This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
Just over a week ago, dozens of children, women and men across Sri Lanka dressed up in their Sunday best to attend one of the most important church services of the year: the Easter Sunday Mass. They never returned home.
After a decade of living in a country devoid of war and brutality, a series of explosions occurred in and around Colombo, in what is being called one of the bloodiest carnages since Sri Lanka's 25-year civil war ended. Apart from three luxury hotels in the country’s capital, the suicide bombers targeted three churches: St Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade in Colombo, St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya in Negombo, and Zion Evangelical Church in Batticaloa. Over 250 people have been reported dead, with over 500 injured from the explosions.
Yesterday, a week after the massacre, the churches remained silent—the first for many here who could not remember the last time the churches had gone without a mass. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith—the Archbishop of Colombo—had ordered the country’s churches not to hold services until the police could be sure there would be no more attacks, and urged the public not to take justice into their own hands. Instead, he held a solemn special mass at the Archbishop’s official residence that was broadcast live across local television and radio.
VICE spoke to Sri Lankan Catholic youth who shared their mix of emotions ranging from grief and confusion, to disappointment, helplessness and anger. While many of them have no vivid memory of the Civil War that ravaged the country, the bombings remind them of the persecution that religious minorities across Asia are suffering amid the growing appeal of a politics based on nationalism and sectarian identity.
Kushalini Gunarathne, 25
“I’ve always loved this country, so I’ve never really considered moving abroad. But after that Sunday, the thought of living abroad has crossed my mind multiple times. I’m angry at the government for failing to take action but also grieving the deaths, and have had sleepless nights and anxious days. The anxiety only grew with the death count rising and rumours flying. I found some help online to deal with the situation. I know that amid all this horror, there’s a great many people out there who are helping out—from those on Instagram providing mental health solutions, to people donating blood to the soldiers guarding us day and night. This brings me some comfort. However, this country needs to learn and appoint the right leaders who would take the responsibilities that come with power and authority. Until then, we might as well be living in fear.”
Mahesh De Andrado, 28
“Religion plays a big part in my life and the fact that they were targeting churches scared me. I was to be in one of those churches, and could have lost my life and those of my loved ones that Sunday. [There’s also been a lot of confusion] with the government declaring a state of emergency but the workplaces expecting us to come to work. But what truly got to me was that all the churches were on lockdown. In times of trial, we usually go to church and the fact that this sanctuary was closed really hit us hard. But in comparison to the Digana riots, or the Civil War, where people were being murdered haphazardly, I feel as if the aftermath this time is calmer. Our generation has the ability to differentiate better and is more intelligent. So for that, I am grateful.”
Skandha Gunasekara, 27
“I don’t think this attack was targeting Christians or Catholics, but Sri Lankans. And it is extremely sad that we were targeted because we are a country that has suffered a lot including the Civil War and a tsunami. I feel as if it is also an insult to all of us that the government failed to do their duty in protecting us. Our generation didn’t go through anything of this magnitude but these attacks have created so much fear within the community and in the country as a whole. We’re wondering if going anywhere, especially to church, is a smart move right now.”
Minnelle Clarissa, 21
“We were at a time of peace when this happened out of nowhere during Easter Sunday Mass. I am a devout Catholic and the fact that all those people died in a church—a place we all thought beyond doubt was one of the safest places to be in—is just not fair. This entire week, I’ve kept wondering whether I will ever feel safe in a church ever again, and that makes me sad beyond anything. It truly makes me angry that the government knew that something was going to happen, and didn’t really do anything to stop it. In my opinion, the government and the officials should all be held accountable for each and every one of those deaths. We are all afraid, angry, and we all feel helpless.”
Aruna De Alwis, 24
“I am devastated knowing there are so many dead bodies in churches and feel our officials are taking this entire situation lightly. We saved ourselves from one (Civil) War and we united ourselves. But the officials sat back and watched bombs try to destroy that unity. When I think about my friend who was not able to go to church that morning, I give thanks, and then I see images of body parts strewn across the church pews and it hurts. But we are Catholics and we preach love and forgiveness, so we will not let terrorism win. This too shall pass, and we will rise, stronger than ever in the name of our Lord.”
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