When new faces are seen at the Zion evangelical church in Batticaloa, it is customary for the pastor to welcome them. As a healing church, it is open to non-Christians. Two years ago, on Easter Sunday morning, Assistant Pastor Ganeshamoorthy Thirukumaran held out his hand to a stranger but his handshake was rebuffed. However, the man gave his name as Omar. The pastor had duties at another church so he left, only to turn back when he heard that the Batticaloa church had been attacked; the man he had met earlier was the suicide bomber.
From then on the day was a blur so it was not until six in the evening that Pastor Thirukumaran learnt the devastating news – among the 14 children killed in the blast was his 12 year old son Shalom Malchiah, who had been attending the Sunday School.
Two years on, the pain of losing Shalom is still raw for the family. Their house is a shrine to the boy who played the trumpet, sang and painted and knew the Bible inside out. Particularly close to his father, Shalom would stay up until late at night while the pastor finished his duties at the church. Photographs of Shalom adorn the walls and his books, trophies and school T shirt are kept on display in a glass cupboard.
“It has been hard to go through these two years but many people have assisted us with funds for medical needs as well as counselling. Prayers from other churches have also helped us,” says Pastor Thirukumaran, a calm and gentle man who seems to have come to terms with his grief. Many companies and organizations came forward to help the community in its time of need.
Because of Covid-19, the bereaved have been unable to mourn their dead properly and this year, too, remembrances will be muted. The reconstruction of the destroyed church is incomplete. There are piles of rubble lying around and shrapnel holes in the remaining walls. A new roof has been constructed as a result of promises by the previous government and a sign on the gate says it is an army construction site. After the new government came into power, the work stopped. However, the outpouring of donations both locally and internationally has resulted in the construction of a bigger church in a different place complete with office space and a house for the pastor.
Before she lost her eyesight and some of her mobility, eight year old Debbie was a bright and lively child. “Debbie never walked, she was always running. She loved to tease her brother,” said her aunt and carer, Vadani Moses. Debbie has had innumerable operations on most parts of her body from her brain to her feet. As Debbie slowly recovers from her devasting injuries, her spirit is returning. She attends school and walks by herself while dealing with the loss of her parents who died in the blast.
But she questions why she cannot see, believing that Jesus has her eyes and will someday give them back to her. Vadani is hoping her niece can go to Canada for an operation to restore the sight in one eye. The other is irreparably damaged.
“We can never forget what happened. People were burning in front of our eyes,” says Vadani. Her sister Verlini, Debbie’s mother, was a pious woman who has worked for many years at the Zion church’s bookshop. Debbie’s father had been a train driver.
Vadani’s sister, 26 year old Rebecca Arasaratnam, suffered burns to most of her body. She bears the scars on her arms, legs and on her face. Her fingers are stiff and she moves with some difficulty. She was attending Bible college before the bombing and hopes to resume her studies soon. She still has five more operations to undergo.
For the time being, the family is coping with help from various companies and organizations providing funds for medical needs as well as counselling, which they find useful because it gives them a space in which to speak freely to an objective persons and express their grief and trauma.
“I want the children to have a good education and for my sister to get married,” says Vadani.
For Pastor Thirukumaran, it will difficult to have closure until he finds out who committed the atrocious acts. “My heart feels bad because I don’t know why these people did such a thing. Different stories keep coming up. We don’t know who was behind the attacks and until we find them, it is very dangerous for the country,” he says.
He wants the government to release the full report on the inquiry into the attacks and is suspicious as to why it has not been done already. After attending some sessions of the inquiry, Pastor Thirukumaran feels he has a right to know its findings. “The perpetrators are still out there and should be found,” he points out.
See excerpts from the interview below: