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Opinion: My Sri Lankan relatives had a lucky escape from the bombings - I'm struggling to keep my hopes for peace alive

After a decade of peace, I had hoped that our troubles were behind us, writes Dil Wickremasinghe.

Dil Wickremasinghe

ON EASTER SUNDAY, Sri Lanka was rocked by a wave of coordinated bombings that killed more than 300 people at churches and hotels.

Most of the victims were Sri Lankans and at least 31 foreign nationals were also among those killed.

Three bomb blasts took place at churches while three others hit the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in Colombo. 

My relatives were due to have breakfast in the Cinnamon – our family’s favourite hotel. Thankfully they changed their plans. 

Too Close to Home

As a Sri Lankan, now naturalised Irish citizen living in Dublin for nearly 20 years, I am accustomed to the familiar terror of hearing of senseless acts of violence from my home country. But after a decade of peace, I had hoped that our troubles were behind us.

Although I was born in Italy to Sri Lankan parents, I lived in Sri Lanka’s largest city Colombo from 1984 to 1995, from the age of 12 until I was 21.

During this time I lost family and friends to terrorist attacks and witnessed the massacre of innocent lives. Just like other children growing up in war-torn countries I tried to navigate my teenage years amidst curfews, army checkpoints and sporadic bomb attacks.

I attended mass every Sunday with my grandparents and parents at St Anthony Shrine, which is one of the churches that were targeted in the attacks.

The Cinnamon Grand Hotel, a luxury hotel that was targeted, is our family’s favourite hotel, I stayed in it less than a year ago on my last visit.

My uncle and aunt, as well as my cousin with his wife and their 11-year-old daughter, were meant to have breakfast there on Easter morning.

Thankfully they opted to go for lunch instead and escaped the attack. The manager who took their reservation died in the bomb blast.

Two further explosions were reported later as the police searched for suspects.

This is by far the deadliest attack that the country has experienced since the end of the civil war in 2009. That war lasted 26 years and was between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers.

Sri Lanka has declared a state of emergency, and yesterday was declared a national day of mourning with mass funerals taking place for the victims.

Police have made more than 40 arrests and have enlisted the assistance of Interpol, the FBI and the Australian Police in an effort to contain the situation and find the people responsible.

Celebration of Diversity of Religion and Ethnicity

The population of Sri Lanka is 22 million people and the country is home to four major religions, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

The vast majority of the time the four religions live side by side and all join in to mark all religious celebrations and festivals.

It is very common to hear Buddhist monks chanting in the Buddhist temple while hearing the Muslim call for prayer and the chiming of bells from the local church and the Hindu temple simultaneously. 

Sri Lanka is also home to multiple ethnicities, the Sinhalese and Tamil being the major ones and the Burghers and the Malays being smaller groups. Sinhalese, Tamil and English are the official languages with all public signage displayed in all three languages.

Although this all sounds idyllic, not all diversity is celebrated as homosexuality is yet to be decriminalised.

This was the major reason why I was forced to emigrate in search of a country like Ireland where I could live an authentic life as a proud lesbian.

Sri Lanka and the Media

There have been numerous reports that the Sri Lankan Government was aware of an impending attack and just last January the authorities apprehended a group with 100kg of explosives and 90 detonators.

Like many Sri Lankans, I am outraged that the government didn’t take these signs seriously enough to warn the public.

I am concerned that warning signs may have been intentionally ignored in the interest of preserving Sri Lanka’s image of being a perfect tropical holiday destination.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Sri Lanka also issued a ban on social media which is a painful reminder of its long history of media censorship when journalists including my cousin, Richard de Zoysa, were murdered by Sri Lankan death squads.

Richard was killed 29 years ago because he refused to compromise his integrity as a journalist. 

Press freedom has been a long-standing problem in Sri Lanka as journalists are often forced to exercise self-censorship to survive.

Although my career as a journalist began in Colombo it was short lived as I was advised to conceal my sexuality if I wanted to have a successful career.

History of Conflict Repeating Itself

The civil war ended in 2009 after a large-scale operation by the Sri Lankan army that defeated the Tamil Tigers.

According to the United Nations in the last stage of the war, there were as many as 40,000 people killed.

Like many Sri Lankans, I was shocked and ashamed by how the civil war ended – as many of the issues around the systematic prejudice and discrimination that led to the civil war remain unaddressed to this day.

There was no meaningful resolution found to the conflict. Instead there was just horrific and unimaginable violence that resulted in the massacre of thousands of civilians.

As I write this article I am struggling to keep my hope for peace alive in Sri Lanka, as well as in Ireland due to the recent shocking killing of the journalist, Lyra McKee.

“We need to have conversations. Difficult conversations,” Lyra said in her TEDx Stormont Women Talk – because without them meaningful resolutions and lasting peace will not be possible.

I hope and pray for my people in Sri Lanka during this challenging time – that instead of resorting to more violence they will find the courage to have those difficult conversations and pave the way for an inclusive, compassionate and peaceful nation.

Dil Wickremasinghe is the Co-Founder of Insight Matters, psychotherapy, counselling and wellness services and podcaster of “Insight Matters – Inspiring Change in Self & Society”. 

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Dil Wickremasinghe

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