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Terror and trauma in Colombo: Sri Lanka’s capital grieves

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The most horrific of days in recent Sri Lankan memory began with a prayer.

It was Easter morning, and St. Anthony’s Shrine — the largest Catholic congregation in a city where Christianity is a small but vibrant minority faith — was bursting with congregants, nearly 1,000 people in all. Men crowded in the back. Women and children squeezed into the pews. Father Joy Mariyaratnam, 52, asked everyone to stand to recite the Prayer of the Faithful, an entreaty to God to care for the community gathered there, the country and larger world.

Then the clock hit 8:45.

An explosion ripped through the church.

And a newly retraumatized country came into being — rattled by one of the worst terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001, mournful of the deaths of 359 people and afraid of not only more possible strikes but also the potential for religious violence in a nation still haunted by a decades-long civil war and a history of suicide bombs.

In all, there would be eight blasts, stretching the width of the country, but largely executed within a short time frame, striking three luxury hotels, three churches and two other locations. Several of the attacks took place in the capital city of Colombo.

Graphic: How terror detonated with precision across Sri Lanka

This is a glimpse into this thriving tropical city’s first 72 hours after the violence, when people searched frantically for relatives, hospitals were deluged with the injured, and the grim accounting of the dead climbed ever higher.

“How could such a thing happen in a place of worship?” asked Mariyaratnam. “You’re just standing there, that’s all, totally broken.”

The incomprehensible

Delicia Fernando had a pretty good idea of how Sunday would go. The 52-year-old mother of three would attend Easter service at St. Anthony’s Shrine, one of the nation’s best-known churches and the spiritual center of the neighborhood. Then would come a small gathering at her parents’ house for lunch and visiting.

Fernando’s family arrived at the church for the 8 a.m. service, going through the arched entrances of the stately building, which has a history that traces to the 18th century and a large clock embedded in its whitewashed facade. She and her three children — two 20-something daughters and an 18-year-old son — found seats in the pews toward the front. Her husband, Ravi, a baker of 61 years who was always willing to help anyone in need, stood in the back of the sanctuary with the men who’d given up seats to women and children.

The Mass was well underway when everyone stood to pray.

An explosion — described by witnesses as a fireball — then ripped off much of the roof, and all around on the ground were debris, people screaming in pain or shock, and the dead.

“God, please save us,” was the first thing Fernando thought. Then she was pushing her children toward the front, telling them to run, go now.

Her son turned to her: “Where is my dad?”

They headed into the chaos of the sanctuary. That’s where Fernando’s son found her husband. He was buried under wooden beams, his body pierced with shrapnel. The family cleared off the debris, picked him up and carried him out to the ambulances that began to arrive outside. But it was already too late. His body had gone cold.

Fernando returned to her parents’ house, where the family wasn’t sharing a meal like she’d once expected — but instead expressing grief with a line of mourners. Throughout the narrow, brightly colored lanes behind St. Anthony’s, similar scenes were playing out.

Inside the Fernando home, the husband’s younger sister, Jeyarani Fernando, 55, tried to comprehend the incomprehensible. “I don’t know why God has taken him.”

Nearby, Fernando sat in a plastic chair. Her eyes were filling with tears. She didn’t know what to do.

“My husband is gone,” she said. “Now there is no one to help me and the children.”

Unshakable images

Nearly three miles away, toward the heart of the city, a nurse named Mangala Gunesekara was working the morning shift when she recognized something dreadful had happened. In Colombo, victims were pouring into the emergency room of the National Hospital of Sri Lanka in all states of physical and psychological trauma. Fractured limbs. Penetrating wounds. Extensive burns. Faraway stares.

Gunesekara, 29, had only been a nurse for two years and had never seen anything like this. But she immediately got to work, trying to stop the bleeding and rushing people into surgery. Sometimes the doctors were successful. Other times, they weren’t.

Two days later, Gunesekara was shaking her head. She couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d seen. She recalled the two pregnant women who’d arrived from St. Anthony’s church, unharmed but emotionally shattered. What will become of them? “We push on,” she said. “But our heads are in a different place. I keep returning to those scenes.”

One of her patients was a 39-year-old woman named Dananjali Weerasekera, lying on a narrow wrought-iron bed with a piece of shrapnel still lodged in her chest. The music of the ward was the whir of electric fans, medical monitors beeping and striped curtains opening and closing.

She’d worked most of her adult life at the Cinnamon Grand hotel, one of the three luxury hotels bombed on Sunday. She started out small 18 years ago but had since risen to become a supervisor of the posh Taprobane restaurant, which served a sweeping breakfast spread every morning.

The morning of the attacks — a comparatively quiet one, with only about 20 diners — it had been her job to make sure that everything in the buffet was well-stocked and to make guests feel welcome. Some had requested coconut water with their breakfast, so Weerasekera was walking to grab a few straws when she heard the blast and was knocked to the ground. The restaurant that she’d worked years to supervise was now a “total disaster.”

Rising from the floor, she soon realized she couldn’t breathe. Pressure was rising in her chest. Colleagues asked her if she was okay. Then she was in a taxi heading to the hospital, where doctors discovered a small, jagged shrapnel wound above her left breast, and where she still was still being treated Tuesday.

Her boss had only been a few yards from her — “very close,” she recalled — but he had died, while she had not. Three other staff members, too, had died, but not her.

She leaned back in her bed while the nurses worked and the electric fans hummed.

Too much for one morgue

On April 21, ambulances rushed to the Colombo National Hospital in Sri Lanka, after a coordinated series of suicide bombings killed hundreds across the country. (Video: Lak FM News via Storyful)

As the bodies continued to stream into Colombo’s central morgue, Ajith Tennakoon faced a difficult decision: Where to put them all? As the city’s chief judicial medical officer, Tennakoon was the one who identified the bodies of those killed by the blasts, determined their cause of death, and released the victims to their families for burial.

The bodies believed to be foreigners he put in the coldest part of the morgue — the deep freezer — because it could take longer for families to arrive. He arranged for a large refrigerated container to be delivered to the internal driveway of the mortuary for extra storage.

But for other bodies, he had no choice. He had to store them outside, in the scorching Colombo heat.

Some remains were even tougher to handle because they were no longer bodies at all, but fragments in bags awaiting DNA testing.

Even for Tennakoon — a 30-year veteran of the profession, who worked the mortuary as terrorist attacks during the civil war devastated the country — the past few days have been a shock. One couple came to Sri Lanka for their honeymoon, where the wife was killed in the bombing, he said. In another family, the husband survived the blasts but had lost his wife and two children.

“When you hear those stories, you will cry,” said Tennakoon, a lanky forensic pathologist whose words spill out in a rush. “I am also shocked to see these things.”

On Tuesday, the corridors of Colombo’s central morgue were hushed but crowded, a miasma lingering in the air. Police officers wearing face masks lined the hallways. The forensic pathologists were recognizable in their rubber boots, hairnets and disposable white jumpsuits. Family members of the victims from India, Sri Lanka and the Middle East sat silently in plastic chairs lining a hallway, awkwardly holding the water bottles they had been offered.

Tennakoon’s team had an established procedure: First, family members identify a photo, which is linked to a tag. The staff cleans the victim’s face, hoping to save families from seeing the worst of what the explosions had wrought. Then, family members are taken to identify the body.

One family member was Thiruchelvam, 44, who goes by one name. He came Tuesday to collect the death certificate for his wife’s brother. The funeral had taken place a day earlier, but there was still paperwork to complete. His brother-in-law, Dayanandan Sivagnanan, had been a photographer with two children, ages 3 and 5. He attended Mass every Tuesday at St. Anthony’s.

It was Thiruchelvam’s first time at the morgue. He stood anxiously to one side.

Behind him was a Buddhist shrine, a spot for contemplation and prayer. Several words were painted in Latin above a nearby doorway:

Mortui Vivos Docent. The dead teach the living.

The scene, and aftermath, in Sri Lanka after explosions kill at least 321

April 25, 2019 | A police officer outside the house of spice merchant Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Yusuf Ibrahim’s two sons were allegedly among the suicide bombers that committed the Easter Sunday attacks. (Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/For The Washington Post)

McCoy reported from Washington. Devana Senanayake in Colombo contributed to this report.

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