Picking Up the Pieces in Sri Lanka: Part 1

By William Stark

10/06/2019 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern)It was in that moment I realized something had fundamentally changed. What should have been a simple midnight journey from the airport to my hotel in Colombo was abruptly interrupted at a ran­dom security checkpoint on a dark side-road.

“Identification please,” the police officer demanded from the darkness outside of our vehicle. His flashlight shined through the windows, shifting between myself and my driver. This was not the first checkpoint I had encountered while work­ing for ICC. However, it was the first I had encountered in Sri Lanka.

A State of Emergency

As the officer reviewed our documents, I reflected on the tragic events that created the checkpoint currently waylaying my journey. On April 21, Easter Sunday, ISIS suicide bombers attacked three churches and three luxury hotels in coordinated bombings that killed more than 250 people and injured over 500. The devastation was unlike anything Sri Lanka’s Christians had ever experienced.

After a few moments, the officer returned our identifications and waved us through the checkpoint.

“We are now under a state of emer­gency,” Yamini Ravindra, a Christian human rights advocate with the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), pointed out as we discussed my experience at the checkpoint the night before. Sitting across a conference table, I asked, “How has the Christian community been affected by the bombings?”

“The entire community is under a fear psychosis,” Yamini explained. “Protection and security [are] a major issue for many churches who have no experience in han­dling attacks.”

Yamini’s response was no surprise. It had only been two months since the bombings and I suspected many survivors were still picking up the pieces of the lives that were shattered by the bombings.

A Sudden Tragedy

The next day, I traveled to St. Anthony’s Shrine, one of the three churches targeted by the suicide bombers. Looking at the church from across the street in Colombo, it was hard to tell it had been the scene of such dev­astation just months before. But as I moved toward the back of the sanctuary, I was con­fronted with evidence of the Easter tragedy.

Carved into the stone floor of the church were the telltale signs of a suicide bombing. The small, circular craters emanating from a single point at random were an all too famil­iar sight for me.

“This is where it happened,” I said to my NCEASL companion. He nodded solemnly.

“We went to the church that day as a family,” Anton Fernando, age 19, quietly explained to me later, his eyes fixed on the floor. “My sisters and mother sat toward the front of the church. My father and I sat near the back.”

“During the prayers, I suddenly heard a huge noise,” Anton continued. “The impact knocked me to the ground. Everyone was running and shouting, ‘Save me!’”

When Anton regained his senses, he immediately started looking for his father. The impact of the explosion caused St. Anthony’s roof to collapse, covering many of those injured by the blast and complicat­ing Anton’s search.

“I found my father covered by roof sheets,” Anton said. “When I pulled him out, blood was pouring out of his leg from the knee down. I picked up my father and brought him to an ambulance that took him to the hospital.”

Anton then reunited with his sisters and mother and the group traveled to the hospital to see what had become of their injured relative.

“The doctors told us he was dead,” Anton said with suppressed emotion, eyes still fixed on the floor. According to the post-mortem report, shrapnel struck Anton’s father in the chest. The wound damaged his heart and was most certainly fatal.

“I see Anton is really struggling,” Dileesiya, his mother, quietly told me after Anton left the room. “He is bottling up his emotions and trying to stay strong for the family.”

At age 19, Anton is confronted with a trag­edy that most would struggle to comprehend. Unfortunately for Anton, his life is now at a critical crossroads where his future educa­tion, and later career, will be determined. With so much on the line, I noted that Anton would greatly benefit from trauma counsel­ing and educational support to ensure that the death of the father did not determine the life of the son.

Stay tuned for Part 2, coming tomorrow.

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