Lanka blasts: 'Slip of the mind saved our lives'

Ramya with her parents Nagesh and Pratibha Rao.

Ramya Nagesh, a barrister in London who hails from Bengaluru, had gone to Sri Lanka with her parents to attend a friend's wedding in the tropical country and have a taste of its sun-kissed beaches, walking trails and heritage sites.

But the vacation in the island nation was not quite what they had in mind.

"My parents and I were in Sri Lanka to attend my friend’s wedding, and then take the chance to do some sightseeing around Sri Lanka as I had never been there before," Ramya narrates.

"The wedding was in Colombo on Saturday night (April 20). We arrived on Saturday afternoon. We had planned to leave for the second biggest city and old capital, Kandy, on Easter Sunday after breakfast and then spend the rest of the week travelling around Sri Lanka.

"At about 10 am on Easter Sunday, we were in the lobby of our hotel when we saw 'breaking news' on the TV with hotel staff gathered round. It was in Sinhalese, no footage of explosions and no sense of panic amongst the staff, and so we didn’t think much of it.

"We started driving to Kandy. I then heard from my sister (who is a world news journalist back in the UK) that there had been some explosions. At that stage, the news was vague and it seemed that the explosions were small and injuries few. Our driver was under the same impression. So again, we assured her we were fine.

"WhatsApp wasn’t working very well but I assumed it was because we were on the road (I learnt later that the government was blocking social media and WhatsApp, which may have been part of the cause). At about 3 pm, we heard again from my sister all the way back in the UK that there was to be a nationwide curfew from 6 pm. That made us realise something bigger was happening than what we had realised. We were in a herb garden on the way to Kandy and you could see that the man showing us around was also starting to worry, as realisation dawned.

"By 3.20 pm, we were told curfew was now at 3.30 pm! We hurried back to the car as we were quite literally in the middle of nowhere and an hour from our next hotel, and I then managed to connect to the internet on my phone. I had multiple messages come through -- including from friends back home sending me screenshots of news bulletins to say there had been seven explosions so far and over 200 people (at that stage) were dead with over 500 injured.

"We then sped along to our hotel to obey the curfew, which was an hour away. The streets were packed full of cars trying to get home. The petrol stations were full with queues well onto the roads of people panic filling their tanks. We got full details about the buildings hit and learnt that apart from prominent churches, hotels also were hit.

"One of the hotels was the Cinnamon Grand, devastatingly targeted at around 9 am. That hit us all even more because we had planned to stay there. My dad forgot to confirm the name of the desired hotel with the travel agent until it was too late so she had in fact booked us in elsewhere, about a five-minute drive from the Cinnamon Grand. We realised that when we arrived and said it was a shame. But never mind, our hotel was lovely.

"Now, it turns out that simple slip of the mind on my dad’s part may well have saved our lives. As it happened, we had breakfast at 9 am, pretty much exactly the time the bomb went off in the Cinnamon Grand as I understand it. It brings it all close to home.

"I feel so sad for those who weren’t as lucky as we were, and were just trying to enjoy their trip, as we were. We also learnt the extent of the devastation in churches. The thought that people just wanting to celebrate their holy day, and pray, in a place they should have felt safest, were destroyed in moments, was just so incredibly sad.

"For us, the difficulties started in the afternoon after the second bomb blast which happened around 2.30 pm. The curfew was imposed at 3.20 pm with virtually immediate effect. I had been trying to get hold of my friend in Colombo who had got married, as we drove, as well as others who had attended from the UK for the wedding and who I knew were staying in the same area as the Cinnamon Grand. My friend was not receiving any messages on WhatsApp. Nor were the others I was trying to get hold of.

"By that stage, I was pretty frantic trying to get hold of her and make sure not only she, but her family and her (and our mutual) friends were ok. I learned later that WhatsApp was shut off for many phones and that included hers. But until I learnt that, I was driving myself pretty crazy thinking something had happened.

"I eventually got a text message from her in response to my SMS texts. She was thankfully fine, as was the wedding party. I also learnt the others attending from the UK who I knew had been in hotels (and planning to go to Easter services in some cases) were also fine. That was a huge relief.

"I know my sister back in the UK, who was faced with the task of reporting on the blasts, was having huge difficulties reaching our phones. She was frantic with worry herself, especially as she was receiving more reports than we were as she was on the news desk.

"In the hotel in Kandy, WiFi was 'off and on'. We also lost power that first night for almost an hour. Usually, I wouldn’t think anything of a power cut, but of course against the backdrop of what had been happening, your mind jumps to the worst case scenario, and you’re on tenterhooks, listening out for any signs of an attack. So it’s fair to say the issues with technology and blocking of technology added to the fraught nerves we had and helplessness when it came to checking on our friends and loved ones.

"Having said all that about the technology, all the local people we encountered (hotel staff and driver in particular) couldn’t have been more wonderful and professional. They must have all been worried sick about their family, friends and their own safety as well. Yet they treated us with utmost care. The only time they allowed the mask to fall and a chink show in the armor was when I asked about their family and friends.

"After assuring us that they were fine, more than one person talked about how shocked and sad they were, how this has never happened to such an extent in their memory, certainly not in those areas. And how they were sad and scared about the future too and what would happen to Sri Lanka.

"We were due to fly to Bengaluru on April 25 and at first planned to lay low in Kandy until then. Many other guests obviously took a different decision, as on Monday morning, at around 7 am, I saw, in the halls, rows and rows of suitcases outside hotel doors. By that afternoon, there were maybe two or three families left at the hotel, as compared to the absolutely full hotel the night before at dinner. Hotel staff told us they estimated 90 per cent of people had left. If we had left that day too, I imagine it would have been a nightmare trying to get back to Bengaluru.

"We instead wanted to see how things went over the next 24 hours and make decisions then. It was tough to know what the right thing to do was -- we felt a bit safer in Kandy than going back to Colombo for the airport. At the same time, Kandy wasn’t immune, and we couldn’t stay in the hotel forever. And more bombs were being found, including one near the airport, the curfew was being extended and a state of emergency was declared. So, on Monday night we decided to try and bring our flight forward. We were lucky as we managed to get three seats on a very busy flight back to Bengaluru the next day.

"At the airport on Tuesday, security was obviously high, with multiple checks. But I think most people had fled the day before, and staff were again very efficient and polite with it, so we found getting back to Bengaluru much less difficult than we had braced ourselves for.

"I would visit Sri Lanka again. I already knew from others that it is beautiful, with lovely, friendly people. Now, after this experience, I can add 'resilient and brave people' along with that. It struck me how they still carried on in the face of one of the worst tragedies they have faced in living memory.

"Most of all, I would never want to let the actions of a few misguided people, with hearts full of hate, destroy what that country is. If people like me become scared to go back, then those bombers have won, and that should never happen."

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