Batticaloa bombing devastates residents | Sunday Observer

Batticaloa bombing devastates residents

28 April, 2019
Entrance of the Zion Church cordoned off by the police.
Entrance of the Zion Church cordoned off by the police.

Batticaloa : On Wednesday, silence reigned over the Eastern town of Batticaloa. The often bustling commercial town appeared to be in deep mourning. As shuttered shop fronts displayed white flags, the streets were decorated with banana trees according to Tamil tradition for the funerals of fellow residents mercilessly killed just four days ago. The loss of life in one what can only be deemed as a terrorist attack was the first of its kind the town had to face since the eradication of the terrorist outfit, LTTE, in 2009.

On Easter Sunday at exactly 9.05am an explosion had ripped through the entrance of the Evangelical Zion Church on Central Road in Batticaloa. The explosion later discovered to be the work of a fanatical suicide bomber now identified as 27-year-old Nazar Mohammed Azhar, took the lives of 26 church-goers including that of 14 innocent children on the day leaving the closely knit church community devastated. More victims of the attack continue to fight for their lives in the Batticaloa General Hospital.

According to Yvonne Miranda, who lives opposite the Zion Church, April 21 was just another regular Sunday for those attending the popular church. Almost 30 children had attended Sunday school at the church that day prior to the main service which often commenced at 9 am. Despite being a regular church goer previously, Miranda says she had stopped attending church nearly three months before the attack due to her failing health. “Therefore, on the day I was home and was attending to some work in the kitchen,” she recalled. Hearing an explosion Miranda had run out of her house. “It was a horrific sight, there was this mound of flesh lying in my garden” she said, adding that unable to bear the frightening situation unfolding before her she did not go towards the church.

But it is the death of 14 children that is most haunting for Miranda. “These were children I often met and personally knew, they were angels,” she said questioning what wrong they did to suffer this horrific fate. With the chief pastor away, Assistant Pastor Ganeshmurthi Thirukumaran was leading the church service on the day. “His youngest son also died in the attack,” Miranda said. “His two sons would come to church right after school, throw their bags in a corner and run all over the church” she said recalling happier times. Since the attack many residents in the vicinity of the church have left their homes but Miranda refuses to budge despite the traumatic experience. “Why should I go, this is my home,” she said defiantly.

When the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) checked Miranda’s CCTV system, the footage had shown the suicide attacker loitering near her gate before heading towards the Church. “This should have never happened,” Miranda said adding that despite the carnage any politician is yet to visit those affected in the area.

The Evangelical Zion Church which started from humble beginnings has grown over the years, becoming popular among those of other religions for their Wednesday healing services. Many people from the surrounding areas would visit the church including a large number of Muslim women. According to sources, this could have also been a factor which contributed to the Church becoming a target of fanatical extremists.

But unaware of the imminent danger Jekathas Sinthoori (32), a resident of Manchathoduvai, Batticaloa had taken her only child five-year-old Jekathas Anjalina to Sunday school on the fateful day. Having had a fun Sunday school lesson, the children had been in high spirits. Anjalina along with her other Sunday school mates had been having their breakfast in a separate room near the garage of the church when the explosion took place. Anjalina and her mother Sinthoori who was a teacher had both died instantly, charred by the flames of the bomb.

According to Sinthoori’s father, Irdiyam Caliston, who had been passing the area at the time, he had initially thought the sound was caused by a transformer exploding. But as news of other bombings around the country trickled in, Caliston had headed towards the Zion Church in search of his daughter and grandchild. “My daughter often takes Anjalina early to church for Sunday School,” he said adding that other family members excluding himself would often go to church by 9 a.m. for the service. Caliston was unable to locate his loved ones. He was then told of their demise. “The bodies had to be put in sealed caskets,” Caliston said. Despite several small confrontations previously with the Muslim community in the area, Caliston said the communities have lived in harmony for a number of years. “I can’t understand what happened,” he said.

Sinthoori’s husband seated next to Caliston is inconsolable. Despite the pleas of loved ones unable to bear the loss of his wife and only child, he constantly talks of committing suicide. “Give me some poison, I cannot live without them,” he told relatives who had been keeping vigil by his side. Despite the loss of Sinthoori and Anjalina, their relatives including Sinthoori’s aunt , Theresa who was also injured in the blast vows they will return to their Church after it is rebuilt. Injured in her leg while running away, body parts of the deceased had also fallen at her feet. “But my faith in God is unshaken, so we will all return,” Theresa said.

Though the incident took the lives of 26 people, the damage could have been far worse if not for the heroic act of a Churchgoer who also lost his life in the attack. While the exact details of the incident remains hazy according to witnesses Ramesh Raju had greeted his killer on the day. Speaking to the Sunday Observer, Dinesh, the brother of Ramesh’s wife Krishanthini said Ramesh who often assisted the church during the absence of the chief pastor had greeted the suicide bomber realising that he was not a regular worship per at their church. “He had welcomed and asked if he can be of any help,” Dinesh said adding that the bomber had asked to speak to the pastor. After having told the bomber that the pastor was not in the country, Raju had offered to call assistant pastor Thirukumaran and had asked the new comer to come inside leaving his backpack. However, the suicide attacker had panicked. Already failing to enter another church in the area, the questioning of the church goers including Raju and yet another caretaker of the Church identified as Sasikumar had put him on edge.

“He had started sweating profusely and had refused to remove the bag,” Dinesh said, adding that the worshippers had then attempted to take him away. At the time of the scuffle around 400 worshippers had already gathered inside the church for the Sunday service including Raju’s wife Krishanthini. “It was then he had detonated himself killing Raju and the others,” Dinesh said.

While Raju’s vigilance saved a large number of lives, unfortunately, his family also lost his younger sister Susikala (30), her husband Narayan (35) and their son one-year-old Jabesh in the attack. Despite the loss of their loved ones Dinesh says the family is thankful that Raju was able to save innocent people. “We thank God that my brother was able to save so many innocent lives,” Dinesh said. According to him the family has accepted the deaths of Raju and his family members as God’s will. “Only God knows why this happened but we accept it” Dinesh said claiming that despite the incident their faith in God has only grown stronger.

While Batticaloa mourned its dead, almost 10 kilometres away in Kattankudy, a majority Muslim town too the mood remained sombre. Amid the military presence, shops remained closed with little civilian movement. The main street dotted with date palms was nearly empty. Its residents appeared to be nervous, following the revelation that the main suspect believed to have headed the Easter massacre was once one of their own. In recent times, majority Muslim towns in the country’s Eastern province such as Kattankudy have been viewed with suspicion for its Islamisation following the end of Sri Lanka’s long drawn conflict. The recent incidents has only heightened this fear among the general populace.

The mastermind of the suicide missions identified as Mohammed Zahran Hashim (33), was born and raised in the Eastern coastal town. Despite having little formal education, the young Zahran had attended several Islamic religious schools in the area. According to the Vice Principal of the Kattankudy Jaamiyathul Falah Arabic College, Moulavi S.M Aliyar, Zahran had been a troublemaker from the beginning.

Arguments and disagreements with his teachers over accepted fundamental principles of Islam was a common occurrence. Zahran had often attempted to interpret the religion according to his own whims and fancies. Citing an example, Aliyar said he would even argue on the number of rakats (a single unit of Islamic prayers) one needs to pray during the month of Ramadan. “We were forced to call his parents and expel him from the school,” he said.

According to Aliyar, the school and the community as a whole was deeply saddened when it was revealed that Muslim youth were responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians. “Islam has denounced all forms of violence. Whoever is responsible for this attack on worshippers must be dealt with severely,” he said.

A relative holds pictures of Sinthoori and Anjelina

Amidst rumours that schools such as Jaamiyathul Falah Arabic College have become breeding grounds for fundamentalists, Aliyar denied it saying his school educates children from the age of 11 on the various aspects of Sharia or Islamic Law. “The education lasts for seven years and our endeavour is to create a good citizen,” he said.

Aliyar said that Zahran had studied in the Jaamiyathul Falah Arabic College for around five years and was a troublemaker. “He went against not only the rules of the school but those of Islam as well,” Aliyar said prompting to the school administration to expel him in 2005. According to him the school and Zahran has not had any connection since. When questioned as to how Zahran was exposed to such extremist ideas Aliyar said he is unsure as to what went wrong. “However, we are now taking the initiative to educate our children around the country to prevent them from taking a similar and misguided path” Aliyar said noting that those who commit suicide has no place in heaven.

But for theMuslim community in Kattankudy the attacks have also unearthed painful memories of the past. When innocent Muslim worshippers were killed en masse in the Kattankudy Mosque massacre of 1990, Vice President of the Federation of Mosques and Islamic Institutions in Kattankudy, Ahamed Zubair lost six of his close family members. “We still remember the pain we felt at the time” he said.

Hearing the news of recent attacks on Churchgoers, Zubair said he understands the pain felt by the Christian community in Sri Lanka. “We know their pain as we too suffered in 1990,” he said.

According to him, since the news of the brutal attacks broke the families in the area too are grieving for the loss of innocents. “The women in our homes are not cooking and they too have been crying having seen the deaths of our countrymen,” he said. Pointing to the Quran placed neatly on his desk, Zubair says the attacks and the killers are not part of Islam. “Show me a place in the Holy Book where it asks for innocent people to be killed,” he said.

“We feel deeply ashamed and are now unable to even look at our non Muslim neighbours’ faces” Zubair said adding that they vehemently oppose the heinous acts of the group. “We cannot forgive them” he said. According to him, though the attackers have been identified by Muslim names they cannot be accepted as real Muslims. “Though almost 85 percent of the mosques belong to the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (AJCU), some other mosques have also cropped up in recent times” Zubair said adding that however, despite knowing they were preaching a distorted version of Islam they never expected such a heinous act from them.

According to Zubair the Muslim community in Kattankudy who only wished to live in peace with other communities is now living in fear. Majority of the businesses in Batticaloa are owned by Muslims hailing from Kattankudy and they are worried that they may be attacked following the bombings.

However the community has also stepped up to help the victims by donating blood and have also held discussions with other religious leaders in the area. Nevertheless, community leaders say they feel a difference towards them when interacting with other communities following the incident. “When we faced the LTTE attacks we were hurt and it was difficult to forgive our Tamil brethren even when they had nothing to do with the LTTE” Zubair recalled. “We would smile and talk with them but we felt hurt”. According to Zubair it took over a year for their hearts to heal. “I know our brothers are hurt now but we will wait hoping we our close bond will be restored in time to come” Zubair said.


Children’s last dance at Zion Church

On April 21, Easter Sunday, the children of the Zion Church in Batticaloa had attended Sunday school as usual. The Children dressed in colorful clothes had danced and sung praises to God on the day. According to a teacher, when asked how many of them would lay down their lives for the Lord, each and every child had raised their hands. Moments later the innocent children would become victims of a ruthless suicide bomber. While he had earlier scouted another church in the area, finding that Mass had ended at St. Mary’s Church, Batticaloa, he had headed to Zion Church to carry out his attack.

Of the 26 victims at the Zion Church, unfortunately, more than half were children from its Sunday School. The bomb blast left 14 children dead and another 10 grievously wounded. Among the dead was Shalom Malshya, the teenage son of the Church’s assistant pastor Ganeshmurthi Thirukumaran.

According to witnesses having finished Sunday school many of the children were having their breakfast in a room adjacent to the church’s garage when adults of the church had prevented the bomber from entering the church. Panicked he had set off his suicide vest killing in the children and the parents who were supervising the children’s breakfast.

Following the attack, Sharon Santhakumar, aged 12, and his younger sister Sarah aged 11 was laid to rest the very next day. Other young victims of the attack were identified as Thiventhan Jeshanika (13), Maknethiran Jepishanth (10), Jekathasan Anjalina (5), Surenthirakumar Amishika (3), Sasikumar Nerujan (2), Soosaithasan Aliyashan (3), Pulathiraraja Kevin (9), John Jesuran Jeyaratnam (13), Vell Jackson (13), Yasahnthan Jabesh (2) and Anaaya Peter (7).

Banners showing the smiling faces of the dead children were seen across the town of Batticaloa during the week. Remembering the joyful children, a resident of the area Yvonne Miranda is devastated at the heinous attack on young children. “What wrong did these children do? They were angels” she said.

Pix: Sivam Pakianathan, Batticaloa Special Cor.