Eternal rest, perpetual light

This post is was intended for the end of July, reflecting on encounters and experiences in the three months after the Easter attacks, following on from this post that I shared in May.

Between writing that post and this one, you and I and everyone else has read a hundred and one articles about the attacks and their aftermath. We are exhausted. This, and the previous post too, is not one of those articles – they are not analytical, political, or anything else, and only set out to be personal reflections.

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‘Eternal Rest’ is a prayer asking God to hasten the progression of the souls of the faithful departed in Purgatory to their place in Heaven, or to rest in the love of God the souls of the faithful departed in Paradise until the resurrection of the dead and Last Judgement.


 

Kochchikade – May

A police barrier runs across the façade, that is now hidden behind scaffolding and tarpaulin. The young Navy officer shouts at the few of us taking photos, asking to see IDs, instructing us to get permission from his senior, who waves us off, confused as to why we’re asking permission to photograph just the façade, despite his man having told us to. That this is just a male powerplay over a group of young women is apparent.

Bags and bodies are checked. We find ourselves in a makeshift church, where the side wing that once acted as a small chapel to light candles is now a temporary replacement for the church itself. The long silver candle holders have been moved outside for the faithful to stop by on their journeys, and offer a prayer. Where one would buy candles from a small dark stall, they are now piled high on a table for purchase. One thing that remains unchanged is the speed at which the men clear away the slowly melting candles as they shrink into the water that they’ve been stuck in. Behind their heads flutters a banner, a remembrance – photos of the damaged church, and a message of hope.

We draw closer to the church, peering through the tarpaulin and the open doors at the emptiness within. The dust of cement rises as workmen move around, and drills are heard as they go about their job.

‘You can’t take photos!’ says a man directing crowds into the temporary chapel, wearing a t-shirt that bears a photo of the church on its back, and ‘volunteer’ on its sleeve. I apologise, but mention to him that the security personnel have given us clearance to do so.

‘This is our church, not theirs, who are they to give orders?’ he says, defiantly. There is something in his conviction, and I don’t go ahead with more photos on that day. He and the others might have grown up in this church, or now it is a central part of their lives, maybe through migration or marriage. In their volunteer shirts and armed with an intimate knowledge of the pillars and walls that are now undergoing transformation, and most importantly armed with their faith, they are the protectors. Not the uniformed men strapped with guns guarding its borders, but these believers guarding its very soul.

A few hours later, after I’ve shared some photos from my work accounts, I find us tagged in a most bizarre but beautiful post. There is a small, elderly gentleman who clears away the candles as they burn down, and has been doing so for years – among our photos was one of him going about his work. The stranger on the internet was overcome with relief and happiness – they visited the church regularly with their family, and spoke to this uncle whenever they did, as they lit candles. They had not visited the church since the aftermath of the attack, and had actually spent a long time worrying about this uncle, fearing him to be dead or injured. Our photo had confirmed otherwise, and given them peace of mind. Such is the internet, I suppose; a whirlwind of toxicity punctured by moments of providence such as this.

 

Kochchikade – June

The church’s Facebook page exclaims that they are open throughout the day, for worshippers and visitors. So we make the journey. The barrier that existed halfway through Jampettah Street has been moved, and the tuk stops a few feet from the roundabout. The yellow barrier and armed guards remains, bodies and bags are still checked, but with a sense of boredom on the part of the police.

Our entry into the church is from where he would have entered, a route from the side wing that falls to the last pew. There, on the ground is the mark of the violence – where he stood, the shrapnel has created a small crater on the ground. Where all the other tiles near it, pillars and walls around it, have been rebuilt or renovated, this remains as it were. As a reminder, I suppose, until foot traffic and the passage of time have their say. A man walks past us and stops for a second to bend on one knee and cross himself on his way out of the church. It might have just seemed as usual damage to the ground underfoot to him, or maybe he knew, eitherway this is the most jarring of seconds to witness.

Maybe it’s the higher ceiling, or maybe the weight of the physical scars that have now been lifted off its shoulders, but the church, old but now new, seems to breathe better. There is something less clinical about the bright lights that have been fitted in since, they are a softer yellow, bouncing off the newly-painted walls.

We exit from the same door, and notice the new small room that has been opened as a memorial to the 54 who lost their lives at the church. The names have been grouped, and arranged, such that families remain together. A cleaner finish to their lives than the physical state in which they were last gathered, no doubt.

In Sinhala and Tamil, on either side of the pristine white statue of Mary, are two plaques bearing the words of Genesis 4:10. The story of two brothers – Cain kills his brother Abel out of anger and jealousy, drawing the wrath of God;

“නුඹ කළ දේ කුමක්ද? බලන්න, නුඹේ සහෝදරයාගේ ලේ පොළොවෙන් මට මොර ගසයි”

“நீ என்ன செய்துவிட்டாய்? உன் சகோதரனின் இரத்தத்தின் குரல் மன்னிவிருந்து என்னை நோக்கிக் கதறிக் கொண்டிருக்கிறது”

“What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground”

 The list of 54 is lead by an unsettling proclamation: ‘They laid down their lives for God.’

It is immediately disturbing, this forced agency and martyrdom evoked on people who, in all likelihood, did not want to die when they went to church with their families that day.

Outside, the sun is blinding, and twice so on the façade that is now a brighter white. Routines around the church settle back to a semblance of what was, now with less physical barriers and hesitation.

 

Batticaloa and Kattankudy – early July

There is only one checkpoint on the route from Colombo, close to Moragaswewa in Habarana. Just the one, along the road that leads to the region that has now been marked not only because of the destruction it witnessed but because of its image in the public psyche as a breeding ground for extremism. In the dead of the night, the vehicle whizzes past the contested ‘Shari’a university’ off Welikanda, its minarets and intricate carved walls ghostly against the surrounding dark, illuminated by a few stray bulbs. Just a bit of barbed wire and takaram sheet guard its entrance.

The shops opposite Gandhi Park are either closed, or deserted. Owners sit at their doorsteps, but the usual foot traffic that passes by this area is absent. Turning into more quiet lanes, one arrives at Central Road. Largely residential, the colourful walls bound gardens crawling with bougainvillea and banana trees. At the far end of the road is a police barrier.

A new nameboard indicates to us the place we are looking for, as a large colourful banner of faces slowly flutters in the breeze nearby. The unnamed road we turn into is shaded from the scorching afternoon sun by banana trees, their shadows falling on the tar. In the distance is a structure, and as we draw closer our steps get slower.

The construction crew milling around the Zion Church look closely at us – where are you from, what are you doing, the usual. Colombo, media, we say, politely asking if we can enter. They seem a mixture of curious but also unconcerned and wave us in. The signature green CSD shirt one of them is wearing indicates this is a crew from one of the armed forces.

The church’s now-iconic faux rock façade is marked with shrapnel, that leaves deep crevices in the painted and textured surface. My mind immediately goes to the stories we’ve heard of Ramesh Raju, the father of two who did his best to keep the bomber from entering the church, thereby restraining the damage, and losing his own life too. It is immediately too much to bear, and I feel a fist clenching around my heart. My breath catches in my throat, and my head begins to spin.

‘Be a journalist!’, my friend jokes. How do people do this on the regular, documenting violence to this extent; either they have trained themselves to not feel in the moment, or they are completely overcome and breaking inside like I am right now. Indulgent, I know, after what the congregation witnessed here, and the loss of life that took place that day.

As we walk around the body of the church, where debris sits in piles, and wheelbarrows of construction material are still full, sun bathes us through where the roof must have been. Knowing now what St. Anthony’s looks like, and knowing that Zion remains miles away from that, is disappointing. This church is far away from the other two in terms of geography and practice. Practice, because the faith remains the same; the nitty-gritties of ‘Catholic’ and ‘evangelical’ weighing heavy. This layered distance has allowed it to slip from consciousness quite easily.

Making our way up the road, past the shrapnel marks all the way out to the gate, we arrive at the banner marking the turn off. 30 faces, of which 13 are children. The words ‘கோதுமை மணிகள்’ adorn the top, meaning ‘grains of wheat’. My colleague, who helped with the direct translation, had no idea what it meant in this context, and suggested it was something Biblical. A quick Google turned up this verse;

‘…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’

The poster includes the face of a man who had passed away two weeks before that. He had helped others escape from the damage, but after battling with his own injuries, succumbed finally. Less than a week after our visit, we’d learn that another person – a young student of the Eastern University – had also passed away after sustaining injuries.

Later that day, we find ourselves in the town of Kattankudy. The main street, usually bustling with life, is only slightly less crowded. The Goodwin intersection swarms with people on motorcycles waiting to get home, or to maghrib prayers. The colourful mosaic of the minaret at this junction looms above a sea of buzzing motorcycles. Our landmark for a meeting on beach road is ‘a new mosque’; sure enough, its walls still grey cement but its minaret bearing a mosaic of blue, the structure sits at a busy mini-intersection. Groups of men sit together on the beach as the light begins to drop, and prayers from every mosque in the vicinity criss-cross each other in the air, as birds fly home to rest. We stick out like sore thumbs, and the men at the snack carts and tuk-tuk stand are watching us closely.

The lights go on at the small statues at every intersection, a crescent and star of Islam illuminated amidst the buzzing traffic, mirroring the crescent moon that happened to hang in the night sky that day. From a small vadey cart on Main Street, muted applause and sports commentary can be heard – the vendor is live-streaming the Cricket World Cup on his smartphone. Sri Lanka is playing, Thisara Perera is batting, and the crowd is going wild.

A chicken kottu from Gadaby Hotel should help process the information, and these feelings.

The next morning, we arrive at William Ault Community Centre to find it filled right into the gardens with the faithful. The Zion Church’s Sunday celebration, temporarily relocated, has been in session since 8 that morning. The gate remains closed.

We explain to one man, and then another, that we’ve spoke to the pastor’s wife, and have been asked to meet them after the celebration. After what a stranger did to their church and community just a few months ago, their hesitation towards an unfamiliar face is completely understandable. They indicate that they are filled to capacity, and ask us to join the crowds outside. Indeed, the two halls that make up the space are filled to the brim, and the rest of the congregation sits on plastic chairs under tents outside.

Pastor Roshan leads the Tamil service, and we catch just the small snippets he chooses to say in English; how he spoke to a mother a week back, a woman who had lost her child, she says she goes about her day with a sense of normalcy until that time when she is used to her child returning home from school. It is then that full realisation hits her, that she will not see her child again. He keeps returning to the words of Isaiah 40:31;

“…but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles,”

As we linger to speak to him, we notice the crowd leaving after the celebration. Whether the injuries we see are from the blast, we can’t tell for sure, but it is most likely that they are. A woman in a wheelchair, her leg heavily bandaged. A young girl in a pink dress, her arm in a sling. A woman whose foot is wounded and wrapped in a large dressing, she limps barefoot.

Of the many people we spoke to on that visit, the voice of one priest rings clearest. He told us how the main Catholic and Anglican leaders had refused the local priests’ requests to join or hold discussions with Muslim leaders. He spoke of witnessing how war ravaged this very community, and any actions that could lead to more people taking up arms was not in the country’s best interest. The most poignant thing he left us with was a personal anecdote. While cycling through the Vanni during the war, he had found himself in pitch darkness on a deserted road. He encountered an old lady, and she directed him to travel along the same road for a little further. Soon, he saw a light glimmering in the darkness. It was coming from a small Pillaiyar shrine. ‘They believe one god, and I believe another, but their light was my light that day, there was no difference between us then.’

We speak about the situation in churches and mosques in the months that have passed. God, the pastor says, is not always in these spaces. ‘God is on the Arayampathy border’, he says, referring to a small village in between Tamil-majority Batticaloa and wholly-Muslim Kattankudy, ‘he is busy making sure nothing gets out of control there.’

 

Negombo – July 21st

The cab driver who is taking us to the reconsecration service, three months on from the attacks, says that Easter will never again be the same in Negombo. Where people used to buy meat and alcohol to prepare for a feast, they will now buy food to give alms in memory of the dead. He joins the jarring list of people who’ve told me that they usually go to church at St. Sebastian’s but just didn’t happen to visit on Easter, for some reason or another. Someone he did know or was distantly related to passed away, the world is that small.

As we’re approaching, letters appear painted on the Katuwapitiya Road;

‘Let’s strongly condemn all politicians who had information about the Easter attacks, and didn’t give prior warning.’

The crowd is surging towards the entrance, and long lines have formed around the side of the church. Men and women separately, IDs, bodies and bags checked. The guard is decent enough to let some of the older ladies, admittedly a large portion of the crowd, skip ahead to the front of the line.

Once within the premises, the crowd overflows into the grounds. Seats and paduru cover the walking paths and grassy areas. The inner body of the church has been set aside for families of the dead, and the injured. Near the gate, a tight gathering of army personnel, priests, nuns and angels are holding fort. Sunday school girls in dresses and wings, like the ones you’d wear for a Christmas nativity play, bearing candles as they wait for the Cardinal to arrive. 115 little ones, for the 115 lives lost in the church.

The Cardinal’s sermon that day would not have been out of place at a political rally, where to a grieving community he slammed the ‘spineless and cowardly politicians and leaders’. He selectively and repeatedly thanked the Minister of Housing and Construction, who is now running for President. He called on the Muslim community to reflect and work harder to ensure that no youth felt the need to turn to violence again.

He launched also into a most bizarre framing of the loss of the faithful. According to him, people attended mass on Easter Sunday due to their firm belief in God, and their surviving family members should be proud that they were there that day. He described their death using words that roughly translated to ‘God’s will’. That his God is known to be vengeful is a given, but once again to take deaths due to sheer man-made terror and attribute them to God’s divine plan takes some evil mental gymnastics. Or maybe I’m just a bad Christian and haven’t read the Bible closely enough.

‘There are saints in all of your houses, and this church is filled with saints, 115 of them’ he said, counting the dead.

Filled with ghosts, that is for certain. Saints, I’m not sure.

Nuns and priests are deployed to distribute communion, and soon enough the service ends. It is the first full church service that I have been to in a good few years.

As the crowd streams out to the opening of the new memorial, the families of the dead and the injured are making their way out of the church. I notice a young father carrying his daughter. She is wearing a white dress and what appears to be a little cap on her head, made of the same material as her dress. As her father walks passed me, she reaches up to scratch a spot on the back of the cap. Visible in those few seconds of motion are the cross-hatches of gauze bandages in multiple layers, covering her little head, that the new cap conceals. As they move out into the sunlight, she rests her head on her father’s shoulder – she didn’t look older than three.

The church’s inner walls are pristine, leaving no whisper of what might have happened. Where light once streamed in from falled tiles of the roof, tubelights now encircle the space. At the front of the church, within the altar, is a glass box. Within it is contained a statue whose bloodstained but serene face was all over social media within 24 hours of the attack. Jesus, one arm outstretched, the blood of his faithful splattering his robes.

For every person who reaches out to touch the statue and take a blessing, there are two who are taking photos of it. Smartphones flash around this most surreal object. What does it mean to now have to weekly see a statue flecked with the blood of the loved one, or a member of your community, another human?

Is it a reminder of the violence? Is it a reminder to ensure it never happens again, through prevention or revenge?
Is it memory of the loss, of the lost? Is this memory a luxury not afforded to all who have lost?
Is it a sign of the pain you once felt? Is it a point by which to measure recovery, how far you’ve come?
Is it a symbol of the strength of faith when tested? Is it a symbol of faith lost in despair?

263, emblazoned on a regifoam cutout of Sri Lanka and laden with oil lamps, counting the lives lost around the island. I wondered if that included the two people from Zion church who had succumbed to their injuries just weeks before this celebration, or if this was made early enough that it didn’t bear the pain and responsibility of a higher death toll.

‘They laid down their lives for God’ featured on the unveiled plaque too. Families, again, grouped together. Cameras flanked the cold stone, where relatives of the dead were leaving flowers and candles. I stopped far away, able to see the top half of the plaque, the rest blocked by the crowd gathering to watch those grieving, and to grieve along with them. From where I was standing, I saw a pair of hands placed on the plaque, I couldn’t see their owner, but from their shaking movements, it was clear that the person was heaving with tears. The cameras flashed faster as she cried. She provided with a space to express her grief, but it was coming with the condition of being watched, observed, and captured by everyone there that day. We left without getting any closer, in our heads wishing her some peace.

I would later learn that, like St. Anthony’s, the shrapnel damage at ground zero had been preserved, in this case under a plastic cover. The choice to leave these marks behind is interesting, and brings my mind, oddly enough, to the Meera and Hussainiya masjids in Kattankudy. I’m told that the people themselves asked the mosques be kept that way. On every visit I’ve made there, will be greeted by a caretakers from the community on rotation, and invited in if it’s not too close to prayer time. On one occasion, the man who welcomed us later said that he’d lost his 14 year-old son in the shooting, and pointed his name out to us on the memorial plaque outdoors.

This was important; that those who lost and those most connected to the place made the choice about how it was supposed to be. Whether the tiles in the two locations and the statue were kept by some executive order from the Cardinal or a group of priests, or whether that came as a request from the people, we don’t know yet.

At the five-month mark, news breaks that yet another committee has been appointed to inquire into the attacks. That is the progress we are offering up to the families who are still living with this loss; infinite bureaucracy, no accountability, less answers, more questions.

What rest then, for the 260+? Do our homes, churches and towns play host to their angry ghosts? Or have they reached a peace that their loved ones here on earth are still struggling to find?

This post was written in the month immediately after the attacks.

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