Pix by Pradeep Pathirana
Multiple explosions on Easter Sunday (April 21) left an island nation devastated and the Government has declared today a national day of mourning. Explosions took place at three churches, namely St. Sebastian’s in Katuwapitiya, St Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, Colombo and Zion Church in Batticaloa, in the Eastern Province; and three hotels namely Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand. There were other explosions too. The Government Analyst confirmed that the attacks on the three churches and 3 hotels in Colombo were carried out by suicide bombers.
The death total as of yesterday was almost 300. When asked about the autopsies Chief Judicial Medical Officer Dr. Ajith Tennakoon told the Daily Mirror that bodies were still being identified. Meanwhile a spokesperson of the Cinnamon Grand Hotel said that hotel operations were continuing and that people who made prior bookings can check in. The Shangri-La Hotel however is temporarily closed until further notice.
The Daily Mirror also visited some of the places where explosions had taken place.
Amidst the speculation and tension brewing within the nation, the people of Kochchikade and Kotahena were gathered at a point surrounded by a temple, kovil, a mosque and the attacked church in each direction. Gathered in Jampettah street, they declared a message of unity and harmony in spite of the apprehensions brewing within the nation.
“That man is Muslim, he is Christian and I am Hindu, but we are all brethren. We are not going to start blaming each other. We are family,” was the spirited message shared by one of the townspeople, pointing at the people present. The administrator of the St. Anthony’s Church, Fr. Jude Fernando, who was present at the shell-shocked scene alongside other clergymen, said, “I still can’t understand what happened here inside the church. It was around 8.45 am and we were celebrating the Tamil Easter Mass and I was about to walk into the church. If I had been one step ahead, I would have been injured, but I turned aside and in that moment it collapsed,” he said, visibly traumatised.
He attempted to describe the “hell-on-earth” like scene he then witnessed. “There is massive damage to the church. The casualties are people from Jaffna, the South and up-country. It is a sentimental place for everybody,” he continued.
Area residents added that their own people had either gone for the midnight mass or the mass at dawn, so it was mostly out-of-towners who were victimised.
“I couldn’t bare to watch burning babies and children. But everyone rushed in to help. This is a brutal strike. Whoever is responsible should be punished. I say that there is political force behind all this. They are seeking more and more power,” Hamza, another resident of the area opined.
Selvam Fernando has graphic images of mountains of bodies within the church, etched in memory. Selvam recalls hearing a loud explosive sound. “We just assumed it was something related to the festival. A few minutes later, we heard that there had been a bomb blast inside the church,” Selvam said. “Neighbours said that there was a transformer within the church which had exploded. But since childhood we’ve known that there was no such transformer inside the church. We rushed to the scene and what we saw was indescribable,” he recalled.
Some with severe burns ran out of the church and fell on the ground as the residents looked on. “None of us went inside the church. About 15 minutes later, two police officers at a nearby security checkpoint rushed to the scene. It took 30 minutes or so for the emergency services to reach the venue. Until then it was the residents of the area who led the rescue efforts,” he said.
Basil Fernando, a resident of Newnham Square, said that by the time the first responders had arrived, security officers cordoned off the area and prevented anyone from reaching the church. “I helped two into ambulances at the time. I could see that one of them had lost his leg” said Fernando. According to residents, a majority of the people, who suffered injuries, were the ones who stood outside the church premises. Neyman Fernando, who helps out at the church, was tasked with switching the fans off at the rear, when candles are lit during the service. His daughter said that just as he was returning to the altar, Neyman had heard the explosion. He miraculously escaped.
Residents believe that the explosion took place inside the left end of the church, behind the candle shop. “People who were at the front of the altar were not affected as much as the others. Devotees accompanying small children prefer to stay at the back. The parents and children, who took their places at the rear, were caught in the explosion. I feel these problems were worsened because there was no security presence. Almost a decade ago, police security was provided for every festival and mass held at the church. Even before the terrorist threats during the war, adequate security was provided, as a large number of devotees gather here from across the island. There is clearly a lack of security here. This area received a lot of support from the Navy, before their camp was relocated. Now we don’t have their support either” residents said. Newnham Square resident Arsakumar was seen helping out with funeral arrangements of a neighbour, a victim of the attack. He said that the majority of the residents of Kochchikade attended the evening and morning masses and therefore escaped the brutal attack. “My neighbour was one of the important persons of our neighborhood. He was unfortunately inside the church at the time of the attack,” he said.
- It was mostly out-of-towners who were victimised