SL blast:'I'll always wonder who's standing next to me'

Athula Fernando and family.

"We usually go to St. Sebastian's Church in Katuwapitiya, Negombo, as my son attends Sunday School there. Last Easter Sunday, we made a slight change in our plans. St. Sebastian is usually packed during festivals like Easter, so we decided to go to another church."

Athula Fernando, Regional Sales Manager with a multinational company in Negombo, a Colombo suburb, escaped the blasts along with his family. 

A week after the Easter Sunday blasts that killed more than 250 people, Athula and family are thankful to be among the lucky ones, but are grieving for friends who lost their loved ones.

"We were about to leave for another church when we heard the news of the blast. Initially, we thought it was a small one but it just became bigger and I started getting calls from friends and families.

"We were fortunate but the families of some of our friends were not. A friend of mine had lost his father, mother and sisters in the attack and another friend, his parents and three kids. Many are yet to be traced," he says glumly.

The country was recovering from almost 30 years of civil war and its economy was taking off when tragedy struck and left its people at crossroads. 

There was a complacency when it came to security measures, says Athula. "But we had suffered almost 30 years of civil war. I was in school when the 1983 communal riots happened and I know the hardships we went through. When it ended, we were beginning to enjoy a new freedom. The checkpoints were slowly going out and we were happy to move about without restrictions. We never knew that this kind of terror threat existed, we never knew this was in store for us," he says.  

"What we are now looking for is answers. The authorities concerned did not do their job. As a Sri Lankan, I would say gross injustice has been done to our country. In spite of having the intelligence info, nothing was done. Why was it not conveyed? Who prevented that?" he asks.

"Proper action should be taken so that this is not repeated. Resignations are not enough, authorities should be held accountable," Athula says. 

And he is not the only one looking for answers.  

"Lanka can't take a break -- 30 years of the war, the Tsunami and now this," mourns a half Sri-Lankan and half-Indian Tamil homemaker, who doesn't want to be named. 
She has been grieving.

"I'm just really angry and heartbroken. Our country was building itself up again and this happened. My mother is shaken as one of the blasts happened in the area she grew up in. She and her family used to go to St. Anthony's Church there. She is affected deeply and doesn't even want to speak about it," she says in anguish. 

Geetha L, a homemaker from Bengaluru and a Sri Lankan of Indian origin, is distressed by the happenings in the island nation. Her daughter was due to travel to Colombo in May along with her family. Her plans now stand cancelled.

"My daughter was planning to go to Sri Lanka with her kids in May. But now they have dropped their plans. They have cancelled the tickets. And there is no reimbursement," she says. 
"Our relatives have Sinhalese friends who are affected," she says.

Geetha's parents moved to India a long time ago. "I've been going to Sri Lanka either for a family member's wedding or some family function. In fact, I went for my niece's wedding last year." 

Geetha's in-laws moved to India after the '83 riots. "They were living a great life. Then the riots happened and their whole property was razed. Somebody gave them shelter and then brought them to the refugee camp. Later, the Red Cross put them on board a refugee flight to India. 

"There was nothing left for them. The compensation given to them was peanuts. They had everything and suddenly, they had nothing. But they were a group of determined people and they made it," she says. 

The country has a nostalgic place in her heart. This was where her parents and in-laws grew up and where she was a frequent visitor. "As kids, we used to go to Hatton, Maskelia, Kandy... with its hillocks and tea estates. I remember having picnics there walking down the tea estates. The whole island was heavenly, be it seaside or the tea estates. The last time I visited Sri Lanka was a couple of years ago. We went North to Jaffna and visited the lovely temples there -- all rebuilt.

"The earth there has become hardened and has no life in it because of the tankers that used to move around during the civil war. A place once lush with trees and greenery is not fit for agriculture any more. There is poverty," she says. 

Clouds of uncertainty are looming around and Geeta echoes her concerns. "My relatives are even scared to step out of their homes or send the children to school.

"The government is not stable, so a sense of complacency has set in when it comes to security measures. A few years ago, every two kilometres, your vehicle is checked, your passport is frisked. And then all that stopped," adds Geetha.

As holidaymakers cancel travel plans, Sri Lanka's tourism industry is faced with a different kind of unrest. 
The end of the civil war had led to a rise in the tourist arrivals that also generated employment for many. The economy was looking good thanks to tourism but the Easter Sunday blasts have come as a big blow.      

"Tourism was booming and we could see more investments coming in in the tourism sector. But travel advisories are out now and that is certainly going to affect the economy,'' Athula says.

"We are afraid to go out. My son cannot go to school. His exams were supposed to begin next week. We don't know what is going to happen now. Ninety per cent of the companies are not functioning and people are afraid to go to work. Even if they are at work, there is rumour-mongering about more attacks. There is fear psychosis all across the country. 

"If I going to church again, I will always be wondering what's going to happen next. I will always wonder who is standing next to me," he says.

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