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2024.04.18- Pleading the ‘Easter’ fifth

2024.04.18- Pleading the ‘Easter’ fifth
  • Five years on, the surviving victims of the Easter attacks & the Catholic Church speak of an undiminished search for truth & justice born out of the eternal pain of loss and perpetual ire over the authorities’ ‘apathy’ and ‘neglect’ 

As another anniversary of the terror attacks on 21 April 2019 Easter Sunday approaches, communities including the victims of the attacks and their families once again find themselves grappling with grief and a desire for justice. There are only three days left to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the terror attacks that shook several churches and hotels, ending the lives of 269 individuals and causing injuries to more than 500 individuals. The passage of time has neither erased the pain nor diminished the need for justice to be served.

The pursuit of justice for this massacre is crucial not only for holding the perpetrators accountable but also for providing closure and healing for the victims and their families. Despite five years having passed since the tragedy, they are still awaiting justice with almost no hope of it being meted out any time soon. The longstanding delay in the related processes has further deepened the wounds of those affected and also undermined faith in the legal and societal systems meant to provide recourse.

On 21 April 2019, Easter Sunday, three Churches (St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya, St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, and Zion Church in Batticaloa) and three luxury Hotels in Colombo (the Cinnamon Grand, The Kingsbury, and Shangri-La) were targeted in a series of coordinated suicide bombings. Later that day, another two bomb explosions took place at a house in Dematagoda and the Tropical Inn Lodge in Dehiwala. A total of 269 people excluding the bombers were killed in the attacks, including about 45 foreign nationals, while at least 500 were injured. Subsequent investigations revealed that the terror attacks were carried out by the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ)-led by Mohamed Cassim Mohamed Zahran, one of the bombers who carried out the attack on the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo.

“As a survivor of this horrific attack, I stand with a heavy heart and a resolute spirit today. The passage of time has not swept the pain of that fateful day away. What remains most disheartening is the absence of justice for the hundreds of lives lost and individuals like me whose worlds were shattered. We have endured the loss of our loved ones, grappled with physical and emotional scars, and rebuilt shattered lives. In the midst of that persists the sense of injustice. We are not sure if all the perpetrators of these terror attacks have been brought before the law,” said a resident of the Negombo area, who sustained injuries in the terror attack on the St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya. 

Speaking to The Daily Morning, she said that they demand accountability for the lives lost and the physical and mental wounds that may never fully heal. She also called upon the authorities, both within the country and across borders, to work towards serving justice to them and to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future. “We have been raising our voices for all these five years. We have been standing in protests, speaking to the media, and approaching all possible stakeholders, but, yes, justice is yet to be served. We urge the international community to stand with us and ensure that those responsible for the terror attacks are brought to face the full force of the law.”

When contacted by The Daily Morning, the National Director of Communications of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka (CBCSL) that represents the victims of the terror attacks and their families, Father Jude Chrishantha Fernando said that they are extremely unhappy with the way that the governments led by both Presidents – former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe – have dealt with the relevant investigations into the terror attacks. 

“We have been pointing out the need to carry out a transparent investigation into these terror attacks. Such an investigation will provide clarity and relief for the victims and their families, allowing them to understand the circumstances surrounding the attacks. It will also help to restore public trust in the authorities and the justice system, demonstrating a commitment to accountability and the rule of law. In addition, conducting such an investigation will contribute to national and international security-related efforts by uncovering any systemic failures or vulnerabilities that may have contributed to this tragedy, thus paving the way for strategies for prevention and mitigation in the future. It is however surprising that both Presidents who came to power after 2019 have shown no interest in initiating such an investigation,” he said. 

To truly fulfil their promises to serve justice, Fernando said that the authorities including the President, the relevant ministries, and the investigation agencies must recommit themselves to the pursuit of justice with determination and transparency. “All we ask for is justice. Why can the Government not provide that? Why does the President who said that he would seek an international-level investigation into the terror attacks not do it now? A proper attempt to serve justice to the victims and their families must entail conducting thorough and impartial investigations, holding accountable those responsible for the terror attacks, and ensuring adequate support and reparations for those affected. It is only through that can trust be restored, wounds begin to heal, and the promise of justice be upheld.”

Speaking to The Daily Morning, a Catholic priest residing at the St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya said that the victims and their families are so disappointed that they do not even like to talk about the experience. “This reluctance reflects nothing but the impact of unresolved trauma and the lack of confidence about the legal process. When justice remains unserved, victims feel a sense of powerlessness and frustration, which can lead to some form of silence,” he said, and added that the victims are currently experiencing secondary victimisation as they encounter barriers and insensitivity within the country’s legal system.

The Catholic Church of Sri Lanka – with the intention of serving spiritual justice to the victims of the terror attacks – is preparing to canonise all those who died in the terror attacks. The initial work related to it is to begin on 21 April 2024 when a group is to hand over a request in writing to the Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith to take the necessary steps to inform the Vatican to canonise the victims. According to Fernando, the victims, if the related request is accommodated by the Catholic Church, are to be made saints in four stages – servants of god, the venerable, the blessed and the saints. He said that the relevant process is time consuming, and added that the process may sometimes take more than 75 years to conclude. 

“Our rulers who failed to protect our lives at least do not make an adequate effort to bring about relief to us by revealing the truth behind what happened to us. When those in positions of power neglect their duty to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their citizens, it undermines trust in governance and also leaves entire communities vulnerable and exposed. When we think of it, we are saddened about our fellow citizens. When such irresponsible rulers are there, what happened to us may happen to anyone else in a moment,” said 40-year-old Thilina Harshani, who lost her seven-year-old son in the terror attack on the St. Sebastian’s Church, and was left permanently disabled due to damages caused to the spinal cord. 

Expressing her view on the related investigations, she said that the primary goal should be to ensure that investigations are conducted with integrity, impartiality, and adherence to due process related standards, regardless of who oversees them, be they local agencies or those based internationally. She added that Pope Francis had promised to support the programme to serve justice to the victims of the terror attacks, and that therefore, the Government should permit an international agency to carry out the relevant investigations and bring them towards a progressive end if they (Government) are incapable of doing so. 

“It is very disheartening when efforts to address injustices are apparently deceptive and inadequate. It leaves us feeling betrayed and hopeless,” she said. Commenting on the support that she received from various parties, Harshani said that the Catholic Church has been a great strength for her and her two schooling children since the day she faced the unfortunate incident. “A number of local and international institutions including the Catholic Church are giving me and my two school-going children the necessary support. I received compensation for my son who was killed in the bombing from the Office for Reparations, but, how can I spend it on something? It is something that I received for my dead child. I deposited the money in a bank account so that my other two children can use it one day. All the aid money I received from time to time has been deposited in the bank accounts,” she said.

All their views reflect nothing but the state of perpetual limbo endured by the victims of the terror attacks and their families, in the pursuit of justice. Their loved ones were taken from them in an act of violence, leaving behind a void that can never be filled. They wait for the truth behind it to be revealed, and for those responsible to be held accountable. As the days turn into weeks and months and years, the wait for justice becomes a burden too heavy to bear. 

Source- The Morning

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