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An unforgettable Easter in Sri Lanka

David Colburn
Posted 4/19/23

When I inherited a small amount of money when my mother passed in 2018, one of the things I determined to do was to travel abroad for the first time in my life. Social media helped to determine my …

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An unforgettable Easter in Sri Lanka


When I inherited a small amount of money when my mother passed in 2018, one of the things I determined to do was to travel abroad for the first time in my life. Social media helped to determine my destinations. I had developed close friendships with people in Sydney, Australia, Mumbai, India, and Colombo, Sri Lanka, all fascinating destinations where I could meet these friends in person to add a new layer to our already close relationships. I booked a month-long excursion for April, 2019.
A marvelous week in Sydney was followed by another fascinating week in Mumbai, following a serendipitous itinerary driven as much by discoveries in the moment as by sights I’d planned to see. I’d allotted two weeks for my stay in Sri Lanka, where I was looking forward to spending time with a young marketing exec who had become as dear as a nephew to me, and where I was also working with an impressive young woman passionate about service who had arranged for me to make a donation of educational and athletic supplies to an impoverished rural school. Mom had been a school teacher, and it seemed a good and proper use of her funds.
I stayed in a bed and breakfast next to one of the government-run hospitals, learned to get around by using their PickMe app to hail tuk tuks and cabs, and set about my exploring. There was a botanical garden I wanted to go to, but it was closed the first day I went. I noted when they would be open again, and then a long walk through the surrounding neighborhoods was a most enjoyable substitute.
That Sunday, April 21, was Easter Sunday, not a major observance in Buddhist-dominated Sri Lanka where less than one in ten people are Christians. I woke up that morning planning to go back to the botanical garden after breakfast.
But around 9 a.m. my host and I got the first word that something unthinkably horrific had happened – a Catholic Church had been bombed during its Easter Mass. As I jumped on social media to contact my friends to find out what they had heard, the horror grew – another church in Negombo, where I’d spent two days earlier in the week, and another in the eastern part of the country in Batticaloa. Then, in quick succession, bombs at three of the leading hotels in Colombo. All within less than an hour, all deadly.
Only a decade removed from a 26-year civil war, the military was mobilized immediately as speculation ran high in the moment that the bombings could have been instigated by former combatants. From my bedroom I could hear the sirens from the parade of ambulances bringing the injured to the government hospital and see military personnel deploying around the perimeter.
I did not fear for my safety, but I was afraid for my friends old and new. Having spent a full day with a young man named Romesh touring the fishing lagoon at Negombo, I tried calling him to see if he was OK. He was, but a relative of his had been injured in the blast at St. Sebastian’s Church, where initial reports said 93 people were killed. My other friends had not been directly affected, but obviously were suffering from extreme angst over the situation.
By late morning, all seemed to be under control. I’d been glued to my phone, checking news sites and social media for any information I could get, and only the areas around the hotels and churches had been shut down. After lunch, feeling like I needed a peaceful escape, I decided to hail a tuk tuk and proceed with my trip to the botanical garden, quite in the opposite direction of all of the mayhem. As we drove along the road beside the hospital, soldiers with weapons at the read were stationed about every 20 yards, with more being deployed.
We had no trouble getting to the garden, and it was open. There were many people there, perhaps like me seeking some solace in nature. I had my phone accessible as I walked around, and I received a message from my friend in Mumbai, who had been monitoring the news. It was from him, 1,500 miles away, that I learned that two more bombs had gone off that afternoon, one a little more than a mile from my bed and breakfast. It was from him I learned that the city was being placed under curfew. I needed to get back immediately.
That was not at all an easy task. The flow of traffic was away from the bombings, away from where I needed to go. A tuk tuk driver took me from the botanical gardens up to a main road but would go no further. He wished me well in finding a ride. I walked for blocks before I found a driver willing to take me. He felt somewhat more secure knowing he was taking me to a place with a strong military presence. We had to stop at a checkpoint near the hospital to get clearance to get back to where I was staying, and once we arrived I gladly paid the driver more than double the fare he charged for his trouble.
Shortly after I arrived, a new problem came up. The government shut down all access to social media. I couldn’t connect with my friends. That was the evening I learned about VPNs, a way to make systems think you were communicating from another country. Back online, I processed the day’s tragic events with my friends well into the night.
Needless to say, my second week in Sri Lanka was not at all what I had planned. My trip with my friend Suhara to make the donation at the school was deemed too dangerous and was canceled. She delivered the materials later. My dear friend Kabeer, a man of exceptional character who happens to be Muslim, was afraid to leave his home, as the bombers turned out to be associated with an extremist faction of Islam. We did not connect again. Tourists had fled the country, and many airlines had stopped flying to Colombo – I spent part of the week trying to find another way home after my flight was canceled. I decided the one thing I could do to help was not to flee – clearly the hotel bombings were intended to disrupt Sri Lanka’s vital tourist economy, and in that they were horribly effective. At the end of the week, I went back to Negombo for two days. The crowded restaurants I encountered on my first visit there were completely empty. I was the only customer in the one where I had dinner, and none visited the restaurant across the street while I was there. No one was walking, no one was shopping, no one was taking tuk tuks, because no one was there. That Sunday morning I hired a tuk tuk to take me over to the bombed out shell of St. Benedict’s, winding our way through various military checkpoints. The tile roof and windows of the huge church were shattered. Banners with the faces and names of those killed hung from neighborhood fences, and power lines were draped with hundreds of long white streamers fluttering in the breeze. White is the color of mourning in Sri Lanka, and there was much to mourn, men, women, and children.
It’s said travel can change a person, and surely this experience changed me. Seeing and experiencing up close the horrors of terrorism in that way was a cruel reality check that has made me more sensitive to both the personal and community impacts suffered in all too many mass shootings in the U.S. I find it sad that we do not treat this issue like the terrorist attacks they are. I worry about my Sri Lankan friends still, as the fallout from the attacks on the tourism economy have been dire, and coupled with other poor decisions by the government inflation there surpassed 60 percent this last summer. I fear continuing civil unrest could spark another terrorist event.
I have never been able to fathom humankind’s inhumanity to humans. I never will. I so wish for an end to violence and terror and hate, the same wish people have held for centuries and centuries. I fear they all will be with us for centuries to come. Such is the curse and flaw of humankind.