Once a peaceful tourist village, Negombo also known as “little Rome” because of its predominantly Catholic Christian population, woke up to a violent shock on Easter Sunday.
The fishing village, which is 40 km off Colombo, never imagined it could be caught in any ethnic or communal strife but the Easter mass at St. Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya, left a trail of death and destruction. About 65 per cent of Negombo is Roman Catholic, according to census data, though Catholics make up just 6 per cent of the country.
The smell of blood still lingers in the air of the church premises that witnessed the worst of the bomb blasts. Over 100 people died in this one incident alone. Most were residents of Negombo.
The incident took place just after the Reverend Father delivered his address. On Tuesday, a mass prayer was held for the departed souls followed by mass funerals and burials.
Assistant Parish Priest of the church Reverend Father Shameera Rodrigo, speaking to the India Today, said that even during the civil war, the LTTE never targeted their town and hence the terror incident came as a shock.
“We were concluding the mass. A guest speaker was speaking when this man entered from the middle door of the church and blew himself up. There was blood everywhere. We rushed to help those who were injured. It is at times like this that we come together to pray for peace to return”, he said.
As we drove down to the church, there were homes after homes in mourning.
Endeke Fernando is a man who has no words to express his loss. His wife and two daughters were at St. Sebastian’s church for the mass. One daughter lies in the casket, the other is injured while the wife is in hospital unbeknownst of her daughter’s death.
The house has a picture of the 13-year old smiling daughter, Kaushika Hirushi Fernando, but when you enter the premises, the weight of what has happened to this family leaves you feeling empty.
“I don’t know what to do. My wife will go into shock if I tell her. That is why she has not been told about the death till she recovers and returns home. We did nothing wrong but these Muslim men came and destroyed my family,” says the grieving father in rage.
There is no peace or reconciliation to be found here. There is a certain amount of rage one can sense in the villagers against the ones who carried out the attack.
But, the Buddhist monks made it a point to visit the church and many of the homes. Even as I was interacting with Endeke, a senior monk came to the house with offerings and extended his help.
White flags here are a symbol of mourning in a household. In Negombo, as you drive down, every other house has a white flag up which shows the extent of loss this village has suffered.
The administration is taking all necessary precautions. Mass funerals were organised and therefore massive security was deployed. Each individual was being frisked and once cleared a yellow badge was placed on the chest before he/she could enter the premises.
The destruction of the church building was enough to imagine what the extent of loss of life could’ve been. Shattered windows, blown-off roof, broken idols inside and outside the church, benches strewn with blood. The stains on the floor. It will take a long time before normalcy will return here.
Manorie, a student and an eyewitness said that this has left her scarred for life. “I was right outside when we heard a huge blast. Initially, we didn’t know what was happening. There was blood everywhere. I ran back home with my brother and sister to inform my parents. Then, they rushed here to help. The images of people in blood and their screams have not left my head since the attack,” she said.
Devatha, her brother said, “I still shake when I think of that morning. This is not fair. Why did they target us? What have we done? So many people died in this ruthless attack.”
While prayers were being held outside, the entire church was cordoned off as investigations were underway. Even as cops inside the church were carrying out their investigation, the place was being cleared out by the cleaners simultaneously. The whole place smelt of blood.
Buddhist monks had come to offer their condolences and as a mark of solidarity with the Christian community of Sri Lanka. They met the parish priest who suffered a minor injury on the head in the blast.
Speaking to India Today, Buddhist monk venerable Baidhya said, “This was an act against humanity. Catholic people are peaceful people. The Muslims who did this are terrorists. We do not want any problem with any ethnic group. We are shocked that the government did not take any action despite having prior intelligence. It is time for us all to stand together and not falter. This menace of terrorism has to be fought.”
One of the priests of the nearby church, Father Fernandes said, “A lot of people died in this attack. This should not have happened. It was a barbaric act.”
As we left the church towards the burial ground, rows and rows of graves again tell the tale of the irreparable and irreversible loss that this fishing village has suffered. People, not only from Negombo but also from adjoining villages and towns, had come to offer prayers and stand with the families that lost their loved ones.
The funerals were being carried out in batches. The church had designated a land for the mass burial where earth-moving heavy equipments were being used to dig the graves.
Most of the people there believe that this is not over yet but a continuation of such form of violence could spell disaster for the entire nation.
Sri Lanka is about 70 per cent Buddhist and about 10 per cent Muslim. Another 13 per cent are Hindu and only 7 per cent are Christians.