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The Easter Attack Survivors Project: Survivors become voices for positive change

  • Advocating for non-violence, reconciliation, and social justice

“We have now come to realise that telling the life stories of the victims of the attack gives a sense of joy to the survivors. They enjoy talking about the colourful lives of their loved ones, and providing them with an appropriate platform to do this feels like the least we can do as a society,” said the young changemakers. 

On 21 April 2019, 269 lives were gone in a matter of a few minutes, and the sounds of explosions are the only memories that echo in all Sri Lankans’ hearts. It was Easter Sunday, a celebratory moment for a community within Sri Lanka. But now, it remains a tragic day.

Keeping that in mind, in January 2021, a group of youths in Sri Lanka came together to launch a project that will give hope to all the people who faced this tragedy in 2019. 

The Easter Attack Survivors Project (EASP) is a dynamic group of volunteers emerging from all religious communities and localities in Sri Lanka. They have over 40 volunteer members who gathered to benefit this cause, including professionals who have directly worked with the survivors in the post-Easter attack climate. 

The voluntary organisation is headed by three co-leads representing the three ethnicities of Sri Lanka: Aamina Muhsin, Seth Ganepola, and Lughadarini Yogarajah.

As the team is very passionate about reconciliation between communities that have suffered conflict, EASP as a cause is headed by youth representatives of the three main ethnicities in the island. 

“We want to ensure that Sri Lanka never again witnesses a terrorist attack, and with the help of the survivors, advocate for non-violence, reconciliation, and social justice in this country,” say Muhsin, Ganepola, and Yogarajah. 

“We are fortunate to have the support of the Catholic Church, counterterrorism expert Prof. Rohan Gunaratna who is on our team, and GPI (Global Peace Institute Sri Lanka Chapter; EASP is a project under the GPI) Director Ashan Malalasekera, and many other individuals we receive input and guidance from,” said Muhsin.

“Sri Lanka is no stranger to inter-community conflict. For 30 years, the country suffered a terrible civil war that caused an immense loss of lives and loved ones. Following the end of the war, up to date, there is no platform to document the stories of those that survived the war and lost family members. We didn’t want to make the same mistake with what happened in 2019. For the purpose of never repeating history again, we decided to create a website (www.easterattacksurvivors.org) wherein the stories of the survivors will be accessible to the general public if and when the survivors wish to share them,” Muhsin added. 

Initially, the written accounts of the survivors were published on the website, and later the team moved on to interviewing the survivors in video format. The video series has been a buzzing topic within the community, and it has brought tears in the eyes of the viewers. 

“We are grateful to His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith for his leadership and Rev. Fr. Prasad for getting on board and working with us. From our volunteers, Nahdiya Nasoordeen formed the concept behind this series; if not for her ideas, this series would not have come to fruition. Our thanks also goes to Shifani Reffai, a professional filmmaker who agreed to do this for us free of charge; Sherwan for his willingness to help from the beginning; and Dinuka Perera, an aspiring priest in the Archdiocese of Colombo, for his assistance, which we all treasure. Our sincere thanks to everyone who helped with the behind-the-scenes work and translated really long interviews, including Deshani Samaragunarathna, Mithma de Silva, Adnaan Sabireen, Gloriya George, Mehdi Hassan, Zarka Nathak Ain, Erandi Ponnamperuma, and Shaheer Ahamed. Our sincere thanks to our entire team of volunteers who have come together to contribute to this cause,” the team at EASP said. 

The first season was mainly carried out with Easter attack survivors from the Katuwapitiya area. By the end of the first season, they had completed six videos with individual survivors and their families. 

“In terms of reaching out to the public, we’ve seen quite extraordinary statistics and numbers. We currently use platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to reach out to the community. The project has received so much engagement and support from different groups throughout,” said Ganepola. 

“For instance, the official trailer of the series itself garnered more than 100,000 views overnight. The feedback we have received from the public has been predominantly positive and we are continuously striving to build up on constructive feedback,” he added.

It was learnt that the project was initiated with the objective of providing a single platform for the Easter attack survivors to tell their stories and listen to others who have gone through similar experiences.  

The interviews of the survivors of Gloriya George, Anusha Kumari, Rupika and Afra, Sushantha, Malka and Sithmi, Chandima, and Thasleem made the viewers appreciate the lives spent by the victims of the Easter attack and explored the joyful moments of their lives with their loved ones before the devastating incident. 

The organisation expects to provide the survivors the freedom to share the stories of their loved ones, whom they had lost to this unfortunate incident. 

“The expectation was to memorialise the victims of the attack that transpired on 21 April 2019. Not just the survivors; we expect the public to understand the repercussions of violence and disharmony,” added Ganepola. 

“Through advocacy via sharing stories and the initiation of a dialogue on peacebuilding in Sri Lanka, we wish to engage the survivors in this national project in educating, raising awareness, and reconciliation,” said Ganepola. 

EASP has already completed the initial phase of its “Survivors Speak Video Series” with the survivors who endured the attack that took place at the St. Sebastian’s Church, Negombo. The second and third phases of the project are to be completed in the coming months with survivors from Colombo (and its suburbs) and Batticaloa. The “Foreign Survivors Interview Series” is a parallel project that was envisioned by the core team to extend the reach of the EASP from its local audience to a wider range of individuals from other countries who were affected by the brutal attacks that transpired on 21 April 2019.

“We hope the viewers will be able to disseminate a positive message to the world by creating awareness and building strong platforms to initiate a productive dialogue that could change the hearts and minds and actively influence state policies to address the root causes of the problem,” said Yogaraja.

Understanding what these survivors are undergoing is integral to providing them the support they deserve. In giving them a platform to express themselves collectively, the organisation intends to create a “community” for the survivors.

The main objective is to instil hope in the survivors. The team believes the survivors can become great voices for positive change in Sri Lanka and that they can play a phenomenal role in preventing any future threats of terrorism. They also intend to raise awareness on a large scale of the stories and lives of the survivors post the Easter attack. 

The pain of the survivors is heavy and the devastation caused to them is inestimable. The “Survivors Speak” series of short documentaries takes the viewer through the survivor’s life – their loss, pain, and coping mechanisms, their thoughts on harmony in Sri Lanka pre- and post-Easter attacks, as well as their hopes for Sri Lanka’s journey forward.  

“The series made everyone watching it understand how the survivors coped with their losses right after the attack, as they answered tough questions and spoke about death, pain, race, religion, and survival, and, in return, asked even more tough questions,” added Yogarajah.

The team is grateful to all the viewers who have continuously supported them by building awareness of the survivor community through actively spreading the word, thereby contributing to reconciliation and peacebuilding efforts in Sri Lanka. The team believes that every citizen can play a part in paying homage to this most patient and excellent community of survivors by aiding in healing, rebuilding, and reconciliation between all communities.

Website: www.easterattacksurvivors.org 

Instagram: @Easterattacksurvivorsproject 

Facebook: EasterAttackSurvivorsProject 

YouTube: EasterAttackSurvivorsProject