Katuwapitiya: A village of white flags after Easter blast | Sunday Observer

Katuwapitiya: A village of white flags after Easter blast

28 April, 2019
A girl weeping at a grave site    Pic: Gayan Pushpika
A girl weeping at a grave site Pic: Gayan Pushpika

The closely knit Negombo suburbs of Katuwapitiya, Katana and Mahahunupitya are reeling from the shock of the Easter Sunday blast as Holy Mass was ending at St. Sebastian’s Church. For one week, the little village has been burying its dead. A hundred-and-two people perished in the suicide bombing in the church where many parishioners had flocked for the celebratory Easter mass that morning. Every few feet, a funeral house – and quiet mourners gathered around coffins small and large.

With the church still sealed off with crime scene tape, parish priests erected large marquees and podiums in the gardens of St Sebastian’s to hold mass funerals. Four or five at a time, priests recited the final rites for parishioners and their children who had frequented the church. At the burial ground a few meteres away, a backhoe was brought in to dig graves for the victims and coffins marked with numbers were buried in the freshlydug soil.

Beside an open window, in a little house right opposite St Sebastians, Chandrani Fernando weeps alone. Diluk Fernando, her husband died in the explosion, leaving her and her little nine- year-old daughter. Estranged from their families, Chandrani’s world has been torn apart, and she cannot understand why she was left when he was taken. “He was just standing right behind us on the side of the church,” she recalled, “nothing happened to us but he was suddenly on the floor.”

Chandrani believes she saw the bomber who shattered so many lives that day. On Monday, she described him perfectly. A young man in blue jeans, a grey cap and a very large backpack. When the CCTV footage from St Sebastian’s church came out the next day, it turned out that she had in fact, seen the bomber. “I didn’t understand it. Communion was over and it was the last part of the mass. Why was this person coming in to church now? I had never seen him before,” she recalled through her tears. Chandrani turned around for a moment – perhaps to talk to her husband – but before she knew it, her ears were ringing and there was blood and debris all around.

All over Katuwapitiya, survivors tell similar stories.

Since the Sunday blast, Melani Fernando and her family had been in church till Tuesday, just finding ways to help. Melani believes that her life was saved by a miracle.

“I am in the church choir, therefore ,we sit away from the main church hall and in a room partially separated. All of sudden there was a huge blast and we couldn’t hear for a few minutes. There was a ringing in our ears and I couldn’t understand what happened until we started hearing the screams and saw what happened,” she said.

St Sebastian’s Church was recently refurbished. But the church lies in ruin now, its pews scattered and broken, statues decimated and the shrine in pieces. The explosion blew the entire roof off. The walls are splattered with hair, skin and blood. The stench of death and rotting and charred flesh is everywhere.

On a day like Easter Sunday, Melani explains that it is normal for the crowd in the popular church to spill out into the sides from the main hall.

Now, she is not sure she will ever go back. “I’m haunted by this. I will never forget those scenes in the first moments,” she said.

Ajith Fernando, her father is rushing between funerals on Tuesday. He talks of one family in which only the mother survived and she remains in the ICU. “She has no idea her whole family is dead,” he says, shaking his head.

The arrangement on Tuesday at the Katuwapitiya church was to hold general mass for the funerals. Over 60 bodies were buried in a common grave. Coffins that were brought in were sealed and numbered.

People were gathering around to pay their last respects. Security has been tightened and everyone who entered the church was body checked.

During his sermon, Head of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith led the way, preaching a message of peace rather than vengeance. He said any clashes between communities or neighbours, would be playing into the hands of terrorists.

“Understand that your neighbour is not responsible for this. Assist the law enforcement authorities. And most of all love your enemy. That is what we can do as true Catholics,” the Cardinal said.

At the unusually crowded Katuwapitiya cemetery, A/L student Rebecca mourns the loss of both her parents. Ten graves have been dug for the first batch of burials. She and Melani taught Sunday school together.

The Muslim community, advised not to attend the funerals of their friends and neighbours, seem equally shaken and grief-stricken by the attacks.

Sixty-seven-year-old M. S. Ashraff is a resident of Negombo since birth and lives in a mixed neighbourhood. After what has happened, he feels he cannot look his neighbour’s in the eye. “We wanted to go and help at the church, but right now we have been asked to stay away until things are quieter,” the old man said.

He worries for inter-communal harmony and trust building in the aftermath of the vicious terror attacks. He is certain Muslim businesses will be affected. “Muslim children go to Sinhalese schools here. How will they continue? How can we get past the suspicion now?” he wonders. He is already nostalgic for the peace between communities that he senses has been shattered by the Easter Sunday blast.

According to the Katana OIC, IP Senevirathne, around 600 refugee families were brought into the police station, registered and were directed to the Ahamddiya mosque for their own protection. “This was done as a precautionary measure,” he said.

OIC Katana said that they have received complaints of isolated incidents. He says there are gangs, especially those addicted to substance use who thrive on such incidents and may create problems in the area.

“We are sufficiently equipped to face any condition and we have so far been able to maintain peace in the area,” he said.

Sahir Ahamad Thahir and his wife arrived in Sri Lanka back in 2017. They were brought in as refugees and settled in Negombo through UNHCR. They used to live near Lahore city and working as data entry personnel. Thahir said he was living quite happily prior to the Easter Sunday attacks. His son was born at the Negombo General Hospital soon after.

“We were brought and kept in this mosque as a precautionary measure. I personally didn’t undergo any harassment, however, there have been isolated incidents reported. My only worry is I don’t know how long they will keep us. I wish we could go back to our houses,” he said. Thahir who belongs to a minority community in Pakistan has experienced this violence against them. He said that a mosque of their sect in Pakistan was bombed killing 82 people.

“So I understand the pain they are going through,” Thahir said.

Over two days of mass funerals, a leaflet was distributed by St. Sebastian’s Church. It was a “tearful appeal” to Catholics and people of the community. “One section of society cannot be held responsible for the violence, just because they share a religion with the attackers,” the leaflet said.