By Maheshi Anandasiri
Sri Lanka that has seen over two decades of civil conflict, multiple terror attacks on civilian targets and perhaps the worst natural disaster in recent history the 2004 Tsunami, is still reeling from the Easter Day horror.
Having witnessed violence first hand, from the riots of 1983 watching my father attempting to hide our neighbours from the murderous mobs, to the 1988 JVP insurrection when seeing burning bodies on tyres became almost routine followed by the numerous suicide bombings that shattered Colombo to the long civil war that took hundreds of thousands of lives from across communities, why am I still shocked by the Easter Day terror?
I am joined by many from my generation who used to return to school a day after a bomb blast in Colombo today locking themselves up for weeks fearing to leave the immediate radius of their homes. What makes the Easter Day bombings unleashed on Sri Lanka that much more implausible for the already terror-weathered Sri Lankan psyche?
Sri Lanka has seen sections of youths take up arms at one point or another in its post-independence history. The politically manifested and institutionalised minority oppression that gave wind to the sails of an anarchist who fed both on the ambitions of main stream politicians local and regional, and the homeland ideologies of those that fled the country in the ’80s, resulted only in years of bloodshed of our people in the north and east conflict.
The manipulation of youthful frustration in social and economic marginalisation led to years of terror in the form of two youth insurrections that were at least in its conceptual state widely supported by the academically empowered young people cutting across social strata. Time and again having watched more funerals and burning pyres that we can ever begin to count our nation has learned all too well that violence did nothing but rip us further apart and cast generations ahead into darkness.
The Easter Day bombings therefore exploded on a nation weary from violence. A nation that had just about begun to forget to carry their national identifications everywhere they go and did not clearly recall the invisible lines between a ‘normal’ zone and a ‘high security zone’ anymore. A nation that once again patronised the 10 p.m. movies and did not startle and freeze when a fire cracker went off randomly. A nation that believed they were ‘safe’.
The shock however comes not so much from being woken up from our misplaced slumber. Rather it comes from the questions that simply cannot be answered at this point and I doubt can ever be answered. The LTTE despite its horrendous track record of violence on civilian and political targets and the JVP insurrection that painted our streets and rivers in red, still had causes that even as children we could comprehend. In our hearts we could draw a rational cause and effect.
It may have been ascribed numerous labels depending on the angle from which you were viewing the issue be it deemed minority suppression to a homeland concept and social equity to superiority of the bourgeois whichever way the violence was justified we could understand that there was a motivation however irrational that motivation was. We could understand how a seedling of suppression or oppression augmented by political ambitions that surpassed national interest could grow into terror as it did one too many times. We could not justify it but we could understand it.
But the young men from Islamic faith who walked into churches and hotels to blow innocent civilians into pieces left us dumbfounded. Dumbfounded not only in grief but more so in the gut wrenching feel of being let down and the overarching question, what we did to deserve it? The young people who unleashed this scale of terror lived among us, had superior social and economic conditions than a great many Sri Lankans, had a better education, traded with us freely, worked with us side by side, and were free to carve their own destiny in our society.
Other than the periodic rants by certain quarters of the saffron robe clad extremist sections of the Buddhist clergy, who now seem like day-old chicks on the extremist scale, our fellow Sri Lankans of the Islamic faith had little to complain off. Or so we thought.
Even now as the various sections of the extremist faith emerge indicating how hundreds of youth had opted to choose a path of religious fundamentalism ending in eventual martyrdom, their rationale and their end objectives seem hazy and intangible for many Sri Lankans. The Catholics and Christians who were the larger section of the target lived in empathy with Muslims.
As a child I recall the extent of our integration with the Muslim community. My mother’s ancestral home is on Mosque Road meters away from the Katuwapitiya Church. Families that were pillars of the church so to speak lived smack in the middle of a Muslim community and a few feet away from the Jumma Mosque so persistently close that I knew the call for prayer by heart.
So much a one community divided only by a faith that also had so many similarities that not for one moment did the Catholic faith believe that an attack if it ever should come would come from among Islamic extremists. Not even an incline of a provocation ever stemmed from the Catholic faith to ‘justify’ even a concern of security from those quarters. It is not surprising that they feel betrayed and stupefied by the extent of this ‘betrayal’.
Sri Lankans are not surprised when our politicians let us down. Their sheer buffoonery in the face of such national disaster while is nauseating is not unfamiliar. Their lack of credibility and accountability topped by failure to rise to the occasion is not a new song. The failure of the Head of State to be aware of anything tangible other than the quality of the cashew nuts served on business class of the national carrier is the same lyrics sung to a different tune.
While many intellectual discourses shout hoarse for a more judicious use of the franchise right sadly our standards are not high when it comes to the 225 lawmakers who we elect largely for the lack of choice. That the State establishment let a nation down goes without saying. While we are angry sadly we are not surprised. The blow from the attack however hits harder where it really hurts. It rocked the foundation of our local communities and social spaces. A foundation built generation after generation cemented by years of sharing and caring.
Sri Lanka didn’t see it coming from where it did and certainly cannot rationalise it. The attack, its style and its cause is near alien and to see its masterminds emerging from among us can tear into the very social fabric that our communities have woven together across thousands of years. This is perhaps why a nation that saw war in its worst form and were deemed the most resilient of people who continued to smile to the world despite being rocked by disaster after disaster, seem to be still in a daze today.
It takes the depth of our spirituality to fight off that heartache and hold tight that grip that separates our friendships from the extremist terrorism that came in the guise of Islam. It takes every ounce of humanity in us to hold ourselves true to our faith and revive in our spirit the words ‘father forgive them for they do not know what they do’ perhaps the most powerful words of love and forgiveness found in scripture (Luke 23:24).
It takes many moments of reflection to plough back the teachings of Lord Buddha, the universal and infinite truth that hatred was never appeased by hatred in this world and that love alone can dispel hate. My close and dear friend who’s spouse is of Islamic faith confided that she feared for her two daughters aged six and nine who follow their father’s faith and attend a convent school in Colombo. Her fear is not misplaced.
I can only reflect back on that bleak day in history in 1983 when mobs attacked our friends and neighbours from the Tamil community. Despite my own father and many uncountable Sinhalese families saving innumerable lives that night the stereotyping that followed decades and decades afterwards where every Sinhalese was viewed a blood thirsty mongrel is a stigma that will perhaps never be erased. Sri Lanka today is tested again. While saluting the wisdom and patience of the Head of the Catholic Church and his congregations across the island, this fortitude and clarity of vision must extend to each and every Sri Lankan. I could not find the name of the military officer that gently carried out the four-year-old daughter of the NTJ leader from the site of the gun battle and explosion after the Sainthamarudu raid. But his voice and touch had the same humanity with which our military carried out the dead and the injured from across explosion sites on that fateful Easter day. Thank you Sir for holding up that light of humanity in that hour of dark despair.
Each of us have a responsibility to ensure that horror of Easter 2019 in Sri Lanka is attributed to its rightful perpetrators, extremist terrorists. Each of us also have a responsibility to ensure that Sri Lankans are seen by the world for what we truly are. A people whose humanity and depth of their faith never fail to emerge strong in the face of adversity. For Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5 31-32.