The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At church, on Easter, the Sri Lanka attackers destroyed families. Now survivors must learn to live alone.

Naresh Denilson, 20, shown last month, is the sole survivor in his immediate family of the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka. His parents and sister were killed at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo. (Benislos Thushan for The Washington Post)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — During the long month at the hospital, it was always the same nightmare. A deafening noise, followed by the world blasting into pieces. Then suddenly, Naresh Denilson’s eyes would open, his mind frozen with fear.

In the daytime, his relatives came to visit. His parents were recovering, they told him, and his elder sister was in the intensive care unit. Just focus on getting better. 

They could not bring themselves to tell him the truth. 

His parents were dead, their bodies found at the morgue in Colombo in the hours after the Easter Sunday attacks. His sister clung to life for a week. While Naresh, 20, was in the hospital, all three were buried in a local cemetery, one grave in front and two in back. 

In the devastation of the April attacks that killed more than 260 people, Naresh’s situation was not unique. The bombers struck places where families had gathered — churches packed with worshipers, weekend breakfast buffets at hotels. In several families, only one person survived. For three Sri Lankan families, there were no survivors

The attacks traumatized Sri Lanka, shattering lives and the nation’s sense of security. More than two months after the violence, a state of emergency is still in force. In May, rioters targeted the country’s Muslim minority, burning businesses and damaging mosques in reprisal for the attacks, which were carried out by local Islamist extremists.

On Easter Sunday morning, April 21, St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka, was attacked as part of a series of coordinated bombings across the country. (Video: Badumathama via Storyful)

Profound questions remain about the nature of the plot, the attackers’ connections to radical groups outside Sri Lanka and the lack of action by authorities despite repeated intelligence warnings that an attack was possible. On Tuesday, police arrested two former top security officials, including the national police chief at the time of the attacks, for their alleged failure to prevent the blasts.

Sri Lanka — a teardrop-shaped island off the tip of India that is home to 20 million people, most of them Buddhists — turned out to be a soft target for the bombers: A 26-year civil war ended in 2009, and the intervening years were relatively peaceful. Months before the attack, Lonely Planet named Sri Lanka the best country in the world to visit.

“People had just gotten used to the idea that there doesn’t have to be war,” said Gaithri Fernando, a professor of psychology at California State University in Los Angeles who has studied Sri Lankans’ resilience in the face of trauma. Now, “I’m finding people who have just given up,” she said. “They’ve given up on the government. They see no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no one to look to for leadership.”

For Naresh, the questions of who knew what and how the plot unfolded didn’t matter. He wasn’t reading newspapers or watching television channels that were tracking the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the attacks. His world had narrowed to a room just big enough for a bed on the ground floor of his family’s modest home.

The attacks had fractured his left leg and lacerated his scalp. His face and arms were burned in the explosion. He requires help to get up, to bathe, to go outside. 

Always slender, now he is stick-thin, with deep hollows under his eyes. A scar runs from the corner of his lips across his right cheek. Near his ear is a long black patch where doctors grafted a strip of skin from his thigh to heal a burn. 

He has not yet been able to visit the graves of his parents and sister. 

“I want to ask them: ‘Why did you all go and leave me alone here?’ ” he said.

'Something can happen'

Naresh’s mother, Kayalvily, strict and loving, was a devout Hindu. His father, Rostin, a tailor, was a fervent Christian who attended church twice a week. They first met at a bus stop and had been married happily for almost 25 years.

The day before the attacks, the family was visiting relatives in Kandy, a Buddhist pilgrimage site three hours from Colombo. They debated whether to return to the capital, but Naresh’s father did not want to miss Easter Sunday services at St. Anthony’s Shrine.

The family reached home near midnight and woke up tired the next morning. By the time they arrived at the church, it was packed, standing room only. They found space at the back on the left, just inside the doors to the street, and stood in a row: Rostin, 53, toward the corner, then Kirubashini, 23, then Naresh, then Kayalvily, 49. 

The blast ripped through the church at 8:45 a.m., part of a murderous plot without precedent in Sri Lanka. The country has no previous history of Islamist militant attacks, although suicide bombings were common during the long and brutal civil war. The major fault line in Sri Lankan society has been ethnic — between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority — not religious.

The attacker who walked through the high glass doors of St. Anthony’s and detonated a bomb was Alawdeen Ahmed Muath, a 22-year-old who intended to study law in Colombo, his father told a court in May, according to media reports. He was one of nine people who carried out suicide attacks that Sunday.

The attackers used a secure messaging app to communicate, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity. But police have not said how the group first connected or when it began plotting the attacks. More than 100 people have been arrested in connection with the probe, including many relatives of the attackers, and the investigation is ongoing. A police spokesman declined requests to discuss the probe.

Zahran Hashim, an abrasive, radical preacher from the eastern town of Kattankudy, was a key figure in the plot. At the time of the attacks, he had been on the run from authorities for more than a year after a clash with moderate Muslims. His brother Rilwan prepared the group’s explosives, some of which were less effective than they might have been, according to two officials familiar with the probe who were not authorized to speak publicly.

At least one of the attackers had attempted to travel to Islamic State territory in Syria but made it only as far as Turkey, according to media reports. The extremist group later released an alleged photo of the bombers and asserted responsibility for the attacks, but the links between the Islamic State and the Sri Lankan bombers do not appear to have been direct ones, such as providing funding or operational guidance. 

Meanwhile, a parliamentary committee is exploring the failure by Sri Lankan authorities to heed warnings of a possible attack. In a hearing, Pujith Jayasundara, the country’s former chief of police, told legislators that the head of the intelligence service had called him the night before the attacks and told him, “Tomorrow will be dangerous.” Early the next morning, the intelligence chief called again. This time the message was, “Something can happen today.” After the attacks, Jayasundara was placed on compulsory leave. He was arrested Tuesday.

A new quiet

Naresh’s home sits in a maze of alleyways, a tiny toehold in the city built by his grandfather when he migrated to Colombo six decades ago. In the days after the attacks, the neighbors — Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim — brought food and tea and hosted relatives visiting for the funerals in their own homes.

“To lose one person is difficult,” said Kamala Sinniah, Naresh’s aunt. “But to lose three in the same family . . .” Her voice trailed off and she began to weep. On a recent humid afternoon, she sat close to Naresh, rubbing his shoulder, touching his head, asking whether he was hungry.

For Naresh, the hours after lunchtime were the most difficult. His extended family would scatter to their own tasks and he would lie down in bed, lifting his injured leg. The dense neighborhood was never quiet. There was always a television on, a phone ringing. 

Those were the moments when he found himself alone with his thoughts: Waking up dazed after the blast, his left leg shattered, the limb useless. The man whose name he still does not know who carried him to an auto rickshaw, holding Naresh in his arms as both wept on the way to the hospital.

Three weeks later, the most difficult memory of all. A psychologist who knew the family sitting by his bedside telling him that his family was gone. Naresh had begun to suspect that something had happened to his parents — the relatives gave conflicting accounts of where they were — but he believed his sister, Kirubashini, had survived. She had 67 pieces of shrapnel in her body, and she slipped into a coma and died on April 27.

Kirubashini loved fashion and worked as a cashier at a tailor shop. To her mother’s dismay, years ago she had fallen in love with a cousin on her father’s side, Kirubaraj Vithusan, and they planned to marry. After work, the couple would often stroll toward her home together, stopping for a cup of tea. 

After the attack, Vithusan became Naresh’s constant caregiver. He slept next to Naresh each night and took him to doctors to check on his burns and his leg.

For Naresh, the future was a blank page. His aunt Kamala, who lives in Britain, hoped to bring him back with her for a few months. Naresh agreed because he believes it is what his mother would have wanted. All of his earlier plans — his work at a photography studio, the short film project he was working on with friends, his goal of buying his parents a new home — all that was gone. “I don’t know what comes next,” he said. 

He was tired, as he often is these days. He looked toward Vithusan, who came to his side, lifted him out of a chair and handed him one of a pair of crutches. Then Vithusan wrapped one arm around Naresh’s shoulders and tenderly helped him back to bed.

Benislos Thushan and Hafeel Farisz contributed to this report.

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