I was five months pregnant and on holiday in Sri Lanka with my husband and 21-month-old son when the coronavirus restrictions started to ramp up.
Sri Lanka began its lockdown before the UK did, even though it only had a handful of cases. The day we left the country, all the national parks, schools and public offices shut their doors. We were lucky to catch one of the last flights home.
Coronavirus has hit at a difficult time for Sri Lanka, as its tourism industry was just beginning to recover from last year’s Easter Sunday terror attacks when Islamist extremists bombed three Christian churches and three major hotels, killing 259 people and injuring more than 500.
I visited the church on one particularly hot and humid morning to pay my respects. Most memorable – and shocking – is the small statue of Jesus which has been placed behind glass near to the altar: the blood of people who were injured or killed is still splattered across it.
Along with a section of damaged floor and wall, it has been preserved as a sobering reminder of the destruction caused when a bomb was detonated there during Easter Sunday Mass. On that fateful day, pews were crowded with worshippers – 115 people were killed in St Sebastian’s, including 27 children, one of whom was an eight-month-old baby.
Outside the church I spoke to 21-year-old Dinesh*. He was at university in Colombo when the bomb was detonated, but rushed back to his hometown and his family, who had been attending the mass service. He told me his mother and family were at the church. His brother was taken to hospital with a shrapnel wound to his leg and thankfully survived. He had just got a visa to work in New Zealand, but had to cancel the trip because of his injuries. As with many others, losing the family’s primary earner was a huge blow.
All St Sebastian’s parishioners were touched in some way by the tragic events: almost all knew someone who was killed. People are still struggling to move on and understandably so – particularly those who lost their whole families.
The social arm of the Catholic church in the country has been helping families to recover – including with counselling and medical support. It has been supported by the UK aid agency Cafod, which has also worked with local organisations to spread messages of peace and harmony and try to calm some of the anger which flared up following the blasts – especially in Negombo.
There was massive shock at the time as to why churches were targeted, particularly when Christians are a minority, making up just 7 per cent of the country’s population. Christians in Sri Lanka cross the ethnic divide that has caused much of the conflict between communities over the last few decades – there are both Sinhalese and Tamil Christians.
While on a personal level people might have started to forgive – many guided by calls from faith leaders – the attacks left their mark across the whole country.
Politically, perceived failure on behalf of the then government to prevent the attacks opened the door for the country’s new president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was elected last November.
In his campaign he presented himself as a strong leader who could restore national security and prioritise the interests of the ethnic majority. But his involvement as defence secretary during Sri Lanka’s civil war means his appointment has alarmed many of the country’s minorities.
Meanwhile Sri Lanka’s economy grew by less than three per cent in 2019 – its lowest rate in decades. Prior to the attacks, tourism was Sri Lanka’s third largest foreign exchange source. After the bombings most hotels in Sri Lanka had to shut – some for up to nine months.
At the start of 2020, tourists – including my family – had started to return. I felt safe throughout the trip, with the only heart-in-mouth moments being the close shaves as tuk tuk drivers darted in and out of traffic around us. The town centre of Negombo was bustling, but not far away its long sandy beaches provided a relaxing escape.
Sadly, Negombo – whose residents rely on tourism and fishing – continues to suffer from the aftermath of the terror attacks. Our driver told me how tour companies now tend to use its beachside hotels as a transit location, rather than for longer stays. In fact, everywhere we went hotels were desperate for a return to normality and longer stays from tourists.
Now, coronavirus has brought the tourism Sri Lanka relies upon to a grinding halt. For the second time within one year.
My trip to Sri Lanka reassured me that despite the terrible bombings, nothing has changed in terms of what the country has to offer tourists – from lush green hills to Buddhist temples and sandy beaches.
Guarantees of peace and security will be needed to ensure tourists return, but these mustn’t be at the expense of the country’s minority groups. The work of local organisations to promote harmony between communities will be pivotal to ensuring this.
I just hope Sri Lanka is still focused on building peace when we emerge from the coronavirus outbreak, so it can bounce back for a second time.
*names have been changed to protect identity.
Laura Ouseley is world news officer at Cafod.
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