Left behind: The child survivors of Easter terror | Sunday Observer

Left behind: The child survivors of Easter terror

Lying bandaged and bruised in sparse hospital beds or trying to pick up the pieces after a devastating tragedy ripped their worlds apart, they all have a story, each one as heart wrenching as the next.

Eighty one children were injured in six suicide bombings on April 21, many of them while attending Easter Mass at popular churches in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, and at least six were orphaned by the attacks according to figures released by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

At the Zion Church in Batticaloa, 13 children were among the 27 killed in the suicide bombing. Surviving children are traumatised and fearful. Some have burst eardrums and can hear only slightly. Others are yet to speak from the shock. Some children will remain in hospital for months until the physical wounds heal and new surgeries can be performed to improve their quality of life. 

Endi Fernando

Three weeks since the bombings that killed 258 people and injured more than 400, Enid Fernando from Mahahunupitaya, a survivor herself, laments for her lost brother, and for his family that was so cruelly torn apart. Her brother and his wife were sitting together inside the St Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya when the blasts took place. She recalls the first moments after the explosion ripped through the packed church. “His daughter, Rebecca Sewwandi, had called out to her father. She had realised he was gone and then turned to her mother who was still alive. After screaming for help to no avail, she has taken her mother to the hospital herself,” Enid narrates. Sewwandi’s mother had passed away on the way to the hospital, leaving her an orphan. Sewwandi is currently preparing for her Advanced Level examination. “She was loved, cherished and protected by her parents, it’s unbearable to think how she lost all that within minutes,” said Enid.

Sewwandi is currently living with her relative Merci Silva from Bolawalana, Negombo. Speaking to Sunday Observer, Merci said Sewwandi is currently preparing for her upcoming examination and trying to cope with her loss. The girl herself was not available to speak. 

Even older children who were still dependants have large crosses to bear. Twenty- year old Devanjali Fernando lost both parents in the Negombo church bombing.  A third year medical student at Guangxi Medical University, Devanjali has two younger brothers aged 12 and 16. The children’s maternal grandmother will be looking after them but there is more they need in these difficult times. “I wish there is someone to guide my brothers long term, especially the youngest. It is a little difficult for me to understand what he wants, especially the way our mother used to,” Devanjali said.

Family members say Sayuru Sathsara loved to paint. Now he will have to wait months until he regains strength in his right hand. But his injuries do not end there. Sayuru suffered two head injuries and an injury on his right foot as the blast struck him, his uncle Sudeepa Fernando told Sunday Observer. The brain surgery performed immediately had rendered his right arm unusable, which doctors hope will be reversed as he heals. Sayuru’s skull was removed during the surgical procedure and will be replaced only after  six months. The child lay immobile in the bed, his eyes staring into the face of his aunt, who was caring for him. 

“But, sometimes he screams in pain,” Fernando said.

Construction is going on the rented house of Senarath Arachilage Milroy, whose little daughter Sneha Mindani was injured in the Easter Sunday blast at St. Sebastian’s Church. Milroy’s family is constructing an air conditioned room with an attached bathroom in their modest Katuwapitiya home. For six months, Sneha’s skull will remain exposed while doctors wait for the swelling in her brain to subside. During that time, she must be kept in a sterile environment, lest she catches an infection. “We got some funds to build the room, it is not as if we could have afforded it. I don’t even have a permanent income,” Milroy explained. 

Lying in a hospital bed, even through her injuries, Sneha is dying to go to school. For some months, this will not be possible. 

Immediate support

The specific type of support needed by the children will vary from child to child, depending on the situation, a spokesperson for UNICEF Sri Lanka told Sunday Observer. Since some children had witnessed tragic events, some had suffered injury themselves and still others may have been impacted even though they were not present during the attacks, for instance by losing family or friends.

These experiences can have a significant impact on the psycho-social wellbeing and the development of children, and have both immediate and long-term consequences for children, families and communities, the UNICEF spokesperson further said.

“This can also hamper their ability to access other services, such as education, further damaging their chances of succeeding in life. It is therefore important that psycho-social support is provided to help children to work through and recover, so that they can return to some level of normality,” the UN agency for children emphasized.

UNICEF estimates that the children will need a combination of immediate, medium and long term support. Firstly, their physical wellbeing and stability will have to be attended to. Psychological first aid, which is a humane and supportive response is also important. This support must transition into long term psychosocial support which will help individuals and communities heal psychological wounds and rebuild social structures that were torn apart by the Easter Sunday bombings, UNICEF says.

The big question now is whether the Government has sufficient psycho-social support systems in place to cope with the need.

Former Chairperson of the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) Marina De Livera explained that focus and monitoring will be necessary at the Ministry level when psycho-social support is being provided.

“An adequate number of capable officers are present to provide support to the needy. Unfortunately, there is no one to guide them, and as time passes these counselling programs halt midway,” De Livera told the Sunday Observer in an interview.

Current NCPA Chairman H.M. Abayarathne said the agency was currently conducting a preliminary needs assessment, with support from several ministries. Some victims have already been provided immediate psycho-social therapy, based on their needs, Abayarathne explained.

“This is not an isolated project and is being jointly conducted with the Medical Officers from the Negombo General Hospital,” he said.

The NCPA Chairman added that three different private companies have come forward to offer financial assistance to the needy but acknowledged that nothing had been finalised so far.

The orphaned

According to UNICEF Sri Lanka, the Government Child Rights Promotion Officers (CRPO) and church communities are undertaking a ‘needs assessment,’ of children affected by the bombings.

“So far, six orphan children have been identified. Currently, Probation Officers and CRPO are actively involved in the needs assessment of these orphaned children,” a spokesperson for UNICEF said.

A mother with her injured child

There are several legal provisions available to protect the children of Sri Lanka. Orphaned children who are identified for adoption are protected under the Adoption Ordinance, which gives District Judges the power to decide where the child is placed, with the guidance of Probation Officers.

If children are not identified as needing ‘adoption’, they can be placed with extended family members or a foster family, known as a ‘fit person’, in a process guided by Section 35 of Children and Young Persons Ordinance, according to UNICEF. ‘Fit persons’ are normally given children to foster on a three-year basis, with the potential for extension based on the child’s needs. The person deemed a ‘fit person’ may receive some financial support to cover any related expenses.

“Sri Lanka, being a family-based society, generally the family will take over the responsibility of the child.Currently, all six children orphaned by Easter Sunday attacks are with their relatives or extended family members,” the spokesperson for UNICEF noted. Some of these families will need assistance going forward, or enrolment in social welfare programs such as Samurdhi, the UN agency believes.

De Livera believes it would be a sad situation if any of these orphans end up at orphanages. “Most of them have injuries, giving rise to the possibility of them being cornered and abused by the more able-bodied children, in which case, it will be a double tragedy,” she said.

Noting a case of a child from Batticaloa who was left orphaned by the Easter Sunday attacks, De Livera said that while the child had lost his sight in the blasts, the State must ensure his education continues. “He must be taught Braille and his education must continue since it is his right,” she explained.

Following the Paris terror attacks in 2015, the Government of France adopted the orphaned children or children of parents who could not meet familial obligations due to injury. France provides for basic necessities, tuition fees and medical care until the child turns 21.Certain jobs in the French public service have also been reserved for them.

Perhaps it is time Sri Lanka adopted an equivalent system, experts say, which would cover basic educational needs, in light of the large number of children whose lives were tragically disrupted by the Easter Sunday massacre. 

Pix: Rukmal Gamage


A child is a child: Legal protections for Zaharan’s daughter

Child protection laws will apply to the child rescued from the burning wreckage of the hideout in Sainthamaruthu used by the family of Mohammed Cassim Mohammed Zaharan, the Easter Sunday bombing mastermind. The four-year old girl was rescued by the military following a series of explosions and gunfire within the house.

UNICEF explained that a child was a child and not liable or held responsible for the behaviour of the parent or family members. “This means that the child is covered in exactly the same way as any other child in the country, under normal legal provisions,” a UNICEF spokesperson emphasised.

The UN agency added that all authorities were guided by the concept of ‘best interest of the child’, and UNICEF works to support this is for all cases, irrespective of the identities of children involved.

De Livera said that the child in question should be looked after by a neutral person and should be given love and affection. “Following a need assessment, she should be cared for with professionalism and confidentiality, using therapeutic methods.”


Failing child protection mechanisms

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) statistics as of May 7 indicates that a total of 81 children were injured during the Easter Sunday attacks, while six were left orphaned. Thirty more lost one parent.

All these children and their families are in urgent need of support, both financial and psychological. Most of the affected have modest incomes, survived on daily wages and now shouldering heavy financial burdens in caring for the injured family members in the aftermath of the carnage. Some single parents are incapacitated in their parental duties due to the injuries. Still more have deep emotional scars that haunt them. They all have a story, each one as heart wrenching as the next.

Speaking of the support that can be provided to these children, Attorney-at-Law, Thishya Weragoda said the country has no comprehensive mechanism to address a situation of this calibre where a large number of children are affected at the same time. “In this case, the State will take them under the general system where they will be placed under the care of the Department of Probation and Child Care Services and the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs,” he said.

However, Chairperson of Sisters-at-Law and the Former Chairperson of National Child Protection Authority, Marini De Livera said the State child protection mechanism is failing. “In an instance like this the Ministry of Child Affairs should coordinate with relevant authorities and field officers. The Treasury has an allowance for disasters which should be released as soon as possible to support these children and families, I do not see this happening,” she said.