April 22, 2019 (LBO) – My family and I are safe. This is the refrain that my household repeatedly speaks, texts, and emails to concerned friends and relatives who are inquiring about our welfare during possibly the most deadly terrorist attack that has struck the place I now call home.
The attacks hit close to home. In late January we took up residence in the Shangri La Apartments that are part of the most significant commercial development in the country’s history. We were all set to go to church at St. Mary’s Bambalapitiya, the place where my parents and I were both married and my children baptised. After the service we were thinking about going to have Easter brunch at one of the hotels, it would have almost certainly been the Shangri La. The night before we were at a close friends birthday celebration at ‘Sequel’ in the Cinnamon Grand.
At close to 9am, while lying in my bed, I heard a noise like a thunderclap. It seemed a bit different, maybe a loud construction noise. I then looked at the cloud cover on the horizon and thought nothing else of it. The thought of a bomb did not even cross my mind. Sri Lanka, despite being politically fragile, has been safe from bombs for a long time. I always used to marvel at how safe Colombo was, compared to the other global cities that have been struck by terror attacks all over the world.
Then, as many people in my business do, I started my day by looking at my twitter feed to see what was happening. Reliable sources were posting that there had been an explosion at the St. Anthony’s shrine at Kochchikade. Easter Sunday I thought, this is going to be messy, especially with prior violent incidents around a church taking centre stage in the nation’s recent political discourse.
I called my father, who was due to come to our place before church. He was in the lobby of my building, about to come up. He said that people in the vicinity of the building were agitated with one foreigner suggesting that there may have been a gas leak explosion. He had also seen vehicles rushing on the main road with what looked like wounded.
He arrived a minute later at our apartment and related the story. I completely rubbished the idea that there had been an explosion near the hotel and insisted that there had been one in Kochchikade and that was what all the commotion was about. Then word from my journalist friends of another explosion in the Negombo area with pictures. Multiple attacks on churches I thought. Coordinated and at the same time…. what’s next?
I quickly sent a message to a foreign VIP friend of mine about the attacks on the churches and said that it feels to me that Sri Lanka may be experiencing is own “911.” Then a few minutes later confirmed stories about the explosions in hotels, then pictures of the carnage. This felt eerily similar to me, I felt the same way I did in Washington DC during the September 11th attacks.
I thought to myself, the city is about to go on complete lockdown. Paramount was for law enforcement to get control of the situation and ensure that there would not be any backlash sparked by the tinder of ethnic disharmony.
My father was in complete denial. He was defiant, he was insistent that we go to church, where I was certain that there would be no more Easter Sunday Mass for all of Colombo. My father then went on his own, walking to the Infant Jesus church in Slave Island, only to find it closed and secured by heavily armed law enforcement.
Then the stories of the casualties. Knowing the places where the bombs went off, at Easter Sunday breakfasts and churches where I had been on previous occasions, I knew the crowds would be large and I feared for the worst.
One the reasons that I have decided to stay in Sri Lanka is that people are connected to each other. These connections then lead to news about those we know who are personally affected. My heart aches for those whose families have been torn apart by these attacks. I could never imagine the pain one would feel on losing a young child. These sudden shocking losses have been suffered by people I know this Easter Sunday. I look at my family and am so grateful that we are all together and unharmed.
Now the need to write something for LBO. Perhaps the most significant act of terrorism in the history of Sri Lanka and I am stuck for words. I am drained of energy, perhaps still scarred from having recently been used as a punching bag in Sri Lanka’s messy political backdrop. I have not written anything since the start of my political nightmare on March 25th.
Sri Lanka’s messy political backdrop is what I fear most during this crisis. If political opportunists seek to use this crisis for selfish political gain, it does not bode well for the nation. This is a serious problem that sits way above politics. It needs the be dealt with by those in charge to the best of their abilities. Their efforts must be genuine. This can not turn into a political game. The people must be protected, and communal harmony must be preserved. So far, the leaders of Sri Lanka have done an admirable job during the crisis, we pray that they will continue to be enlightened.