I allowed myself to feel it for three minutes on the 23rd of April, the allocated minutes of mourning that began at 8.30am. Head down and phone aside, the grief came in waves. The grief that comes with knowing as much as we do, as also knowing how much we have yet to understand. That was it, then there was work to be done.
In the days that followed the Easter Sunday bombings, people reached out to ask me for my critical opinion, a political analysis, a take on the social media blocks, how it mapped onto the background of the country’s history of violence against minorities, and where we would go from here.
I blanked at their requests, laboriously writing emails later that felt as if they were coming from an unknown voice. The points are there, the logic seemingly clear, but what has overwhelmed me as this has been breaking is something else. My mind and heart were stuck instead with these stories. The ones we heard on a journey the day after, and those that journeyed to us from across the island. I’ve written iterations and parts of these for other articles but this is the first time I’m stopping to put this down.
‘I pulled bodies out of the church yesterday’, said the small man in a white t-shirt. From 9am to 6pm, he’d spent pulling people from under the rubble, and as the dark set in, helped in transporting them to the Colombo Morgue.
His friend, sporting a bandage that wraps around his left foot, says he did the same. At some point in their task, he’d been injured by a fallen nail or some other scrap of debris, but kept working. It was only around 1pm, when he’d been nearly fainting due to the loss of blood in his own wound, that the search teams had told him to leave and take care of his injury.
The small man continues on a story that I’ve tried to block out – I’d indulgently avoid looking at photos of the aftermath. I say ‘indulgently’ because I know for those who were there, and those who had to identify loved ones’ bodies, not confronting those visuals would have been a luxury. Using his hands, he traces along his own body and motions along ours, where bodies ended and began after the blast. He shows me along my shoulder and knee, and then indicates how far limbs had been flung from their owners. He draws a line across his torso, motioning then where the top half had remained, and where the bottom half had been found a few feet away.
‘Small children’ he says, indicating with his hands held out, holding a ghost of a body he tended to yesterday, how small they were when he laid them to be taken away. ‘Mothers who were expecting, their stomachs just-’ before his voice trails off. Three weeks later as I slowly read this poem, the motion of his hands, indicating just what happened to their stomachs, lingers in my mind;
‘A mother with a baby keeping time inside her womb, a mother with a bomb’
His words and motions are also what remained with me when news broke that there had been a miscount on the death toll. His indications of the distance between leg and torso were what kept me from the anger that many showed then, frustrated at what we all thought was incompetence.
‘In bomb explosions like this where the body is subject to extreme harm, it can be extensively damaged and broken into several parts, and cannot be immediately identified as a single body’
So read the doctor’s letter, and so had the man almost said word for word when we spoke to him. ‘They were torn apart so badly we didn’t know what came from which person’, his voice shaking. St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things.
Negombo – Periyamulla
‘These are janazah, funeral prayers’, my Muslim friend whispered, and said that even women were allowed into the mosque for these. You know how if you’re a woman visiting a mosque, if it’s not prayer time you’re allowed in and allowed to walk about, but the moment prayer gets nearer, you’re politely shooed out? This time, however, we were pulled in, and politely shown a corner to stand. It was over within minutes, and we walked out. The crowd stayed inside, and we were chatting to a few hijabi ladies who were standing at the mosque’s silver gates. Something stirred behind us, and it was only then that we saw the crowd standing over a sandak, the silver coffin in which Muslims are borne on their journey to burial.
‘Go in and see, now is the time for the women to pay their respects’ said the old uncle who’d previously invited us in. The silver vessel was overlaid with a green velvet, as most are. It is not solid, but features a line of silver spokes balancing the base triangular cover on the solid base. Once the green silk has been moved, as it was done for mourners that day, the body of the lost one becomes visible instantly.
I was resolute that I wouldn’t ‘go in and see’. I’d been (indulgently) trying to avoid photos of the carnage for 24 hours, and it had worked. But a split second later I was dragging my friend by the hand, for moral support, and we were shedding our slippers once again to ‘go in and see’ the body. My steps slowed as we came nearer, resolution of thirty seconds ago completely lost.
I was afraid of what I thought I would see. Either from the blast itself, or from the ulu that fell from the church ceiling, there was supposed to have been immense damage to bodies of the dead. The pictures, forwarded and shared recklessly, had shown blood under these shattered roof tiles, and on the visage of the serene statue of Jesus at the altar.
As we neared, the body wrapped in the white shroud or kafan, was visible in slivers from the sandak’s open sides. I stopped at an angle where I could just see her forehead, one eye and the top half of her nose. The plate of the triangular cover bisected her face from my view, and I didn’t move close enough to see the rest. I didn’t realize I’d been holding my breath in till I could tell, from that part of her face, that her body had not seen the violent damage that some of the rest had. That, if you looked at it quick enough, she could have just been sleeping.
She was 13. A Muslim father and Catholic mother, hence her presence at church that day.
What I heard next was what set me off, internally at least. I heard soft strains of the rosary being muttered, the rapid Hail Mary’s I knew intimately from growing up with a devoutly Catholic grandmother, and having had to sit through recitations daily for the month of May for as long as I could remember. I heard ‘please God, take her to rest with you’. A group of Christian aunties were saying hurried prayers over the girl as the men bore her on their shoulders, out of the mosque as grey clouds gathered overhead, to her final rest. The one verse that floated into my head, and has stayed stuck there since, was one that wasn’t even recited, one that comes much later in the litany;
‘To thee we send forth our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears’
Negombo – Katuwapitiya
Five minutes from there, vehicles can barely get into the Katuwapitiya Road. I’m not sure what felt more constricting, claustrophobic – the concentration of military personnel and police jeeps down the narrow road, or that nearly every other gate was a funeral home.
As you walked down, trying to avoid the army rifles and the wheels of the police jeeps, your eyes take in all the funeral posters. The laughing young man who couldn’t have been over thirty. The husband and wife pair, whose photo looked chopped straight out of a family portrait. Who else they left behind, those cropped out of this photo, we don’t know. The three sisters, all lined up on a single posters, in their best sarees in three different colours. You notice the silliest of details in these most solemn moments, that whoever designed this poster flipped over one of the original photos to make room on the canvas. How? Because one lady’s saree pallu is over the wrong shoulder, and she doesn’t seem to be wearing an osari.
Neighbours are walking door to door to visit funerals. Calling out to each other at the road’s sharp turns, ‘Look, there’s another one here’ and waiting for the rest of the family to catch up before visiting this new find too. Signs of sympathy from MAS, Cargills Bank, and Sri Lankan Airlines dwarf the smaller banners, the handpainted ones that feature two crying eyes over bold letters of sadness. Eyes like the ones that adorn the many boats of the fishing community, parked on the lagoon or seashore just miles away. Except on the boats, there aren’t glistening painted tears slowly falling down.
I try not to look through the open windows, indulgently avoiding an actual visual of the casket. Indulgently, because not only would families and communities have to live with this loss for the rest of their own lives, but their grief was being watched closely as they realised this. Watched by smartphones and cameras, to be splashed on social media the next minute or all over an international publication the next day. As they sat beside their dead beloved, and as they walked them to burial a few days later, they weren’t given the choice to avoid the instruments looking to capture them at their most broken.
These homes are barely a stone’s throw away from St. Sebastian’s – the blue tarp stretched over its damaged roof visible to mourners sitting in the garden at one of the funeral homes down the lane. The military men at the gate aren’t letting anyone through. As they pace around the gate, one comes to a halt, and for a second he is oddly juxtaposed in front of a poster announcing the iconic Duwa passion play that would have taken place on Good Friday, just four days prior – a suffering Jesus, crown of thorns against a dark background, looms behind his capped and rifle-laden profile. It is most strange, and the thunder claps loudly overhead.
The blue tarp indicates where the blast might have gone off, the ceiling fallen inwards on impact. Some of the most terrifying photos of loss that day came from here. St. Sebastian is known to have suffered a gruesome death.
There were the hymns, being sung over the coffins of the countless dead, buried together on the 23rd in locations across Negombo. In lines they were borne out of the church and into a large burial ground, holy water sprinkled on them and then lowered to the ground. Raising goosebumps on the skin as coffin after coffin was laid down, and tractors covered them all with the sand that would be their place of earthly rest.
‘You know how they keep the children outside or on a side of the church, so they won’t disturb the service’? My friend asked and I nodded. Of course, wailing babies or over-energetic runners are kept watch by one parent along the outside of the church. Sunday school kids are usually made to line up there as well, after they’ve finished their class and before they can rejoin the adults. ‘Around there’s where it went off’, she finished.
Almost every child who has been to church has been there, standing on the sidelines till the adults finished, or chased outside so you don’t break their focus on the sermon. It is almost an integral part of church-going before you turn, say, eleven.
There was a collage circulating online of funeral posters, photos of only children. Notice how photos of elder or elderly people are either made black and white or sepia, but photos of young people are children are placed on these posters in all their colourful vigour. His red shirt and suspenders, her embroidered purple pavadai, his smart little bow-tie, her dangly earrings. Photoshopped against flowers, birds, and floating clouds. So much so that at first glance, the composition looked like those banners you see outside a nursery school, proclaiming their children’s accomplishments or their recent recital. You don’t even want to remember what they actually depict.
There’s a cruel mathematics in counting from their years of birth to their year of death, especially when your fingers stop in the single digits. It strikes you as unnatural, even more so when those faces beam so brightly back at you from the screen, or poster if you’re walking around that area.
‘Let the little children come to me’
Not like this. Not tiny shoes flung off tiny feet. Not tiny eyes closed on sleeping faces. Not in tiny coffins for tiny bodies.
I’m trying to think now how my mother, a teacher, will explain what has happened to her students who are the same age as a few who were lost – a mere five years old. I’m wondering how they’ll understand it. My colleague, trying to help his son come to terms with the fact that he won’t see his classmate anymore. Who will they remember as being responsible? We grew up against an ongoing war, and a snatch of memory tells you that you grew up seeing ‘the others’ all as terrorists, because of something one person said when you were little.
People I’ve spoken to previously in Batticaloa have two stories to tell; those of surviving the war, and those of surviving the tsunami. The blast at Zion Church is one more in that narrative. A town and a people that have seen so much, now have to draw themselves up to weather this as well.
Zion, the name you remember from your Bible stories as a child, given to the Promised Land for God’s chosen people.
I admittedly don’t go to church regularly. I might go for stories, or on travels, but hardly every Sunday for mass, for the stipulated hour. But I know and remember how vulnerable people are when they are in prayer. Whether you are listening to the pastor’s every word is another story, but you are all the while under the impression that you are somewhere safe. The elderly lady, a veil draped over her head, praying the prayers she has known for decades. A young couple, about to start a new life together, asking for guidance and providence. A little child, innocent in their belief and so tiny they are barely visible when they kneel behind the pew, asks for their parents, siblings, grandparents and friends to be safe. That as they knelt, clasped their hands and lowered their heads, what happened that day was the last thing they ever imagined would happen.
One goes to church on Easter in the belief of life, resurrection, and victory over death. That a celebration of such brought what it did is a twist that can’t quite be captured in words.
This post was written five months after the attacks.