Sheets of wood are stacked outside the gate of St Anthony’s Shrine in central Colombo’s Kochchikade district, awaiting placement. A mound of sand being used for the reconstruction of the church lies close by. The shrine was among the six sites in Sri Lanka that were bombed on April 21, Easter Sunday, killing over 250 people, including Indians. In the five months since Sri Lanka’s deadliest day of terror, work to restore the shrine continues apace. According to Sri Lankan government officials, about 250 personnel of the Sri Lankan Navy were deployed to rebuild the destroyed parts of the church and 50 other personnel have been tasked with guarding it. Now, the building wears new paint, the walls are redecorated, but amidst the new installations, there is a melancholy addition — a stone plaque in memory of at least 54 who lost their lives. Along with the names of all those killed at the shrine, etched on the plaque are the words, “They laid down their lives for God”.
The targets for the bomb blasts were three churches — in Kochchikade, Negombo to the north, and the eastern city of Batticaloa — and the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in Colombo. But after the blood was washed away, the evidence from the site of the terror attack was collected, the restoration of the churches was set in motion. While the St Anthony’s shrine was reopened 53 days after the attack, the other two churches, too, were restored by the Sri Lankan army, and subsequently, opened to public, government officials said.
It seems natural that a place of faith that was up against such violence counts its blessings and is thankful that the statue of St Anthony — the patron saint of the seekers of lost things — was unscathed after the attack. At the Kochchikade shrine, the faithful saw it as nothing less than a miracle. Father Dilusha Chamara Perera, the assistant administrator of St Anthony’s Shrine, was on the second floor in his room when the bombs went off. “It was Easter Sunday Tamil mass, the main mass. Every Sunday, we have two masses. We expected a big crowd for the 8 am mass. I was coming down to my office from upstairs when I heard the explosion. First, I thought it was power failure or some such thing. We never thought that something like this would happen. I ran out, came down and saw people — shouting, screaming, running, bleeding. That was unbearable,” Perera says.
Now, many others who were shaken by the horrific incident have returned to the weekly mass at the church. But it has changed since then. While vehicles could be parked right outside the shrine before April 21, the spotless white building now stands behind barricades. Sri Lankan naval officers in blue uniforms man its gates and periphery. Visitors seem to take reassurance from their quiet presence.
Naiome Fernando, 34, was seated three benches away from the explosion inside the shrine at 8.45 am on April 21. “Attending the mass that day were 13 members of our family. We were just about 10 ft away from where the bomb exploded. Luckily, nobody in my family was injured but we saw dead bodies,” says Fernando. The shrine was splintered after a suicide bomber, one of the nine who had fanned out to attack different sites in Sri Lanka, blew himself up in the main hall. The explosion tore through everything in its way, including the roof, the tiles, the pews and paintings. These have all been rebuilt now, but on the floor remains a series of pockmarks. Fernando says, “After one month, there was a special mass held at the shrine. I attended it. At first, there was fear in my mind but not now. The memories of that day are, however, still there,” she says.
St Anthony’s Shrine was established in 1806. Perera says Father Antonio from Kochi, Kerala, played a role in setting it up. Long before the bombing, the St Anthony’s statue attracted devotees from across faiths to the church. Father Antonio arrived in Ceylon, posed as a local merchant among the fishing community, and encouraged the mostly Catholic fishing community to practise their faith. Once, when the sea rose, the locals sought his help to save their dwellings. Legend has it that the priest placed a cross on the beach and prayed, after which the water receded. The Dutch rulers then allowed Antonio to preach his faith and allotted him a mud-brick chapel in 1806. Perera says the name Kochchikade was also derived from Kochi, from where Antonio had come. The word Kochchikade means the shop from Kochi, he adds. The “miracle statue” of the patron saint Anthony, the biggest draw for the church’s followers, was brought from Goa and placed where Antonio had placed his cross, he says.
With its new look, Perera says, the church has also expanded its soup kitchen to cater to a larger number of the poor that it feeds. As the church gets back up on its feet with renewed strength, Perera, however, says that they still await answers from the government. “We want to know who were the people who committed this act. We want to know the truth. We want justice,” he says.
Sri Lankan tourism minister John Amaratunga says, the country’s recovery after the terror attack has been quick. Tourism, its third largest revenue generator, had taken a hit following the attacks. However, by August, tourist arrivals picked up after a majority of the countries that had issued travel advisories against Sri Lanka had lifted them, he says. “We have put in security measures in all public places, including hotels,” he says.
According to officials, the state of Emergency was lifted in August. However, investigations will continue to fish out sleeper cells of the local radicalised group. A government official adds that following the attack, the authorities coordinated legislative measures to list the three groups — National Towheed Jamaat, Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim, Willsyath As Seylani — behind the Easter Sunday attacks.
Perera says that as much as the people want to see terrorists brought to book, their dastardly acts cannot be a reason for the people to stop. “The clock had stopped at 8.45 am. First, we thought we should keep it but then we asked why. We should let it go. Why should we stop because of them?” Perera says.
(The author was invited by the Sri Lanka Tourism)