Focus/Spotlight

Easter attacks: Three months on…

By Sarah Hannan in Batticaloa

Pictures by Lalith Perera

Today marks the third month since the Easter Sunday attacks. While the buildings that were damaged by the attacks are being reconstructed to their former states, mending the hearts and minds of the people who witnessed those gory scenes prove difficult and they continue to live with the trauma.

While many of the attacks took place in and around the commercial capital of Sri Lanka, the bombing that took place at the Zion Church in Batticaloa was the most traumatic one. Though the casualties and the deaths reported from that end were comparatively few, it was tragic to learn that 14 children died as a result of the explosions.

Slow progress in recovery

The Sunday Morning visited Batticaloa and met with Rev. Roshan Mahesan to understand how the recovery process was taking shape. At the time of the attack, Rev. Mahesan had been out of the country and as soon as he arrived in Sri Lanka, he had made necessary arrangements to assist families that were in distress.

“With the grace of God, many of our devotees that were in hospital have been discharged from the hospital after treatment. There is one more lady who is being treated at a private hospital, according to the wishes of her family, and I am told that she is receiving physiotherapy. They are planning to keep her at the hospital until the physiotherapy sessions are completed.”

According to Rev. Mahesan, the church had made arrangements to transfer some of the critical patients to the National Hospital in Colombo, the Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children in Colombo, and the Jayewardenepura Hospital in Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte for specialist care.

“Most of these transfers took place after seeking a second opinion on the victim’s health. The Batticaloa Hospital was not in a position to handle certain types of injuries that were caused by shrapnel. Even the patient that was admitted to a private hospital had shrapnel removed from her skull following her admission. The government hospital refused to remove these shrapnel, saying that it was too risky.”
When inquired about the delay in commencing the reconstruction of the church, Rev. Mahesan stated that he trusts that the Government would look into the matter. “The Government informed us that they would look into the reconstruction of the church. I personally requested for Army assistance in reconstruction work. The estimated damages for the building stand at Rs. 28 million and when it reaches completion, we might have to spend close to Rs. 37 million.”

Upon reaching the church site, we observed that there were just five Army personnel at work and though we wanted to speak to them in person, they were reluctant to comment on the progress. By the looks of it, the entire structure was coming down, as the soldiers were drilling into the foundation of the old church structure to make room for a newer floor plan. What we noticed was that there was only one way someone could enter or exit the church premises, and the rescue work that took place on 21 April would have been done with great difficulty.

Losing the youngest

Many families that were affected were tired of relating their story and recapping the incidents, yet we managed to speak to a family that lost their youngest child following the explosions.
“Our daughter would have celebrated her third birthday on 12 July. It feels like a terrible nightmare from which we still have not woken up,” Surenthirakumar informed.

“It still seems like a nightmare. Bodies were strewn across the entrance. I saw that our son was safe and then I asked my wife who was inside the church where our daughter was. She had just let go of her because she wanted to go see her brother, and that was when the explosion occurred.”

At this point, Surenthirakumar was tending to the others that were injured and he was rushing them to the hospital. He had asked his wife Jayanthimala to look for their daughter. “It all happened so fast, I was under the impression that by that time, she would have managed to get to her brother. But, when my husband told me that he didn’t see Amshika with our son Adarva outside, I got worried. I went to the church garden and looked for her.”

When Jayanthimala located Amshika, she assumed that she had just fainted from the impact. At first glance, she did not see any visible wounds on her daughter. She had then picked her off the ground; it was at that moment she noticed that Amshika was bleeding from the left side of her hip.
“I immediately called for help and one person arrived on a bike. We took her to the hospital. She was immediately taken in to the Intensive Care Unit and the medical staff did their best for 40 minutes, but unfortunately, we lost her.”

Adarva is just eight years old and he is still traumatised by the events that unfolded that day. The siblings had been really close, and Jayanthimala informed that he is still grieving his sister’s death. We were told that Adarva had diabetes and they administered insulin three times a day, which requires one parent to constantly be with him at home.

We inquired as to how they are managing with the medical bills, to which Surenthirakumar responded that the Government hospital can only provide a limited amount of insulin per patient and the rest needs to be purchased from elsewhere.

Since 21 April, Brandix had undertaken the payment of Adarva’s medical bills for a period of six months. Surenthirakumar also noted that the Government had already settled 90% of the compensation and the rest of the 10% would be given to them upon receiving the death certificate.

Caretaker no more

Sasikumar had moved to Batticaloa along with his wife and two children in 2013, and since then, they had been attending the Zion Church. Today, only his wife and daughter survive, following the deadly bombings.

“We moved from Pottuvil to Batticaloa in 2013. My husband invested in a scrap metal business and was hoodwinked by his business partner at the time. Even when we were in Pottuvil, I had heard about the Zion Church and how it had assisted many struggling families to come up in life. So after we moved here, we all started to attend the church,” Chandrika informed.

On that fateful day, Sasikumar was one of the few people who had attempted to stop the bomber from entering the church. Since it was Easter, the church had already been packed and there had been people that were standing outside the church premises as well. “My husband usually stays outside and he is the one who ushers people in. Each Sunday, we see new faces and when a newcomer arrives, he would habitually ask some questions from them to get to know them better.”

Chandrika stated that it was all a blur, and that she did not even hear the explosion as loud as it should have been. Following the impact, Sasikumar had died on the spot. Their son Meerujan who was 14 years of age too had died at the church premises.

“I was traumatised by the incident and could not even bring myself to go and identify their bodies at the morgue. Some of my family members went to identify their bodies. I am now left to bring up this daughter; since the passing of my husband and my son, my mother and my husband’s mother take turns to come and spend time with us.”

When we inquired about what she plans to do in the future, Chandrika informed that they did have a grocery shop, but since there was no one to conduct business, they had closed it down.
“I am still trying to come to terms with their deaths and I still have not thought of how I am going to support my daughter’s education. For now, I am grateful that our families are taking care of us.”

Donations

With many organisations stepping into assist the families that were affected, Rev. Mahesan informed that he had given instructions to channel the donations through the church.

“We highly appreciate these gestures of goodwill. But I was told that some family members were in fact misusing the donations that they were receiving from these organisations. Therefore, I informed all donors to keep me informed of the donations that they plan to make, so it could be proportionately allocated for families that need it the most.”

Rev. Mahesan also took the opportunity to thank organisations such as Sarvodaya, EASL, YMCA, Sri Lanka Red Cross, CEIRI, CARITAS, and Brandix for their generous donations towards the families that were affected by the Easter Sunday attacks.

He also noted that since the church was under construction, the prayers were now conducted in a rented hall in Batticaloa town.

“Due to the logistical issues, we are now limited to holding only the Sunday Mass as we rent out the hall for the day. Apart from that, the church was also looking into providing the required medicines and medical instruments to the Batticaloa Teaching Hospital on the days following the attacks. In the first week since the incident, we managed to purchase medicines and instruments worth Rs. 850,000 that were raised through private donations.”

Rev. Mahesan also informed that at the time of the explosion, there had been about 20 motorbikes that were parked inside the church premise and all of these bikes had caught fire because their fuel tanks had exploded due to the bomb.

“All these bikes too have been replaced and an organisation purchased new motorbikes and handed it over to the families.”

Counselling methods

Following such a tragic situation, the healthcare sector and the humanitarian aid sector have recommended conducting psychosocial counselling therapy sessions for the victims. While these programmes are conducted in Colombo and Negombo, we inquired from Rev. Mahesan whether his church attendees took part in such sessions.

“I am more in favour of biblical counselling, and our team of pastors and assistant pastors are conducting these sessions for the affected families. I am not that keen on forcing our worshippers to take part in psychosocial counselling therapy sessions.”


Psychosocial rehabilitation counselling

Following the tragic incident, the Government Agent of Batticaloa had activated its psychosocial forum with the support of the healthcare services staff at the Batticaloa Teaching Hospital.

“A group of specialists including psychiatrists, counsellors, and social workers conducted a rapid assessment of the people’s immediate and long-term psychosocial needs with the support of UNICEF,” UNICEF Child Protection Officer for Batticaloa S. Ravindran stated.

“Although we had to complete it fast, it was a comprehensive assessment including all family members. UNICEF provided technical support in addition to Rs. 1.5 million to complete the task so that we could do a thorough job and implement the most effective approach for promoting resilience and psychological wellbeing,” District Child Rights Promoting Officer V. Kugathasan added.

Moreover, UNICEF took responsibility for a key aspect of the action plan – the co-ordination of activities between different service providers ranging from officers of the National Child Protection Authority to Women Development Officers at the District Secretariat. Apart from that, they contributed medical equipment such as high-flow nasal cannulas for children and paediatric ventilators, amounting to the value of $ 91,297.

UNICEF further assisted the Ministry of Health to upgrade its Paediatric Intensive Care Units at the District General Hospital in Negombo and Teaching Hospital in Batticaloa, the Neurosurgical and Neurotrauma Intensive Care Unit, and Casualty Operation Theatre of the Accident Service at the National Hospital of Sri Lanka in Colombo.

Status in Colombo and Katuwapitiya:

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Dr. Sudharshani Fernadopulle stated that counselling centres have been set up for victims to seek assistance.

“Following the attacks, people are facing post-traumatic stress disorders and are experiencing fear psychosis. They are very sensitive to news and rumours which alert possible attacks and breaches of security.”

Dr. Fernandopulle also stressed that there have been some confusion on how the compensation needed to be allocated.

“The Office of Reparations will be allocating funds for medical assistance based on the extent of damages a person has suffered. But even the medical reports that are submitted with the claim forms are most often deciphered by a non-medical officer. Therefore, there are certain victims who are not properly compensated based on the extent of their damages.”

Meanwhile, referring to the services carried out in Katuwapitiya, Dr. Fernandopulle noted that counselling sessions were carried out by doctors which also include trauma therapy and play therapy for children. While nearly 150 people were injured in Katuwapitiya, about 40 of them were children.

Apart from that, the social action arm of the Archdiocese of Colombo – “Seth Saran” – with the assistance of Dialog Foundation, had set up life healing centres in Katuwapitiya and Colombo to provide psychosocial rehabilitation for affected families. The centre was visited by a team of certified counsellors that were led by National Family Apostolate Co-ordinator and Archdiocesan Family Apostolate Director Rev. Fr. Claude Nonis.

The life healing centres had implemented psychosocial rehabilitation programmes customised for different age categories to address their psychosocial issues such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. The centre located in close proximity to the affected families is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8.30 p.m.

During a recent media briefing, Auxiliary Bishop of Colombo Rev. J.D. Anthony Jayakody stated that funds totalling Rs. 350.7 million were received from donors following the Easter Sunday attacks.

“A total of 770 adults and children have benefitted from the counselling programmes that were carried out at the life healing centres during the weeks following the attacks. Funds were allocated to affected persons and not towards the renovation of buildings. Out of the Rs. 350.7 million that we received, Rs. 17 million was allocated for education assistance and Rs. 102.5 million was allocated towards the education of affected children till they reach the age of 19,” Bishop Jayakody informed.