Thursday 23 May 2019

'The priest came out and he was drenched in blood and seemed to be covered in someone else's skin'

Blast: Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard inside the destroyed remains of St Sebastian’s Church at Katuwapitiya in Negombo. Photo: Getty
Blast: Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard inside the destroyed remains of St Sebastian’s Church at Katuwapitiya in Negombo. Photo: Getty

Nicola Smith

Worshippers had just begun to celebrate when the first of eight deadly blasts shattered the early morning calm on Easter Sunday.

The carnage began at 8.45am as the deadliest of the explosions ripped through the packed pews of St Sebastian's Church in Negombo, a city about 30km north of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, destroying the altar and religious icons and blowing off the roof to reveal the heavens above.

In the blast's aftermath, dozens of dazed survivors scrambled through rubble and broken tiles, some reaching towards the bloodied bodies in a desperate attempt to offer help, while others stared in a state of confusion at the shrapnel-damaged walls.

Photographs of the scenes were posted to the church's Facebook page with a gut-wrenching plea: "A bomb attack at our church pleas [sic] come and help if your family are there," it said.

People gather outside St Anthony’s Shrine, a day after a blast in Colombo (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)
People gather outside St Anthony’s Shrine, a day after a blast in Colombo (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)

As the wail of emergency sirens began to fill the air in Negombo, worshippers at St Anthony's Shrine in Colombo and Zion Church in the eastern city of Batticaloa were unaware they were about to face the same fate.

At St Anthony's, where multiple people died and at least 160 were injured, witnesses fought through black smoke and debris as they rushed to help.

"It was a river of blood," said NA Sumanapala, a shopkeeper. "The priest came out and he was drenched in blood and he seemed be covered in someone else's skin,'' he said in horrifying detail.

However, the day's slaughter was not yet over. Four hotels in the capital, including the high-end Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand, were next on the attackers' hit list, in an apparent attempt to also draw foreigners into their crosshairs. At the Cinnamon Grand, guests unwittingly stood in line behind their attacker as they queued for the breakfast buffet, the hotel's manager said.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

The man, who had checked in the previous night under an apparent false name, held a plate and was just about to be served when he detonated explosives strapped to his body, setting off devastation in the busy restaurant.

"There was utter chaos," the manager said. "It was busy, it was families."

A woman lights a candle at a vigil for the victims of bomb explosions in churches and hotels in Sri Lanka (Mohammad Sajjad/AP)
A woman lights a candle at a vigil for the victims of bomb explosions in churches and hotels in Sri Lanka (Mohammad Sajjad/AP)

"He came up to the top of the queue and set off the blast," the manager added. "One of our managers who was welcoming guests was among those killed instantly."

Visible damage, including shattered windows and hanging electrical wires, could be seen at the hotels, which were quickly surrounded by police. In a statement, the Shangri-La said it was "deeply saddened and shocked" to confirm that an explosion rocked its Table One cafe at 9.05am.

A tourist told ABC News she had been eating breakfast at the hotel's second-floor restaurant when two blasts struck 10 seconds apart.

"There was just screaming and everywhere I looked there was blood," she said, adding that the area had been full of visitors, including children.

Blast: Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard inside the destroyed remains of St Sebastian’s Church at Katuwapitiya in Negombo. Photo: Getty
Blast: Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard inside the destroyed remains of St Sebastian’s Church at Katuwapitiya in Negombo. Photo: Getty

"Everyone was just hiding trying to work out what had just happened."

Shantha Mayadume, a popular Sri Lankan television chef, and her daughter Nilanga Mayadume, were two of the first confirmed victims. The majority of the dead were Sri Lankan, but several nationalities were among the victims, a reflection of the South Asian island nation's growing popularity as a tourist destination.

Blood stains are seen on the wall and on a Jesus Christ statue at the St Sebastian’s Church (AP)
Blood stains are seen on the wall and on a Jesus Christ statue at the St Sebastian’s Church (AP)

At least one person was killed in the Cinnamon Grand, near the prime minister's official residence.

Upstairs, Julian Emmanuel and his family, from Surrey, in England, were woken by the bomb.

"We were in our room and heard a large explosion. There were ambulances, fire crews, police sirens," he told the BBC.

A Sri Lankan man walks across a deserted street during a curfew after the attacks (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)
A Sri Lankan man walks across a deserted street during a curfew after the attacks (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)
An elderly woman is helped near St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)
An elderly woman is helped near St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

"We were told there had been a bomb. Staff said some people were killed. One member of staff told me it was a suicide bomber," he added as the family awaited updates.

Across the island, panic set in and churches halted or cancelled Easter services.

Foreigners were told by their embassies to shelter in place.

Relatives gather outside a hospital in Colombo (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)
Relatives gather outside a hospital in Colombo (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

As the death toll rose above 200, including at least 27 foreigners, the island was placed in lockdown. James Dauris, Britain's High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, urged British citizens on the island to inform their families whether they were safe.

Amid heightened public nervousness, the government shut down access to social media networks, including Facebook and WhatsApp, to prevent misinformation.

However, the temporary calm was broken by two afternoon blasts in a hotel in the southern Colombo suburb of Dehiwala and in a home in the northern suburb of Orugodawatta, as police closed in on the terrorist group behind the attacks.

Three officers were killed during the arrest of seven suspects.

With few details about the perpetrators and their motives, a sense of unease settled on Colombo as night drew in and a 12-hour curfew came into force.

Yesterday's bloodshed was a traumatic turn after a decade of hard-won peace since the end of a civil war with ethnic minority Tamils fighting for an independent homeland, during which 70,000- 80,000 people were killed.

The attacks did not share the modus operandi of the civil war, which was not religiously motivated. And while the targeting of Christians and foreigners bore the hallmarks of Islamist groups, Islamic extremism is virtually unknown on the majority-Buddhist island of 22 million, where Muslims have faced recent persecution.

Security analysts speculated that Sri Lanka could have been seen as a soft target for attacks.

Ten days earlier, Pujuth Jayasundara, Sri Lanka's police chief, made a nationwide alert that suicide bombers planned to hit "prominent churches", reported AFP.

The warning, reportedly from "a foreign intelligence agency", predicted that attacks would be carried out by the National Thowheeth Jama'ath, a radical Muslim group that emerged in 2018 when it was linked to the vandalisation of Buddhist statues.

As the nation struggled for answers, Mangala Samaraweera, the finance minister, said: "The bombings are not the doings of a fanatical individual. It's obviously a highly co-ordinated attempt to create murder, mayhem and anarchy." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News