It has been more than two weeks since Sri Lanka was hit by a series of bomb attacks, but closure remains elusive as some families continue to search for their loved ones.
COLOMBO — There is a conspicuous pall in Kochchikade’s air, particularly around the white edifice that is St Anthony’s Shrine. It has been almost two weeks since a suicide bomber walked into the church and detonated himself during Easter Mass on an otherwise bright Sunday morning.
The death toll from the Easter suicide bomb attacks, claimed by Daesh, across numerous churches and hotels in Sri Lanka stands at 257.
The walls outside St Anthony’s Shrine are scarred, paint and plaster ripped away by the force of the blast to expose red brick. Security forces guard the church’s entrance, a grim reminder of a long, bloody civil war - a sight that Sri Lankans thought they had left behind.
Many shops right outside the church remain shut while black and white mourning flags - strung up when a community or family is grieving - ruffle in the breeze.
Down a residential street adjacent to the church, there is a light flutter of activity. Many residents are beginning to come to terms with the events of that Sunday morning. But in Velusami Sarojini’s home, the mood is despondent and helpless.
Sarojini went to Easter Sunday Mass at St Anthony’s that day and has not been seen since. Her body has not yet been identified - a common predicament as some of the remains were mangled beyond recognition by the explosion.
“It’s been two weeks since she went missing. Now they’re dragging it further. We don’t know to whom should we complain about this. We’re still wondering what we’re supposed to do now,” Sarojini’s sister Bhuvaneswari tells TRT World.
For Sarojini’s family, the ache of not knowing is severe. For the past two weeks, they have repeatedly been darting back and forth between the hospital to the mortuary, trying desperately to look for the mother of two sons.
“Sometimes they say that the doctors didn’t come. Sometimes they say the investigators didn’t come. We went today, and again they said it’ll take a week to confirm anything,” Bhuvaneswari says.
The Velusami family is now awaiting DNA results to confirm her death - grieving is not yet over, and their memories of her are tender. They describe her as a generous, loving person, someone who would be the first to drop everything to be with the people that needed her.
A photo of the 49-year-old displayed on a cabinet in the small, austere living room shows a woman who loved to dress up. Once a housemaid in the UAE, she loved watching TV serials - particularly Zee Tamil and Sun TV.
“If she was here, she would’ve been sitting over here and watching TV by now,” Bhuvaneswari tells TRT World.
The uncertainty surrounding Sarojini has taken its toll on Bhuvaneswari. Whenever she is not engaged in conversation, her eyes are cast down, her face wracked with worry. Searching for her sister has also put her job at risk.
“We’re daily wage earners. We’re not well-off people. We’ll even lose our jobs due to this,” she says matter of factly.
Sarojini’s missing person status is not the only case of its kind - AFP has reported that six people are still missing since the attacks. One of the receptionists at my hotel in Colombo reported a missing aunt who was at St Anthony’s Shrine that Easter Sunday morning.
When asked about the issue of missing persons, Sri Lankan Cabinet Spokesman and Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne told TRT World that “almost all the local bodies are identified”.
Senaratne added that DNA testing is being used to piece bodies together.
“We have actually compiled the whole body with the DNA testing. But identifying the total body is a problem because it was swollen because of so many damages [sic] to the body,” he explained.
Others inside St Anthony’s Shrine that Easter Sunday were luckier, they escaped with their bodies - and their lives, intact.
Father Jude Raj was inside his office in St Anthony’s Shrine when the bomb detonated.
“Instead of turning to my right, I just turned to my left. Suddenly, the blast. I never expected it. And that’s the saving hand of God,” he tells TRT World.
“If I would have got up from my seat, the iron balls were inside my office.”
For others, being around trauma is not new. Rodrigo, 73, sits perched on a doorstep near St Anthony’s Shrine, wrapped in a lungi - a type of sarong worn mostly by men in the Indian subcontinent. He recounts how his teeth would chatter whenever he heard an explosion going off during Sri Lanka’s civil war era.
On the morning of April 21, he was sitting in his neighbour’s house when he heard a similar sound. His friend dismissed it as large containers falling off a trailer but Rodrigo knew better. He is “used to these bombs”, a regular occurrence during Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil war, he tells TRT World.
Walking out onto the street, he followed the people running towards St Anthony’s Shrine. The scene inside was devastating with body parts strewn around.
“I couldn’t stay inside,” Rodrigo tells TRT World emphatically.
Sri Lanka’s Christian community is small – they make up about seven percent of Sri Lanka’s population – a minority in the Buddhist majority country. But their grief is immense, highlighted by the fact that this May, Sri Lanka will have been war-free for ten years. But the Easter Sunday attacks have thrown peace into doubt.
An uneasy calm presides over Colombo. Security remains high, threats of more attacks pop up and civilians avoid going out more than is necessary. The streets aren’t thriving like they were before the blast, or even during the civil war, but its citizens are moving on with their lives. Healing has begun.
“Already we have started the healing process. We are visiting them, we are just being with them and we will accompany their life journey,” Father Raj says.
But inside Sarojini’s house, uncertainty persists. A family is on the cusp of grief as they wait for results that will seal their fate. Outside, the sky darkens. As white flags of mourning in doorways keep the tragedy in sight, women set down pans outside their homes laden with coconut shells and incense and set them on fire.
Additional reporting by Shammas Ghouse.