People carry a coffin during a mass for victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on April 23 2019. Picture: REUTERS/THOMAS PETER
People carry a coffin during a mass for victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on April 23 2019. Picture: REUTERS/THOMAS PETER

Negombo — Devastated relatives collapsed into the arms of bystanders at memorial services on Tuesday, as Sri Lankans mourned the worst violence since the end of a civil war a decade ago.

“We haven’t felt this sad since the war,” said Rashmi Fernando, who was attending a service at St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, one of three hit in the Sunday attacks.

“I lost three cousins in the attack and another one is in ICU,” said Fernando, who was with her daughters, aged three and eight.  “We’re here to pay our respects and pray that my injured cousin will recover.”

At least 310 people were killed after suicide bomb blasts ripped through three hotels and three churches as worshippers attended Easter services on Sunday. On Tuesday, they were remembered with three minutes of silence that started at 8.30am local time, the exact time the first of six bombs detonated.

Inside St Sebastian’s, evidence of the bomb blast was still everywhere, with parts of broken religious statues and smashed pews littering the floor. Services were held in the grounds, where more than a thousand people had gathered by mid-morning to remember the victims.

The atmosphere was heavy with grief. A first coffin, containing the body of a woman, was brought into the grounds. Her husband, an elderly man, stood beside the flower-topped coffin and wept uncontrollably.

‘Rest in peace’

A steady stream of coffins were then brought into the area for services, one at a time, as relatives looked on. Some sobbed in the arms of loved ones, others stood aghast and in shock. 

Sheben Mel said he had come to show support for the community. “This is a village and we all help each other. When the tsunami hit in 2004 lots of people also came here like this to pay their respects.”

On the gates of the church, groups hung banners with Bible passages written in Sinhala and English. “May the risen Lord shower down his love and consolation on all,” read one. “May the departed souls rest in peace enfolded in His love.”

More people are believed to have died in the blast at St Sebastian’s than any of the five other attacks on churches and hotels, with the local hospital receiving more than 100 bodies.

A shoe of a victim is seen in front of the St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka on April 21 2019. Picture: REUTERS/DINUKA LIYANAWATTE
A shoe of a victim is seen in front of the St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka on April 21 2019. Picture: REUTERS/DINUKA LIYANAWATTE

‘It’s beyond words’

Mourning was also being observed at St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, a historic Catholic church that was targeted on Sunday.

Security was heavy, a day after a new explosive found by police detonated near the church before the bomb squad could defuse it. Black and white banners were hung up along the street en route to the church as a symbol of mourning.

Sadhurshrini Sivakumar, a schoolgirl, said she had come to pay tribute to the victims. A Hindu, she visited the church often because it is near her house. “I liked going to the church, I found it relaxing,” she said. “Being here, I feel very sad. I feel afraid living so nearby.”

Father Jude Fernando, the church’s chief priest for the past five years, was at the scene when the blast happened. “It’s beyond words to explain what happened,” he said. “It’s the first time I heard a sound like that. I saw people screaming, injured, bodies [on the ground].”

He said the church had suffered extensive damage and no one would be allowed inside for now. “I urge people to continue to pray," he said. “What we lost, we can’t get back.”

AFP