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A Sri Lankan woman holds a photograph of a lost loved one in Colombo on Monday. Photo: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Sri Lankan woman holds a photograph of a lost loved one in Colombo on Monday. Photo: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images)

SocietyApril 24, 2019

From Christchurch to Colombo

A Sri Lankan woman holds a photograph of a lost loved one in Colombo on Monday. Photo: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Sri Lankan woman holds a photograph of a lost loved one in Colombo on Monday. Photo: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images)

A year ago Chamanthie Sinhalage was in Sri Lanka, where she had travelled from New Zealand for her wedding. Today, she is coming to terms with a horrific terrorist attack in her birth country, just a few weeks after the atrocity in Christchurch.

Last month, as the scale of the Christchurch mosque shootings started to emerge, I sent a private Twitter message to a fellow Kiwi Sri Lankan, which read:

Is this bringing you …war in Sri Lanka flashbacks too? I’m finding this hard to process.

As the death toll in Christchurch rose, so did the sickening feeling of having been here before. It was the same feeling I felt on the weekend, when the first headlines of bomb blasts in Sri Lanka began to appear on my newsfeed.

While the perpetrators, locations and targets were different, the themes seemed to be the same: radicalisation, gaps in national intelligence, places of congregation and community, the intentional infliction of fear.

On the 21st of April 2018, a year to the day before what is now being called the Easter Sunday Massacre, Sri Lanka was trending at number two on New Zealand’s Twittersphere, thanks to a group of prolific Kiwi tweeters who had flown over to Sri Lanka to celebrate the wedding my husband and I had spent a year planning.

On our first wedding anniversary, Sri Lanka was trending again and, this time, it was worldwide as a series of bomb blasts rocked churches and hotels in several parts of the country. In just 24 hours, the death toll would rise to 290.

As with the Christchurch attacks, the whodunnit question was quickly on everyone’s lips.

On various private Sri Lankan chatter channels, the speculation started early:

<It couldn’t have been LTTE [the Tamil Tigers]. Not their style > 

<Well, it can’t be the Sinhalese Buddhists. They couldn’t do one thing on time, let alone six>

Which enemy was it this time? It was a legitimate question to be asking.

The Easter Sunday attacks were a cruel thing to inflict on a country that has been ravaged by so much: a failed Marxist revolution, three decades of sustained terrorism and guerrilla warfare, and a devastating tsunami – and that’s only counting the things that have happened to Sri Lanka in just my lifetime.

I suspect, however, that “cruel” was exactly what the perpetrators were looking to achieve.

Many Sri Lankans you meet in New Zealand – whether they and you know it or not – carry with them the inherited trauma and baggage that comes from being from a country that has yet to deal with the aftermath of nearly five centuries of colonisation by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British.

Our last masters, The British Raj, left in 1948, and 71 years has not been long enough for us to truly sort our shit out. The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka – Asia’s oldest democracy and the home of the world’s first female prime minister–- has yet to successfully come to grips with how to administer rule of law in a country that is a true melting pot of ethnicities and religions. Some would say the problem is that too many consecutive Sri Lankan governments have succumbed to the temptations of nationalism.

To this day, I could not tell you the good guys from the bad guys, when it comes to Sri Lanka. The government and the majority are not without blood on their hands. For example, the events of Black July in 1983 sit as a shameful and dark mark on those who were supposed to stand for all people of Sri Lanka.

At the same time, as a teenager in Auckland in the 2000s, I had to learn to live with a New Zealand government that allowed groups that intended to target and kill Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka, to fundraise for their cause here in Aotearoa.

As young Sinhalese-Sri Lankans in New Zealand, the message from our families was clear: don’t bother the white people with our problems. Put your head down and work hard to be twice as good as them. That’s why we came to this land.

Being Sri Lankan is a complicated thing. When we are around non-Sri Lankans, many of us go to great pains not to let you in on the full scale of it. It’s probably part of the resilience we have built over time. Instead, we will tell you about our beautiful sandy beaches, our 2,500 year-old written history and most likely, we will still talk about our 1996 Cricket World Cup win. We are a smiling, hospitable people.

We all have our stories and memories, though. For most of the 1990s and the early 2000s, my brother and I spent two to three months of every year in Sri Lanka. My own memories include narrowly missing a deadly Colombo bomb blast by an hour, a family member missing the bloody World Trade Centre massacre because he had decided to break his morning routine, and another missing a bus bomb.

It became normal to be stuck in traffic behind truck-loads of young men, going north to the war to fight the insurgents who didn’t respect the gentlemanly rules of warfare. Some of the young men would wave to you, excited for the prospect of adventure and the state welfare their families would receive. Some just looked small and scared. It also became normal to see trucks coming back from the north, piled high with bags of bodies – casualties of a war that no one was able to remember who started.

In 2009, the Sri Lanka Army conclusively defeated the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Elam – at one time the deadliest terrorist group in the world, and the pioneers of the suicide bomb. What has followed has been a slow but steady process of rebuilding, piece by piece, a country that has never quite known itself without conqueror or challenge.

Over the last decade, the Sri Lankan economy has begun to revive itself and the tourism industry has gone from strength to strength. For a new generation of school children, the recent wars are a thing of history books. The only thing that hasn’t gotten better seems to be the cricket.

For me, personally, my relationship with my birth country in my 20s has been about introducing various groups of Kiwi friends to Sri Lanka, revelling in the amazement of finally being able to travel freely around the island without fear or restriction – something that had not been possible since my parents were children.

It has been like New Zealand.

In the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch attacks, I found it hard to articulate to my Pākehā friends how the emotions I felt were different to theirs. For many here, it was a loss of innocence in the belief that their country was a safe haven. For me, it was a stark reminder of what the world could be if you took your eyes off the ball even for a second.

Terrorism doesn’t just fester and grow in those faraway unfortunate and complicated developing countries. Radicalisation, whatever form it takes – white supremacy, separatist insurgency, Sinhalese nationalism, Jihadism or, as was the case for my parents’ generation, Marxism – has the ability to expose some of society’s deepest ugliness.

Now, three days on, headlines are starting to emerge questioning whether the Sri Lanka attacks may be retaliation for the Christchurch massacre.

Personally, I don’t have answers – only an ability to say to my New Zealand-born friends and adopted whanau that the silver lining here is that we can relate to one another on a deeper, albeit sadder, level than before. For my husband and me and the friends and family who celebrated with us on that last peaceful 21st April, there is no doubt this will be a date that remains bittersweet for years to come.

Keep going!