May 05, 2019

Bomb blast survivors and relatives in Negombo lament after Easter Sunday attacks

The two-storey house, with the neatly-kept small garden and a garage, where two luxury vehicles were parked, is empty. Small white flags flutter at the entrance.
 
“How can my daughter live without them?” Matilda Hamine, 70, screamed.
 
A candle was lit in front of her daughter’s wedding photos, kept on a cupboard, and a photo of the two young children hung on the wall. The statues of Jesus and Mother Mary were kept above the framed photos.
 
Hamine’s daughter, Anushka Kumari, who is now at the National Eye Hospital in Colombo with a serious eye injury, is unaware that her husband and two children are no more.
 
“She is asking why none of them are calling her. How can I tell her the truth?” Hamine cried.
 
In the pantry, adjacent to the dining room, four unwashed mugs were on the sink hood. That was their last tea together, before they were blown apart two hours later at St. Sebastian’s Church, at Sunday’s morning Mass.
 
It is a heavy burden for Hamine, as she has also lost her niece, who lived next door, and all three of her young children, in the blast.
 
Dulip Senarath Arachchilage (48), Hamine’s son-in-law and nephew, her daughter Kumari (45), and her two grandchildren Dulakshi (21), and Vimukthi (14), were in the middle of the church’s hall at the Mass.
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Hamine’s niece and her three children, the eldest 15 years old, were seated at the pew behind Dulip’s family when they were blown up in the heavy explosion.
 
The faces of the residents of Katuwapitiya village are blank. Everyone is staring at outsiders suspiciously.
 
In the coordinated suicide attacks on three prominent churches, including St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, and two major hotels in Colombo, the death toll has risen to over 350, with the injured numbering over 500 people. Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of the city of Negombo, is venerated at St. Sebastian’s Church, a major Roman Catholic Church in Negombo, which is decorated similarly to the Reims Cathedral in France.
 
The suicide bomb explosion at the St. Sebastian Church at Katuwapitiya caused heavy casualties, with over 100 devotees killed by the explosion at the Sunday morning Mass. The very powerful bomb has damaged much of the church’s roof, the heavy tiles of which had fallen down on devotees, its shrapnel ripping their bodies.
 
“They go to the church every day. Why did this happen to us? We are strong devotees,” Hamine sobbed in front of Jesus’s statue at the main hall of her daughter’s house.
 
A neighbour said that out of seven bodies, many have been torn into pieces. They have identified Hamine’s grandson Vimukthi’s headless body.
 
Most of her relatives, friends and neighbours were packed into the two, houses waiting to receive the seven bodies on Monday evening.
 
“I have struggled a lot to bring up my five children, and was very happy as my daughter is having a happy family. Today, I am helpless. Why Jesus didn’t indicate about this disaster early?” Hamine cried non-stop.
 
White flags were fluttering in every corner of the vicinity. Some residents had received the bodies of their loved ones, but others were waiting till the post-mortems were over.
 
Army soldiers and Police corps were deployed in and around the church, and along the by-lanes of the neighbourhood.
 
The house was just a hundred meters off from the church, and Dinushika Subashini, 28, sat near her elder brother’s coffin without crying, but murmuring.
 
“Please forgive me aiya (elder brother). I came home on Sunday to ask you to forgive me, but you have gone before I came home,” she said repeatedly.
 
Marius Neranjan, 35, had not gone to St. Sebastian’s Church for the last eight months but joined the Sunday masses at the Hunupitiya Catholic Church. But that fateful Sunday, he had unexpectedly asked his mother and wife to join him at the Mass at St. Sebastian’s Church.
 
“He has told them that he had seen a bad dream, and wanted to go to the St. Sebastian Church for the Mass,” Subashini, who agreed to talk to Daily FT, said.
 
His mother and wife, who were seated at the pew behind him, had said they wanted to leave early, but he had ignored them.  
 
In the next few seconds, they heard the deafening sound, clay tiles raining down and Niranjan’s body had fallen a few feet away from them.
 
“Miraculously my mother and sister-in-law are unharmed, but they are in deep shock. Some bomb shrapnel has gone through his head, chest and the stomach,” she said.
 
“I am so sad that I couldn’t get my brother’s pardon,” she, who married against the blessings of the family, sobbed.
 
Niranjan had not talked to her since then and didn’t allow her to come home, but two days before his death, he had asked his mother to invite Subashini to visit home on last Sunday.
 
All the entrances of the church were heavily guarded by security personnel and clergy, military, politicians and media were only given access after checking bags and IDs.
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The newly painted church building with blood-stained walls and damaged windows was declared a crime scene by the Police, with yellow tape placed all around. The Negombo Municipal Council workers were helping to load debris - decomposing remnants of body parts belonging to hundreds of  devotees, shoes, sandals, baby shoes, water bottles, white and black lace veils, umbrellas and prayer leaflets, pieces of clay tiles from the roof, and glass, wood, etc. that were strewn in the main hall.
 
The forensic experts were busy gathering vital clues - flesh and hair - among debris, bearing the risk of further collapse of damaged clay tiles from the badly damaged roof, and cement pieces from the walls around the hall. “Hurry up … hurry up. Run to the left side of the church compound,” the police officers, army and STF soldiers suddenly ordered, as they had found an isolated bag and a jacket near a tree close to the main entrance of the church.
 
All Catholic and Buddhist clergy, nuns, some top-ranking military officials, a few local politicians, over a dozen foreign media crews with sophisticated cameras, and municipality workers rushed to the left side of the church in fear of another bomb explosion.
 
After 15 minutes’ thorough check, the military announced that we were safe.
 
“They belong to a municipal worker. It is now safe, but be vigilant,” a Police officer announced. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. 
 
Fr. Freely from the Archbishop’s House, who had visited the church with other priests soon after they heard the news, said it was shocking to hear that the bomb blast occurred in the peaceful, predominantly Catholic neighbourhood while people were attending their Sunday Mass.
 
He said that the chain of bomb attacks had shook not only in Sri Lanka, but all over the world, and requested all Sri Lankans to be calm, to maintain peaceful co-existence and peace in the country at this moment.
 
“Whatever happens, as human beings, we need to uphold humanity all over the world,” he said.
 
A group of Buddhist priests, who didn’t want to be named, said they came to show solidarity to the Catholic people of the country, and condemned all those attacks on innocent people who came to worship God.
 
“We suffered enough during the 30 year long war. Our people cannot bear these gruesome attacks anymore. No religion promotes such barbaric acts,” they said.
 
A young Catholic priest, who wished to remain anonymous, said he would thank the young municipality workers, who work tirelessly to take the wounded and clear the debris at the church hall.
 
“I have seen a young worker working non-stop till very late night, without even having meals. I asked him to stop as he looks very tired. He replied me saying: “Ane father eei apita mehema kale? (Father why did they do this to us?)”.
 
The Father said that he was a Sinhala Buddhist youth and was in shock with the bomb blast.
 
He said that many Buddhist families rushed to the church when they heard the explosion.
 
A group of nuns from a nearby church, who saw the carnage at the church hall, became emotional when recalling the incident.
 
“The entire world has now witnessed the chain of those gruesome attacks. We do not want to explain it anymore. But we have one question to ask from those who have instigated this attack. Why did they kill innocent devotees who were praying for peace and harmony?” they said.
 
Sisira Fernando, who had minor injuries on his head, was staring at the church, seated under a shady tree in front of the hall entrance.
 
“I couldn’t stay at home as I still can’t believe that they attacked our church and killed our neighbours. Every Sunday, we come to the Mass and pray for peace,” the 58-year-old, who became emotional, said. 
 
He said it was a two-hour full Mass, and over three hundred people participated at the Mass, where the majority were inside the packed hall and the rest were standing outside.
 
“One of my neighbours, who was standing near the last entrance at the left side of the hall, had seen a young man with a moustache aged between 30-35 years, apparently, a Muslim, carrying a big backpack, had hurriedly entered the hall just before finishing the thanksgiving session. Although he was little hunched, maybe due to a heavy load of explosives he was carrying, he had a pleasant face and walked a few feet of the hall. Then we heard the thundering sound. It was around 8.45 am,” he recalled. Fernando said that the suicide bomber couldn’t walk into the middle of the hall, since the session was still going on. Fernando and his wife were seated at a distance of 10 yards to the bomb blast, and they received minor injuries due to the falling tiles from the roof.
 
“I really cannot understand what had happened and how both of us had escaped death. The lady sitting before us had fallen dead,” he said.
 
He said that it had happened at a blink of an eye, and they didn’t have any idea on what had happened, as they had never expected anyone to bomb their church.“The tiles and the windows were falling down, people were shouting, crying, screaming, and blood and flesh were strewn all over. People were trying to stand up with blood-stained bodies but I saw many breathed their last. It is an unexplainable moment and a scene,” Fernando said with tear-filled eyes. His only son escaped, having refused to join the parents at Mass as he had some other work to attend.
 
“We have no experience of a bomb blast even during the wartime. Negombo is a very peaceful area. Still, we ask those who bombed us, why did they do this to us?” Fernando becomes emotional, recalling the bodies of small children among the dead.
 
Fernando had asked his wife to stay at a safe place, and helped his neighbours to carry the wounded to vehicles while he was still bleeding from his head.
 
The church celebrated its 150th Jubilee in January this year, and according to Fernando, the building was renovated, spending a huge sum of money.“It took one and a half years to renovate the church. It looked very beautiful,” he said.
 
Dhanushka Fernando, who is in tourism, thanked his two-year-old son for saving their lives.
 
“Few minutes before the blast, my son started crying and it was a packed hall. I came out with my wife and son. We weren’t 70 feet from the hall when it exploded. I ran carrying my son,” he recalled.
 
Fernando left his son with his wife and returned to the hall to search for their relatives.
 
“Most of them were bleeding from ears, eyes, noses, and fallen dead on the ground. I took two neighbours to the hospital. One died on my way to the hospital,” he said. His little son was still in shock with the sound of the explosion. In his lane, there are seven funerals, and according to Fernando, over 100 people from the church neighbourhood had been killed in the suicide bomb explosion. 
 
“We first thought the sound system at Mass got blasted, as we have no experience of a bomb blast in peaceful Negombo,” Fernando said.
 
The large white banner for Niranjan was hung with fluttering white flags at the main entrance of the church wall. He was to start his job at a new place on Monday. Married a year ago, he had many dreams for his young family.
 
“Why didn’t the Government do anything to save us? They knew about this attack weeks ago, and why didn’t they give protection to our churches? They left us to die,” Subashini claimed.
 
 - Shanika Sriyananda
Pix by Lasantha Kumara
(Daily Financial Times)

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