‘A curse’: Three years since Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka

Protesters at Colombo camp demand justice on the third anniversary of the devastating simultaneous bombings that killed nearly 270 people.

Colombo, Sri Lanka – Agnes Felician wears a sombre black dress, a simple silver cross her only adornment, as she joins the tail end of a group of Catholic protesters at Colombo’s iconic seafront protest venue, now dubbed “Gota Go Gama” (Gota Go Home Village).

Felician, 41, is among thousands of Sri Lankan protesters who have congregated daily since April 9 to demand President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, holding him responsible for the worst economic crisis the island nation is facing since its independence from Britain in 1948.

But on this day, April 17, Felician and her fellow protesters are also seeking justice for the victims of the devastating simultaneous bombings on Easter Sunday 2019, which ripped through three churches and as many hotels, killing nearly 270 people, including 45 foreign nationals from 14 countries – the worst such attack in Sri Lanka’s history.

“A curse has befallen this government. After the Easter Sunday bombings, nothing has worked for this country and the opportunist leaders are cursed. They have blood on their hands for their failure to deliver justice,” an emotional Felician, a school teacher, told Al Jazeera as she stood in front of the colonial-era presidential secretariat building.

Hundreds of churchgoers across Sri Lanka marked the third anniversary of the coordinated 2019 bombings that have been blamed on local armed groups allegedly affiliated with ISIL (ISIS) as family members of the victims joined the clergy in calling for justice and closure.

A trial of 25 men accused of plotting the bombings began in November last year but was adjourned in January to allow time for the indictments to be translated into the Tamil language, which the majority of the suspects speak.

Rajapaksa, who swept to power in the aftermath of the Easter bombings, pledged to cleanse the country of “all elements of terror” and promised an expedited probe into the incident.

But critics have faulted his administration for not pressing charges against former President Maithripala Sirisena, who was accused of not acting on an Indian intelligence report warning of the Easter Sunday bombings 17 days before they took place. Sirisena was also criticised for only ordering a probe into the bombings five months later.

Anger among the protesters over the acquittal of former police chief Pujith Jayasudara and former defence secretary Hemasiri Fernando, who were charged with crimes against humanity in failing to prevent the bombings despite warnings, is also mounting.

In recent months, however, the Sri Lankan Roman Catholic Church has criticised the government, questioning the investigation into the bombings.

Last month, while addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the head of Sri Lanka’s Catholic Church, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, called for a UN-led mechanism to probe the 2019 attacks, which he said earlier appeared to be purely the work of “Muslim extremists” but now suggested it was a “grand political plot”.

For the Sri Lankan government, already reeling under a crippling external debt burden and currently holding bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund, the protests over the Easter bombings have added to the pressure as they could cast Sri Lanka in a negative light on the international stage.

Sri Lanka’s economy hit rock bottom late last year. Last week, Colombo announced “soft defaulting” by suspending external debt payments in order to divert funds for essential purchases.

As the administration grapples with the financial and political crisis, dozens of angry protests are breaking out daily across the nation, away from the main protest venue in Colombo, demanding fuel, gas, food and medicine supplies.

The islandwide protests, now in their second week, have grabbed international attention, with Sri Lankans overseas convening similar protests in their adopted homes, demanding the president’s resignation and an audit of the assets of the powerful Rajapaksa family.

‘Our pain is enormous’

Meanwhile, at the protest camp in Colombo, Catholic protesters dressed as corpses – complete with dramatic makeup – symbolising the fate that befell worshippers three years ago.

“Do you know why we dressed up this way? We feel like death. Our pain is enormous, our families inconsolable,” Tanya Fernando, 39, who lost her sister-in-law to the bombing of the Katuwapitiya church in Negombo, told Al Jazeera.

“We lost our family members, friends and neighbours but we don’t know the truth about the bombings. There isn’t a day that passes by without mourning their loss. We are completely shattered by the lack of a genuine probe.”

Fernando said the protests demanding Gotabaya’s resignation is “divine retribution”.

The Easter Sunday bombings proved a watershed moment in Sri Lanka’s chequered social relations, driving a deep wedge between the Catholic and the Muslim minorities, who comprise nearly 7 and 10 percent of the country’s 22 million population respectively.

Buddhists of the ethnic Sinhala majority constitute more than 70 percent.

There was intense anger directed towards the Muslim community after the 2019 attacks, leading them to fear both reprisals and social ostracisation.

Sugunan Anthony, a 37-year-old churchgoer from Negombo who joined the protest, said the government tried to create divisions between the island’s Christians and Muslims.

“Think of the divisions they created using these incidents? Now we know why. The bombings were convenient to divide people and garner votes,” he told Al Jazeera.

After the attacks, Anthony said, Muslims were portrayed as the “enemies of our faith”. He said many Christians supported this administration in the belief that it would deliver justice and ensure the security of every citizen.

“The actual masterminds of the serial bombings are unknown and we suspect other sinister hands in addition to those who mounted the attacks,” he said.

“Justice for the murdered now appears elusive. We want the government to reveal the identities of the real masterminds and punish the top public officials who failed to ensure public safety.”

The bombings also rekindled memories of the island’s decades-long civil war with Tamil separatists that ended in 2009.

‘Extremists in every community’

Since the 2019 attacks that shattered the country’s already fragile social fabric, the Christian community’s focus has shifted towards the government.

“There are extremists in every community. We gather … to demand a new political path for the country. All of us are victims of this country’s divisive politics,” Dilshad Careem, a 22-year-old Muslim student from Kandy, told Al Jazeera.

“We believe majority Buddhists also want a peaceful existence. I support the Catholic protesters who want justice for Easter Sunday bombings and see it as part of this ongoing democracy struggle. The call to overhaul this divisive form of politics itself is a form of justice.”

Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, a researcher with rights watchdog Amnesty International, says it has been a long wait for justice for the families of the victims of the 2019 bombings. “And this is not unsurprising given Sri Lanka’s decades-long impunity crisis,” she said.

“Sri Lanka is still waiting for justice for grave international human rights and humanitarian law violations committed by parties to the conflict which ended nearly 13 years ago.”

Ruwanpathirana said that, in the aftermath of the 2019 attacks, the government scapegoated members of the Muslim community in the name of justice, including by targeting Muslims such as lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, poet Ahnaf Jazeem, medical doctor Mohamed Shafi Shihabdeen and dozens of others by using the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a draconian law often used to suppress dissent and marginalise Sri Lankan minorities.

Hizbullah was accused of having links with the 2019 bombers and jailed for nearly two years, despite rights groups saying the charges lacked credible evidence. After the prosecutors failed to provide evidence, he was instead charged with inciting “racial hatred” under the PTA.

“It is similar to how the Tamil population was targeted during the war,” says Ruwanpathirana.

She added that the recent protests demonstrate that people are resisting these divisive measures by demanding the PTA’s repeal and accountability for Easter attacks by prosecuting “the real perpetrators”. She said the people are coming together to “push back against the inter-ethnic hate-mongering campaigns run by politicians for electoral benefit”.

“This is certainly a silver lining during the dire economic situation,” she told Al Jazeera.

Human rights defender and writer Ruki Fernando has three demands as far as the 2019 bombings are concerned: truth, reparations and criminal accountability, “not just for the victims of Easter Sunday bombings, but all the citizens”.

“After the dissipation of initial anger, people have accepted that only a few extreme elements were responsible for the bloody violence. In my experience, I observe how the ethnic and religious communities are drawing closer to each other, again,” he told Al Jazeera.

Fernando said there is an opportunity now for Sri Lankan Christians to seek justice for the crimes committed against the country’s various ethnic groups for decades.

“What we now need is a united front for all of them without divisions.”