By Shreen Abdul Saroor
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Easter Sunday attacks, in which eight IS terrorists senselessly murdered 269 Catholic and Christian worshippers and tourists, shattering our collective sense of unity and togetherness. Families celebrating Christianity’s holiest day and tourists visiting our beautiful shores were massacred by those who claimed Islam only in name.
Joe lost his wife and a child in the blast at St. Sabastian’s Church in Negombo that killed 115 people, including 27 children. He is still holding on to their photos, even tighter when he talked about them; “I wish that day did not happen in my life. It was so brutal and bloody”. He further asked “why did they do this to us? We lived peacefully here and I want to see that again but when so many of us are shattered, it is difficult to heal. Their memory and the bombings are what lingers on in our head”.
Theepamallar’s son, Arun Prasanth, was killed in Protestant Zion church bombing in Batticaloa. He was 30 years old and lost his father to the war when he was one year old. Theepamallar could not hold her tears and said “Arun looked after me and after his father’s death I brought him up so carefully but who knew that he will be killed like this. I am now homeless too. Tomorrow I do not know whether the church will have a service but I will go to the cemetery.”
Verl, drives a three-wheeler. He lost 03 family members, his son Jackson (age 13), his sister and brother in law. His two other sisters and the deceased sister’s child who is seven years old are badly injured; paralysed and lost eyesight. “one year has passed by and I still hear their voices and laughter in this house. Everyone has forgotten us, even during wartime we managed to survive without loss of life but, after the war, when leading a normal life, this tragedy and agony hoisted upon us. It seems everyone has moved on except the victims and their families. With COVID-19, the church will not have a service, but we will go to the cemetery in the evening and will light an oil lamp. Maybe others will also do so.”
Sumathi (aged 53) lost her eyesight and her precious daughter Uma. “My child is gone and one year on I feel like she will come to me. She did so much of social work and have been very active. I had a big dream for her.” Uma was 22 and was a 1st-year art faculty student at Eastern University.
Dhulsini was visiting Sri Lanka from America so her son Kiran could visit her grandmother. She lost Kiran in the Cinnamon Grand hotel blast. A year on, she struggles to rebuild without answers. In a BBC interview, she says “We’ve had no acknowledgement that we’ve lost the most precious person in our lives from the Sri Lankan government. Nothing at all. Not even a condolence.”
These and so many other families are still struggling to make sense of what happened and need our collective support to heal. But a year later, our country is consumed by COVID-19. The virus has prevented families from gathering for Easter service this year or coming together to mourn on the anniversary of the attacks. In these challenging times, it is critical to work together. With no avenue for physical togetherness, we must instead find togetherness in our hearts and minds.
Early on after the attacks, communities worked hard to build unity from the ashes. Moderate religious leaders worked to bring people together for interfaith dialogue and create safe spaces for exchange. A group of Catholic nuns, church leaders, and civil society groups in Negombo welcomed Muslim community members and started working together to neutralize tensions and build trust through a genuine exchange. Church leaders in Negombo were also on the frontlines in protecting Muslims from mob attacks.
The Muslim community also took part. Muslim shopkeepers closed all their businesses in Negombo until Catholics had buried the last body of the victims killed in the St. Sebastian’s Church attack. Community leaders came forward with lectures and writings to explain how Islam teaches nonviolence and translating the Quran to Sinhala. Mosques opened their doors to interfaith dialogues and discussions. And throughout Negombo, houses and businesses belonging to all communities had hoisted white flags for weeks in mourning.
Although some interfaith exchanges continue at an individual level, broader efforts have declined. They need to restart and continue. No faith promotes hatred toward fellow beings. We as Sri Lankans have throughout our history suffered from a different kind of virus – racism – which has no cure until we develop compassion for different ethnicities, different cultural and religious values. It is that trust, that faith in each other that is built through mutual respect and secular values, that is vital not only to keep us all safe in this pandemic but also to building a brighter shared future.
In these pandemic times, we face a difficult path ahead. Muslims are being stigmatized and accused of spreading the virus. The compulsory cremation policy further alienates this community, making them lesslikely to seek treatment. Instead of empowering communities to counter the pandemic, the media broadcasts fake news and vilifies affected patients even after their death.
Civil society organizations that usually work with war-affected communities are now shattered, preventing us from protesting the complete militarized handling of the pandemic. We are powerless to gather details of those arrested and investigate the charges brought. New gazettes and government guidelines are introduced, and we only hear about it in the media. Parliament stands dissolved since March 2nd, due to the locked down the courts have been silent. The President alone is making all the decisions.
Although we are humbled by the service of our frontline healthcare workers and officers keeping us safe, weaponizing this virus for political purposes is not only counterproductive, it kills our humanity. At a time when we need healing, we are socially distancing each other in our hearts and minds based on unchecked information and smear campaigns.
A year after the heinous attacks, let us collectively stand with the affected families and mourn the victims of the Easter Sunday bombings. Let us share their loss and pray with them to honour and remember our brothers and sisters lost. Let us also pray for those affected by the COVID-19 virus and for us to beat the even deadlier virus of racism that threatens us all.
In our lives, there are dividing lines across religion, wealth, race, social status and political ideology. But today, we are brought together as one through COVID-19, an invisible virus capable of breaking down powerful economies, borders and walls. The next few months will be stressful and we may lose many more precious lives. Healthcare providers will be under incredible stress to save lives while politicians and dividers persist in cynical politics. It is the resilience of the human spirit that can salvage us from both the pandemic and the politicking. In some way, there is a silver lining in this dark time—by coming together through collective struggle and sacrifice, we will unite to overcome this challenge. Let us learn that lesson today in honour of those taken away from us on 2019 Easter Sunday.