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One year after: what we found around the country after the Easter attacks

MOURNING FOR EASTER VICTIMS – Worshippers at St Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya on July 1st when the Church reopened after the Easter bombings/Pathum Dhananajana EconomyNext

ECONOMYNEXT – We should have been gathering in large numbers today to collectively grieve for the men women and children who died a year ago when suicide bombers slaughtered them in churches and hotels in seven different locations in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa.

But the unexpected threat of an invisible foe, a deadly highly-contagious virus is keeping us indoors, confined to those closest to us to remember that shocking Easter Sunday.

We will observe two-minute silence, ring the bell at places of worship and light a candle in memory of those who died.

The grief is shared by families across the world as the many Sri Lankans overseas who lost relatives as well as the families of the holiday-makers who died in the hotel blasts also shed a tear.

The year that has passed we have seen extensive police investigations, two Presidential Commissions of Inquiry, a very public Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry and now in recent months a fresh CID probe.

The actual perpetrators died, killing themselves in the commission of the crime or when police quickly got to them in Colombo and in the East.

The stunning news that the country’s Intelligence Organisations were warned of the attacks at least 17 days before the strikes, and although letters had been exchanged about it, no-one set a security plan to prevent them.

The then Police Chief and Secretary to the Ministry of Defense stand charged with negligence.

The Parliamentary Select Committee concluded that the head of the State Intelligence Service DIG Nilanga Jayawardena is “primarily responsible.”

Starting three weeks after the attacks we at EconomyNext traversed the country researching and producing eleven mini-documentaries about race and politics in the country.

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We found communities shattered, some rebuilding and others in deep introspection. We discovered that the Easter Sunday massacre penetrated deep into the psyche of our nation.

The horrific attacks carried out by a small group of extremists brought to the surface simmering Islamaphobia that resulted in anti-Muslim attacks by organized mobs of young men, three weeks after the suicide strikes.

They were clearly politically-motivated and set up by a combination of Sinhala extremist parties, whom locals in Minuwangoda, Kurunegala and Digana told us are affiliated to the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, underpinned by local business rivalries.

Despite all the investigations few people are satisfied that we are better informed as to what motivated the attacks, who was really behind them and who in officialdom should be punished for not preventing them.

The country’s most prominent Christian prelate Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, while announcing the ceremonies for today, said the purpose of the attack was “to split the minorities in the country. That did not happen instead we have been drawn closer.”

In Batticoloa we found that the resentment that the Tamil community had felt against the Muslims throughout the thirty-year ethnic war where the Tamils had been seen as the enemy by the Sinhala state and Muslims as allies came to the surface.

The former Vice-Chancellor of the Eastern University Professor T Jayasingham told us the attacks have “given us a chance to renegotiate that equation.”

In Kathankudi, the densely populated Muslim town, where the group that carried out the attack the National Thowheed Jamaat was spawned and its leader the charismatic rabble-rouser Zahran Hashim grew to fame we found intense introspection.

“We have to change,” Abdul Latif Sabeel the Secretary of the Kathankudy Mosques Federation told us. “We have to look at everything, the way we teach in our Madrassas, how we do business and how we celebrate everything that is Sri Lankan.”

In Digana, in Kurunegala and in many other areas mainly civic activists and religious leaders blamed the country’s education system for exacerbating the religious and ethnic divides that causes misunderstanding between communities.

In Digana, Pilhatha Mahanama thero told us that whenever he needs to begin a dialogue between different ethnic groups if conflicts arise he seeks out people who are over 55.

“Theirs is the last generation to go to schools where there were students from every community. Once they are gone I don’t know whom I will turn to,” the thero said.

Jayasingham echoed those words saying the practice of having state schools for different ethno-religious groups is a big mistake. “We need massive reform in our school system,” he told us.

One of the most important bits of writing that has come out since the attacks has been the work of Academic and Human Rights activist Dr Rajan Hoole in his book “When the Deep State gets out of its Depth.”

Hoole proposes that the deep state comprises dominant sections of the political establishment and the security apparatus and Zahran and his cohorts were protected by the authorities because they served their purposes.

Other sources including Minister Keheliya Rambukwella have confirmed that Zaharan was on the Military Intelligence payroll with close connections to the Army.

Police sources said they were able to roll-up the NTJ network rapidly, surprising foreign intelligence agencies, after the attacks because they were aware of who they were and where they had their hideouts in Colombo and Saindamaruthu.

In all this darkness and sadness we also found hope.

We discovered wonderful and committed civil leaders, unheralded men and women in what appears to be a cruel and deeply divided country.

A few days ago in Colombo Cardinal Ranjith said the perpetrators were “spiritually forgiven,” by his community

In Minuwangoda there is a little Buddhist temple inside a Muslim village. The monk is cared for by the Muslims, most of his food is supplied by them and his faithful companion and driver is a Muslim man.

In Kandy we found a civic group disgusted with the government for not properly investigating the Digana anti-Muslim pogroms set up a public truth commission that heard testimony from all parties to the conflict.

It was also in Digana that we found Maulvi Samsoodin Mohomad Fazal. His younger brother, a university student was the only person killed in the four days of violences in his town when he was trapped inside his house which was petrol-bombed by a mob that attacked a nearby mosque.

Asked about the investigation into his brother’s death Fazal said his family “is not interested. We have already forgiven the perpetrators.”

Of all the communities that were hit the people of Katuwapitiya suffered the most. More than half of the dead were from St Sebastian’s in Katuwapitiya.

As everybody mourned the local radio station led the community in grieving and healing. Putting aside commercial concerns veteran broadcaster Anton Jayamaha and his staff became the channel this anguished community turned to.

In the midst of the horror and tragedy we also found such people. (Colombo, 21 April 2020)