Looking East Batticaloa and Kattankudy, three months after the easter sunday attacks

Batticaloa and Kattankudy are 318 and 317 kilometers away from Colombo, respectively. They are, however, just under 10 kilometers away from each other. The relationships and experience, that have been shaped by the devastation of both the war and the tsunami, now deeply influence the impact and response to the bomb blast at Zion Church, which was one of the targets of the Easter Sunday terror attacks on April 21st, 2019.

The authors are thankful to individuals in Batticaloa and Kattankudy - involved in the immediate and long-term response to the attack - who shared their insights on the needs for survivors, for the wider community, and society going forward. They include social workers, pastors, activists from the Tamil and Muslim communities, doctors, mental health workers, and staff at the Zion Church. Names and affiliations have been withheld for privacy and security reasons.

The shady lane off Central Road, that leads down to the Zion Church.

Day One

“We were first told that a generator had exploded at Zion Church, and to expect casualties. Within minutes of the patients coming in, the news broke that it had been a suicide bomber.”

Two young doctors who responded to the tragedy said that while both generator and bomb explosions can result in similar burn injuries, the shrapnel wounds alone told them that the cause was different to what they’d been told to expect.

The story grabbed media attention around the world - Ramesh Raju's attempt to keep the bomber away from the congregation in Batticaloa led to the explosion taking place outside the church, and cost him his life. “Had the bomber entered and detonated in the enclosed space, the explosion would have caused much more damage,” the doctors say.

Shrapnel pattern on the church's facade indicates where the bomber detonated.

From their time at the Batticaloa General Hospital in the week that followed, the doctors say the health sector responded at full capacity. Where one would usually see a single doctor and several nurses attending to a patient, the aftermath saw a single patient being treated by four or five doctors. Doctors from towns hours away, and even retired medical officers, reported to work.

Some of the staff and doctors serving in Batticaloa were prepared for emergency responses due to their work during the years of war and the tsunami. Among them was a female paediatric surgeon; at one point during the war, she was the only surgeon at the Batticaloa hospital, who has experience treating the injured from both the Army and the LTTE.

All the surgeons in the Kattankudy hospital, most of them Muslim, came to the hospital in Batticaloa to help their counterparts deal with the casualties. “We could tell the day got harder for them as it moved along, with news breaking about the identity and origins of the bombers,” say the young doctors, who felt that their Kattankudy colleagues saw this as a responsibility they shouldered.

One week

Within a few days of the attacks, the police set up camp at churches across the country. Some churches politely declined when the STF asked to do the same. “We were worried because we saw the STF officers talking to the young kids who’d come to our youth groups, and asking them questions. We weren’t sure what they’d tell the soldiers, or how what they said would be interpreted,” says a social worker at a church north of Batticaloa.

‘We don’t want you here’ read the fliers, distributed to Muslim shop owners in the Batticaloa town by mobs of young men. The mobs were also aware that these shops were employing Tamil women as salespersons or clerks. ‘If you don’t stop, blood will flow’ more fliers read, and the owners collectively decided to close their shops.

The mobs then took to motorcycles, riding through Batticaloa yelling abuse at Muslim citizens, sometimes through loudspeakers. In residential areas, they would pull people out of vehicles or houses and harass them. Rumours of Muslim people putting sterilisation pills in the food they prepared and sold – which have been used to stoke tensions for years across Sri Lanka – reignited and spread like wildfire. A prominent Muslim caterer, the regular choice for most large functions in the city, found all their orders being cancelled.

Damage to the gate and wall of the Zion Church; a small office space just outside the gate did not see much damage, and was used as a space of worship in the immediate aftermath.

Most Muslim vendors and the community at large were scared to come into Batticaloa town. Their shops remained shut for weeks, and it was only when several owners in town took a decision that they would all return together that the shops opened again. They felt the need for the strength in numbers, something not afforded to shop owners in rural areas, many of whose shops were still closed at the time of writing.

The antagonism the Muslim community has been met with in the aftermath of the attacks matches the pain that they are feeling over the incident. They can’t quite express this grief either, and have attempted to do so through financial donations to various relief efforts. While several organisations running these efforts deferred these offers saying ‘now is not the right time’, in most cases their offers to provide food, financial aid, and blood donations were met with outright and hostile refusal.

“An issue that we’re seeing is that the reactions of communities to the attacks is based more on ethnic than religious lines”

The social worker says pastors in some churches and iyers in some kovils are openly preaching Tamil nationalist sentiments calling for a unified Tamil stance against Muslims. A pastor who serves in Batticaloa tried to reach out to Muslim groups through the Christian church, before the rifts became irreparable.

“The Methodist and Catholic churches rejected invitations to participate in dialogues with moulavis from Kattankudy.”

He explains that while the Bishops had expressed interest, the local priests said a ‘Sinhala priest in Colombo’ wouldn’t understand the dynamics between the two communities, and halted these interactions. The local pastors allege that Muslims knew about these attacks yet kept silent, and that the Muslim community is a tool of the Buddhist government. Some in the Tamil community are instead now advocating stepping into this space and working with the government and Sinhala Buddhist nationalist elements to counter Muslims; a stance encouraged by organised political groups. The social worker is alarmed at this complete reversal of Tamil activism over the last few decades, to now align with a state and groups that have actively worked for the community’s oppression.

Kattankudy's Main Street as the evening falls
“When it first happened, it was so unexpected that we couldn’t believe it,”

A women’s rights activist in Kattankudy says the effects following the blasts were immediate: along with the suspicion, things that had become everyday practices suddenly changed. Schools in Batticaloa that had allowed Muslim students to wear the hijab and trousers suddenly reversed their policies, the primarily-Tamil administration declaring that this was ‘their school’. Non-Muslim students stopped sharing food with their Muslim friends, because their parents had told them the food could be poisoned.

One month on

“She had no external visible injuries, but has been paralysed neck-down because one piece of shrapnel is lodged in her neck, at the start of her spinal chord.” Another lady, suffering from severe burns, had to have her leg amputated. She is now undergoing plastic surgery. In another case, doctors said she wouldn’t need surgery to remove the shrapnel in her body, because the fragments were so small. Time passed and complications have arisen, and she now needs an operation.”

A member of the core team at the Zion Church says that several donors helped them meet the immediate medical needs of the congregation. Due to the support of private entities and concerned citizens, patients requiring more critical care have been transferred to Colombo and Ragama, and some even flown to the United Kingdom, to provide them with the best possible treatment.

Three months on, the Army is in the initial stages of clearing out the debris and beginning to rebuild the church.

The closing of shops and public spaces took a particular toll on Muslim vendors who rely on the market for their income, especially women. The nature of the produce they harvest and sell is such that it needs to be sold in a day, and this was not possible when the shops remained closed. The women's rights activist who spoke to the authors was forced to buy items wholesale, and store them or distribute them around the community since the vendors were finding it difficult to manage without this income. Several women’s groups she works with had similar experiences.

“We can’t accept the ban on the women’s face veils, because it has nothing to do with the attacks”

The activist says she knows women who have not come out of the house since the niqab and burqa ban. Some women have not gone to a doctor because they can’t go out without a veil on; women are being forced to wear saris instead of abayas and losing their jobs if they refuse; and young students who used to walk to their classes now take three wheelers to travel the short distance. Even women who choose to not wear burqas or niqabs, such as the activist, are finding the sudden face covering ban difficult to support.

“These are practices that people in the community have been following their whole lives, for decades. To move away from them overnight is difficult.”

She says the supposed security threat of face veils now seems especially unnecessary considering the fact that they were not seen as a problem during the war, when there actually were female suicide bombers. Women wearing face veils cooperated with the security forces then, and are doing so now again under different, harsher conditions.

A mosque under construction on Beach Road, Kattankudy. Residents say the foundation stone was laid by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

There is a lingering sense of injustice that ordinary Muslims are bearing the burden now for the actions of a few extremists well known to the authorities for a long time. The activist speaking to the authors pointed out that Zahran Hashim was expelled from a madrasa because of his extremist leanings, and removed from the mosque because his sermons were not tolerated.

“He was identified a long time ago, and didn’t carry out his preaching in secret. He got police permission to put up a stage in the middle of the main road. The government was told about his actions and sentiments; it is unfair now to blame the Muslim people.”

In addition to Zahran's extremist preachings, she notes how one of the bombers spent months harassing and slandering her through videos on Facebook, where he would spread false information about the work of her organisation. He would question why female students were allowed to participate in various activities in local schools, to the point that parents hesitated allowing their daughters to join extracurricular activities. The activist took the man to court, and the man was made to give an undertaking that he would desist in this harassment for two years. He went overseas for a while, and the Easter attacks happened soon after he returned. Underneath it all, she feels a burning anger;

"If we pray five times a day, we curse Zahran ten times for what he has done.”

When Tamil people raised concerns about the increased presence of the military in the East after the attacks, they were told that they were being mistrustful too soon. However, the Tamil community’s experience with the military is a violent one, and includes wartime abuses that are yet to be answered for. They are deeply familiar with the practices of the Sri Lankan state during a state of emergency: arbitrary arrests and detentions, numerous and intrusive security checks, and acts of discrimination leveled towards the entire community.

The Tamil community is resentful toward the Muslim community for not acknowledging this history. This resentment manifests when Muslims express their outrage over these practices to Tamils, making it seem like this is the first time a crackdown of this nature is happening in Sri Lanka, when “it is just the first time that it is happening to them,” the social worker explained.

Evening traffic at the Goodwin junction in Kattankudy, shortly before maghrib prayers.

Muslims’ frustration at being unable to do business now also compares with Tamil experiences of not being able to do business for over thirty years. These issues illustrate the rift between the two communities in understanding each other’s experiences, and the lack of effort since the war to share these experiences mutually.

Part of the Muslim community's shock and surprise at this treatment stems from the fact that the Muslim community has a history of dealing with the state, particularly through the war. In the 1990s, when the armed conflict began to escalate, they reached out to the military and requested the appointment of defense personnel for their towns. This created the Muslim home guards, which are perceived by the Tamils to be an extension of the Sri Lankan Army in its fight against the LTTE. Nevertheless, Muslims in the wake of the attacks continue to engage with the State.

The main mosque in Batticaloa town, that offered to host the one-month remembrance of the attacks.

Another consequence of the attacks are that complex dynamics within the community have been obscured. For instance, some of the first reports against Zahran were made by the Sufi community, whose plans for a festival he had threatened. However, now the mainly Sunni-led community leadership is claiming this as something they had done as a means of proving that they had opposed Zahran all along. Pushed into a corner, various parts of the Muslim community are relating the recent past in different ways. A monolithic view of the community makes it difficult to see or understand these dynamics.

Nevertheless, official elements of the Muslim community are softening their previously held stances and policies in the wake of the attacks. For instance, some mosques opened their doors to other communities on Fridays, and held a one-month remembrance of the attacks. They wanted to mourn the dead, but also explain their faith to the people who were seeing them with fear. While they were met with the response that most people were just not ready to do this, inter-community events did go ahead. A Muslim poet read out a poem of hers, and some Tamil women performed a hymn. This would have been unheard of prior to the attacks.

Members of the Zion Church congregation linger back after Sunday celebration, for individual prayers with the senior pastor and his core team, in the community centre they now use as a space for worship.

Three months

Pastor Roshan Mahesan, senior pastor at Zion Church, preaches to a crowd that overflows from the community hall that now doubles as their worship space every Sunday. Acknowledging the impact that the attacks have had on the congregation, he reads to the congregation from the book of Isaiah; “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles.”

When churches across the country kept their gates shut, the team at Zion church held a Sunday celebration in the small office off the side of the church. Around 100 members of the congregation attended. Three months later, a celebration at this community hall just half a kilometre from the church, has seen attendance grow to around 700 people. “It is not the 1000-strong crowd we used to see in the weeks before the attack, but as time passes, people will be more comfortable to come back," notes the member of the church's core team.

Rs. 4 million has been allocated by the government to rebuild the church, and the Army has now begun clearing out the debris. While families of the deceased received Rs. 1 million in compensation, the church has been notified that there is much more to be allocated to individual survivors, and victims' families. “Cabinet has not approved the transfer of these funds yet,” says the team member.

Inner staircase at the Zion Church

He notes that this is the first major emergency that the church is responding to since the tsunami. “We are aware that it doesn’t end here, and support will be needed beyond the short term" he says. Scholarship programmes have been set up to finance education for the children who lost parents. Other children are afraid of coming to church, and they are looking to introduce dance and music programmes that will hopefully help the children slowly become more comfortable returning.

“The forces engaged in house-to-house checks in the days and weeks after. They were rude to us at the start, but now we have to say that they are cooperative with us,” the activist says. Now during security checks in Kattankudy, the military explain what they are doing and what they are searching for. A young doctor recalls how Muslims checked into the Kattankudy hospitals within those first weeks, hoping to avoid being harassed during the search operations.

Statue close to the beach strip in Kattankudy

Though schools have reopened, they have been in a state of lockdown – the gates are left closed, and students’ new transparent bags are checked before they enter. Some schools have also issued photo IDs for students to wear, with some even indicating blood types, which is a seemingly unnecessary step. “This is possibly muscle memory, in reaction to the tension of war that was the everyday norm until 2009,” says the social worker. However, she points out that heightened security is also leading to arbitrary arrests and detention. It also needlessly alarms young children who have no recollection of wartime experiences.

Tamil politicians are seen to be aligning with the state in the aftermath of the attacks, banding together to ostracise the Muslim community. Tamil National Alliance MP S. Viyalendran reached out to the military to ‘arm’ more Tamil youth, to prevent against further terror attacks. For the pastor who spoke to the authors, this is deeply disturbing, as it is creating the active conditions for more armed warfare. The reversal of the two minority ethnic communities’ positions as the 'good' minority and the 'bad' minority is not at all a prescription for long term peace. Hostile exclusivity between minority communities is seen to only empower Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism, by the state and wider society. Instead of creating another armed culture among youth, it would be more effective for the state to provide meaningful employment opportunities to them.

The poster of the deceased at Zion Church, of which 14 are children. Since this photo was taken, one more individual succumbed to their injuries.

Looking ahead

In the social upheaval since the attacks, it is the rehabilitation of victims of the attacks and their families that is forgotten. They face long term devastation, in dealing with varied medical issues, in getting by financially, in rebuilding their livelihoods and education, and in dealing with grief and trauma. Just over a month after the attacks, Selvanayaham Arunprashanth, who had tried to pull children to safety even after being injured, succumbed to his injuries. During the course of this article being written, Umashankari Karunakaran, who had also been gravely injured, passed away in hospital.

“Some of those who were affected have become completely dependent,” says one of the young doctors, commenting on how the physical impact of the attacks goes beyond injury to a more longer-lasting psychological change. Whereas the government health services were very efficient in responding to the immediate, physical aftermath of the bombing, it is inevitably less well equipped to respond to longer-term health challenges, particularly in terms of psychological and mental health.

“The major challenge here is that any response ideally should meet the different and individual needs of all those who have been affected - there is no one-size-fits-all solution”

A mental health worker based in Batticaloa considers how two people’s experiences the same attack could be vastly different: one might see it as ‘I nearly died’ whereas the other might think that ‘I survived’. In the same manner, while some might be open to receiving professional psychosocial support, others might be more comfortable with faith-based healing practices.

Signs outside the Wesleyan Methodist Church

The mental health worker says that in the ten years since the war the state and civil society organisations’ capacity for mental health and psychosocial response had actually declined, and there have been inadequate steps towards building and sustaining a holistic system that is capable of dealing with incidents like the Easter Sunday bombings. Nevertheless, he feels that unlike Colombo and Negombo, Batticaloa may have been more prepared to respond to the incident given the past experience with inter-agency networks and community psycho-social initiatives during the war and after the Indian Ocean tsunami. While several NGOs providing psycho-social care have reduced services or left the area in the last 10 years, the state still has a foundation of local mental health services and other government staff through which to administer help.

"Nonetheless, we could not provide an ideal response, nor perhaps could we have been, to this kind of exceptional tragedy.”

Ways Forward

The social worker says that the current state and social response to the terror attacks is likely to breed more resentment within the community, with the constant scrutiny and isolation of Muslims not contributing to any meaningful social integration. There needs to be a strategic action plan going forward – what happens or could happen in the future is likely to affect everyone, not just a single community.

The pastor draws on the country’s own history – when the LTTE was still a relatively small group, the Government’s response was to bully, oppress, and torture Tamil people. He says the continued marginalisation serves to embolden such groups, and not address the deep divisions that lead to their formation.

“I speak both as someone who is clear on the theology of religion, and someone who has seen firsthand what war can do to our communities; violent movements will affect everyone.”
“There is greater alienation right now, and not everyone might be willing to interact with people from other communities,”

The mental health worker adds that rushing to bring in new programs around communal harmony may be ill-advised in the current situation. Instead, there is a need to carefully mediate the existing feelings of hurt, anger, outrage, and fear, working through existing points of contact and solidarity between communities. In the aftermath of the attacks, some people might feel uncertain seeing a man with a backpack, or seeing a visibly Muslim citizen. He outlines a thought process to understand this; to question why one is uncertain, and unpack the fear until it is understood to be irrational and unfair.

Community and some state responses to the aftermath of the attacks are focused almost exclusively on standing against racism, when racism is merely a symptom of much deeper issues. Instead, the social worker feels the situation requires a deeper reflection on the problematic structures still in place, and real engagement with the difficult issues of economic relations and power sharing, right down to how land is to be shared. At the end of the day, the Tamil and Muslim communities must live together in the East. Without such engagement, anti-racist discourse will only have a limited effect and problems will likely persist, as they have in recurrent cycles before and since independence.

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