Bonds of humanity unite communities | Sunday Observer

Bonds of humanity unite communities

The venerated statue of St Anthony, Kochikade church
The venerated statue of St Anthony, Kochikade church

KOCHCHIKADE: Shards of glass from the wreckage still lie strewn across the main entrance to the shrine. Metal barricades block access. On one of them is a poster that reads- “

Jesu ekka gamanak yanna”, (“Go on a journey with Jesus”). The church is cordoned off with yellow colour police-crime-scene tape.

This was the grim picture that greeted media personnel who entered the St.Anthony’s Shrine in Kochchikade, Kotahena, Colombo, after they were given a few minutes in which to enter and observe the shambles within.

On Easter Sunday (21) a suicide bomber wreaked carnage within the church by detonating a bomb towards the rear of the Church, amongst hundreds of people who were engaged in prayer. Thirty-three devotees did not make it out alive, (confirmed deaths at the time of this report).

Administrator of the Church- Rev. Fr Jude Raj Fernando

Five days after the explosions, it is dark and silent inside St Anthony’s, a place sacred to people of all faiths in Sri Lanka who have for centuries put their trust in St Anthony, (the patron saint who is venerated worldwide as ‘the finder of missing persons and things’). Crime officials had removed most of the grisly human remains at the time we visited the scene.

But inside, but the air is heavy and melancholy with grim remains of people’s belongings everywhere. Piles of shoes and clothes lie close to where the bomb exploded. A blood-stained white underskirt tangled against splinters of wood was seen amongst the rear pews. The walls are sprayed with bloodstains, and the plaster has been torn and peeled off. Shrapnel has made holes in doors and walls. Daylight peeps through the ceiling, where clay tiles once rained down upon the congregation. The floor is damp with blood and rainwater from the rainstorm of the previous night. Maggots crawl around in pools of rain, mixed with bloody human remains, and the stench of death is overpowering.

When 51-year-old Nazreen Tuan, father of two, entered the church for the first time in 30 years, he did not expect the much-loved shrine to be in that devastated condition. Tuan was sleeping in his home in Sea Street, about 700m from the church, when he got a call from one of his friends, a Hindu, to say that there had been an explosion in the church. It was around 9.20am.

“I immediately got up and ran towards the church. I didn’t even brush my teeth or wash my face.

I knew, from my friend’s voice, that the situation was really serious,” he said. But even so, he did not expect what he saw. “There were bodies lying everywhere on the floor- there were body-parts too, of men, women and children. It was devastating.”

He helped carry 15 of the dead bodies out, and load them into vehicles to be taken to the hospital morgue. Before first responders reached the scene, residents in the vicinity had already begun rescue operations. While stopping passing buses and Three- wheelers, they packed the injured in, and directed the drivers to take the victims to the National Hospital Colombo. Neighbours collected all their bedsheets to send to the church- with which to cover the bodies of the dead, as a mark of respect.

It was only much later in the day that Tuan learnt that there were people he knew amongst the fatalities.

One of them was 61-year-old Ravindran Fernando. A beloved father who leaves behind two daughters, a son and wife. His body was placed at Newnham Square, Colombo 13. The family is from Grandpas but Ravindran’s wife Delicia decided to hold the funeral at a relative’s house as there was not enough space for the large funeral gathering, in their own home.

That Sunday, the Fernando family had been preparing for the Easter feast. On the day before, Ravindran, who worked at a restaurant, had given money to Delicia to buy food items for a special Easter breakfast. But at 8.45 AM, the clock atop of the church stopped, and the explosion ripped their family apart.

N. A. Sumanapala, 57, another father (of three children), was near his shop on Jampettah Street, close to the church, when he heard a loud sound. First he though something in the Port had exploded, and then saw people, some bloodied and with open wounds, streaming out of the church.

“I ran into the church. There was smoke. I couldn’t see anything. I helped as many as I could, but after a while I felt faintish. I waited till enough help came and then went home,” he said. Back at his house Sumanapala sat unable to talk to anyone.

“I still don’t know what to say,” he said. The 8.00 AM Tamil mass, that day was based on the theme- forgiveness. As the devotees celebrated the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, they remembered his words, “Peace be with you”.

Forgiveness still resonates through the shocked Catholic Church.

Rev. Fr. Jude Raj Fernando – The Administrator, St. Anthony’s Church said even after the brutal attack, there was no communal violence in the area, which he attributes to the goodness of the people around.

“Sri Lankans love peace. They don’t think on the lines that -’ I am a Muslim, I am a Catholic, I am a Buddhist or I am a Hindu’. If you look at this community they live very peacefully.They all helped the church together. This church is open to everyone,” he said.Nevertheless, 18-year-old Franklin Fernando struggles to understand why his father, Ravindran, who had done nothing wrong to anyone, could be killed so inhumanely.

Franklin went to church, situated a few meters away, with his family at around 7.50am. During the mass he stood with his father at the back, while his sisters and mother were closer to the altar. Suddenly without warning , he says - “I fell back and immediately heard a sharp ringing sound in my ear. I checked if my ears were bleeding.

They were not. Then I looked up to see if my father was alright,” Franklin recalls. His father was lying on the floor. Unconscious. On his body were pieces of the ceiling. The debris was so heavy, that Franklin ran to fetch his mother. With the help of his aunt, Franklin put his father into a three-wheeler and rushed him to the National Hospital where they were told to stay outside. Franklin’s grey shirt was stained with the blood of two other survivors whom he had helped take out of the church, while looking for his mother.

Later, Franklin and relatives were allowed to see the survivors.But his father was not in the ward, and he was taken to where the bodies were kept. He recognized the black and white striped shirt his father had worn on that day, and called his mother. At least 250 people were killed in the series of bombings on Easter Sunday. The official figures stood at 359 on Thursday but later the government revised the death toll to 253 citing a calculation error. The targets were two catholic churches in Kochchikade and Negombo, and the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in Colombo.

At the mass burial ground in Negombo in the vicinity of St Sebastian’s Church where many died K. S. Manike, 56, from Andiambalama watched silently with her 23-year-old son. She wiped a tear from her face. “I don’t have any relatives here. I am a Buddhist. But we are all people. I saw little children being buried today,” she said.

Negombo Grand Mosque, situated a few kilometers away from St. Sebastian Church, was a solemn site on Tuesday- the day on which mass burials of the victims were held.

The Muslims in the area hoisted a banner expressing their condolences which read ‘We strongly condemn the ruthless act against humanity’. White flowers were left on a table at the mosque’s main entrance.

The day before they had buried a teenage Muslim girl, Fathima Asla, who died during the bombing in the mosque’s burial grounds.

“I feel great anger towards the bombers. They have to be punished severely for what they have done. They have killed our own brothers and sisters,” an angry 25-year-old Mohammad Nafeez told the Sunday Observer.

Chairman of the Grand Mosque M. A. M. Rameez said they received the news via mobile news alerts. “We called the church but the father said he will let us know if they need our help. Then we called the hospital. We said we will do anything they need- Even donate blood,” he said.

“They (politicians in the area) needed a freezer truck to put victim’s bodies. But we don’t have one. We told them to find a truck and we will pay for it - They couldn’t find one.”

Shortly thereafter they got word that the hospital has called for 300 packets of rice for the survivors and medical staff, which they promptly arranged.

“We did all this because we know our Catholic friends will do the same for us,” Rameez said.

“We also wanted to go to the church and the funerals, to express our sadness. But the Catholic Fathers advised us against it. People are very distraught now. They could get angered by seeing our presence there.But we wish we could show them that we are sad too,” he said.

On Thursday (25) Minister of Postal Services and Muslim Religious Affairs Abdul Haleem Mohammed Hashim issued a statement urging Muslims to avoid gathering for congregational prayers on Friday as a sign of solidarity with the Catholic Community.

The Collective of Sri Lankan Muslims even published full page advertisements in local newspapers showing their ‘disgust, revulsion and sorrow’ over the bombings that took the lives of fellow-citizens as well as tourists. “We are aghast and saddened by the fact that a misguided group of Sri Lankan Muslims have been engaged in carrying out these barbaric acts,” the advertisement stated. Also, on Thursday, the popular Muslim association -All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama- in a communique stating they are obliged to be responsible citizens and protect Sri Lanka, asked all Muslims to cooperate with security forces and law enforcement agencies. They even went as far as to request the Muslim womenfolk, to not hinder the work of the security forces by wearing the face cover (Niqab).

The Muslim community even went on to ask Catholics to hold the holy Mass ceremony in the mosque. They held banners that read “Our respect and gratitude to Rev. Cardinal Malcom Ranjith this mosque is open for your Mass. We stand against extremism and terrorism.”

Meanwhile, following an alert that mosques were the next targets a few churches requested mosques to hold their Friday Jumma prayers and offered to provide protection. Several citizens - non- Muslims- were even seen standing guard at mosques, on Friday. Despite the terror-attacks several tourists who visited the island before took to social media to pledging their support and asked fellow potential tourists to visit ‘the beautiful country’ in support of the country, and in defiance of the killers. 

Aftermath of the blast- abandoned belongings