago, Franklin and his family were getting ready for the Easter Mass at St Anthony’s shrine in Colombo, the capital of the island nation of Sri Lanka. His father had worn a pair of formal trousers and a grey-and-white striped shirt.

“In the church, father and I prayed together,” says Franklin, remembering the moment his family’s life changed forever. “Suddenly I was thrown off the floor and my ears started ringing.”

Fire and smoke engulfed the church, as parts of the ceiling began to fall on worshippers.

“I got up and looked for my father and found him. He was trapped under the debris.”

Church bells tolled across the island of Sri Lanka, home to 21 million people, on Tuesday at 8:40am local time (03:10 GMT) to commemorate the moment of the start of an attack that saw six churches and hotels bombed, killing more than 265 people and leaving the nation devastated.

Tuesday’s commemoration ceremony, observed by Sri Lankans from their homes, is a simplified version of a more elaborate event that was cancelled owing to the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

Sri Lanka remains under an indefinite curfew imposed to curtail the outbreak.

At 8.45am (03:15 GMT), the moment that the bomb at St Anthony’s Shrine went off, those commemorating observed a two-minute silence, remembering all who lost their lives across the island that day.

The coffins of the four family members  [Aanya Erinyes/Al Jazeera]
Church bells tolled across the island of Sri Lanka, home to 21 million people [Aanya Erinyes/Al Jazeera]

‘Overwhelming sadness’

Sixty-one-year-old Ravindran Fernando was rushed to the hospital on an ambulance along with many others. Franklin, his son, followed on a motorised rickshaw. At first, he was not allowed to go into the hospital.

When he finally got inside, he looked for his father and located his body lying next to several others. Ravindran had not survived the impact of the debris hitting him.

“I have an overwhelming sadness and anger when I think about that day,” Franklin says, adding that he thinks about it every day.

Part of his anger comes from reports that the government had prior information about the attacks. According to a Sri Lankan parliamentary committee report, authorities had been tipped off regarding the attacks, with the last warning coming at 8:00am (02:30 GMT) on the day of the bombings, approximately 45 minutes before the first explosion.

Casilda Jeyarathnam, 54, lost her 13-year-old son John Jeshuran in the bombing at Zion Church in the northern town of Batticaloa.

Today, everything in her house reminds her of Jeshuran, the youngest of her three children.

“He was a Kobe [Bryant] fan. Even before going to church last Easter, he watched one of Kobe’s matches,” she said.

On Easter Sunday this year, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the head of the Roman Catholic church in Sri Lanka, said the church “forgave” the attackers for their actions, a pronouncement that has been met with a mixed reaction amongst those who lost family members to the bombings.

“Last year, some misguided youths attacked us and we as humans could have given a human and selfish response,” said Ranjith.

“We thought about the Christ’s words and loved them, forgave them and had pity on them.”

Casilda, however, says that her wounds are still raw to forgive the attackers.

“I think I will eventually forgive them. But not now. A person who lost a loved one will not say such a thing. I first want justice,” she said.

Nearly 200 suspects were arrested by the Criminal Investigations Department and Terrorist Investigation Division following the attacks, but even a year later, there have been no formal charges brought forward or court proceedings begun.

National police spokesman Jaliya Senaratne said during a news conference last week that authorities “expect to take several successful measures in the future to conclude this investigation soon”.

What they left behind (St. Anthony’s Shrine) [Aanya Erinyes/Al Jazeera]
The Easter Sunday attacks crippled Sri Lanka’s tourism industry [Aanya Erinyes/Al Jazeera]

Stoking ethnic tensions

Soon after the bombings, several attacks were carried out against Sri Lanka’s sizeable Muslim community across the island. At least one person was killed in those attacks.

In a recent news conference, Cardinal Ranjith termed the attacks a “political attempt” to ignite ethnic disharmony.

In Negombo, where many Muslim-owned businesses and homes were destroyed, Muslim community leaders told Al Jazeera that tensions had begun to subside, with the city’s Muslim and Christian communities beginning to reunite.

The local Inter-Religious Committee, which representatives of all religious groups are a part of, has held several programmes, including street dramas, to help promote ethnic harmony.

Harinda Vidanage, director of Colombo’s Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, said tensions in Sri Lanka had been observed in the narratives on both sides – religious fighters and hardcore Sinhala Buddhists – even before the Easter attacks took place.

“The Easter attacks happened to happen within this context because tensions were already there within the narratives,” he said.

Those tensions continue to play out. During the COVID-19 outbreak, the government decreed that the bodies of all patients who died from the virus would be cremated, in violation of Muslims’ beliefs regarding funeral rites.

Vidanage said move, taken by a government that wooed Sinhala Buddhist hardliners in its election campaign last year, should be seen within the context of the tensions that last year’s attacks inflamed.

Buddhists make up the majority of Sri Lanka’s population, while 9.7 percent are Muslims, 7.6 percent are Christians and 12.6 percent are Hindu.

The mass grave in Negombo where victims of the St. Sebastian’s Church bombing were laid to rest. [Aanya Erinyes/Al Jazeera]
The mass grave in Negombo where victims of St Sebastian’s Church bombing were laid to rest. [Aanya Erinyes/Al Jazeera]

Fallout on politics

The Easter Sunday attacks altered the tone of presidential election campaigns last year, in the run-up to the country’s November polls.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who announced his candidacy soon after the attacks, was sworn in as the country’s president following that election.

The attacks “basically gained the presidential campaign of the Sri Lanka Podujana Party [Rajapaksa’s party] a sort of a lead in mobilising the Sinhala Buddhist votes,” political analyst Kusal Perera said.

He explained that the entire campaign was “basically catalysed on a Sinhala-Buddhist platform and to that effect the anti-Muslim flavour that was gained from the Easter Sunday attacks helped them”.

Keheliya Rambukwella, spokesman for Rajapaksa’s government said the presidential campaign was not based only on security, but also included many other policies.

“In any country today, the number one priority is security, second is finance and third foreign policies,” Rambukwella said.

He added that they are continuing to shape security policies with new technologies, new methodologies and new mechanisms as the world evolves.

“We never lapsed on our security. Same thing right now. Basically, priority is given to security. Intelligence play a major role in there,” he said.

Twin cataclysms for tourism

The Easter Sunday attacks crippled Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, which is among the top three foreign exchange earners for the economy, as countries slapped travel advisories and warnings soon after the attacks.

Sanath Ukwatte, president of The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL), said the Easter attacks were a significant blow to the tourism industry.

“This was the first-time tourists were targeted. And suddenly all countries asked their citizens to leave Sri Lanka. Occupancy in hotels dropped to 20 percent,” Ukwatte said.

Data from the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority shows that in May 2019, tourism arrivals plummeted by 70.8 percent, but gradually increased through the year, ending December with a difference of just 18 percent from 2018 arrivals.

The tourism sector, which employs about 500,000 people both in direct and indirect businesses, was recovering when this year’s coronavirus pandemic crashed hotel occupancy to zero percent.

“We thought that Easter attacks was the worst of all. But in the light of the pandemic, [the] attacks look like child’s play,” said Ukwatte.

Many fear that after surviving the Easter attacks, they may not be able to ride out the new crisis in the industry precipitated by the coronavirus outbreak.

Srilal Mittapala, a tourism and hospitality specialist in Colombo, predicted that it could take as long as a year for Sri Lanka’s tourist sector to return to normal.

The blow was especially bad for Vajira Keerthirathne, 30, who was planning to open a tour operating office a week after the attacks.

“We had to delay it because of the attacks. When we finally opened, we had to slash prices to attract tourists,” he said.

Just when business was picking up, the coronavirus pandemic broke out.

“Now it is 100 times worse. Now we have zero income, but still have to pay the rent for the building, pay electricity and water bills and loans.”

Source: Al Jazeera