Under the shadow

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As you will no doubt know from the news, the past few days have been tragic ones for Sri Lanka, the country that’s been my home for the past five years.  On the morning of April 21st, Easter Sunday, a series of suicide bombings caused carnage at St Anthony’s Shrine and the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury Hotels in Colombo, at St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo and at the Zion Church in Batticaloa.  Six days later, the death toll stands at 253.  It’s no comfort to the victims and their loved ones, of course, but two days ago the authorities scaled down this number – earlier, they’d stated that 359 people had been killed.  Meanwhile, according to figures from UNICEF, at least 45 of the dead were children.

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My partner and I were lucky enough to be, at the time, in a district of Colombo spared by the bombers.  However, a friend and his wife were caught up in explosions at one of the hotels.  He’s currently in an intensive unit, his condition serious but stable.  His wife suffered injuries too.  Both are coping as well as can be expected considering the horrific ordeal they went through.

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And only yesterday, we learned that a staff-member at our apartment building, an unfailingly friendly and cheerful man, had also been injured during the bombings.  It’s customary at this time of year to give gifts of money to the staff as Buddhist New Year presents, but he told us he felt uncomfortable about this because he’s not a Buddhist but a Roman Catholic.  So we got into the habit of giving him a gift for Easter instead.  Last Saturday we gave him his Easter 2019 gift, never dreaming that one day later he’d be hurt in a terrorist atrocity. 

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Although it’s just a decade since the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, which according to Wikipedia cost the lives of over 100,000 civilians and 50,000 combatants, Colombo for the time that I’ve lived here has struck me as a relaxed and hopeful place.  The downtown area has been a site of burgeoning development, with tower-blocks and new luxury hotels sprouting up seemingly overnight.  There was a palpable sense of pride when Lonely Planet recently judged Sri Lanka to be the world’s number one tourist destination.  And people have generally gone about their business with smiles on their faces. 

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This happy, optimistic Sri Lanka, with its dark recent history consigned to the past, seems a very different place from the one I’ve experienced in Colombo over the past week.  The streets have been eerily quiet. Armed soldiers stand guard outside important buildings and at block-corners along the thoroughfares.  People look subdued and fearful.  Rumours and counter-rumours circulate with an intensity that sometimes makes you wonder if you should even venture beyond your front door.  From older Sri Lankans I have heard words to the despairing effect of: “I really thought this sort of thing was finished with…”  Younger ones have seemed dazed, wondering what sort of country – and lives – they and their children have to look forward to.

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In other words, a shadow has fallen over the place.

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It’s a shadow that I’m not unfamiliar with.  I spent my childhood and boyhood in Northern Ireland during the 1970s, when the Troubles were at their very worst.  The bloodiest years were 1972 (with 480 people killed), 1976 (297 killed) and 1974 (294 killed).  If those numbers sound insignificant compared to the numbers of fatalities in other conflicts before and since, they certainly didn’t feel insignificant to us, not in a province that was only a fraction larger than Yorkshire and had just a million-and-a-half inhabitants.

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Describing what life was like for me back then isn’t easy.  I tried explaining it to another friend a few evenings ago and my words sounded contradictory even as they came out of my mouth.  On one hand, I had a great childhood.  I have many happy memories of playing outside, having pretend adventures and really exercising my imagination.  I was lucky in that regard. My family lived on a farm where the farmstead was built against the bottom of a hill and spread over three levels, with copious passageways and spaces to explore and re-explore between the backs of the buildings and the sides of the terraced hillside behind them. You could even step from one level of the farmstead onto the roofs of the farm-buildings standing on the level below it, which was exciting for a budding Spiderman-fan like me but understandably worrying for my mother.  In addition, a river flowed past the front of our farmhouse and an area of forestry plantation stood just beyond its far bank, and – best of all – my grandparents lived up the road in a former railway station, the grounds of which still contained platforms, signal boxes and railway sheds.  You couldn’t live amid all this and not have fun.

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On the other hand, and even as a kid, I knew clearly that the Troubles were happening, mostly in distant-sounding places like Belfast and Armagh, but also occasionally close enough to impinge on my own experiences.  And there weren’t just moments when the Troubles did, objectively, intrude, like the night when I was woken up in my bed by the noise of a bomb going off, or the day that I was taken to the funeral of a youth who’d been shot dead by the IRA – I spent the funeral marveling at the heavy security presence, with helicopters circling and army marksmen lurking on the roofs of the surrounding buildings.  I also have very personal memories, particular to me only, which sprang from my awareness that there were close members of my family who qualified as targets for the terrorists. 

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One such experience occurred when my family went to visit the annual agricultural show held in Enniskillen.  I went back to where our car was parked slightly earlier than the rest of the family and discovered a bulky package in a brown-paper bag sitting on its bonnet.  Automatically, I reached out to lift the thing and a woman standing nearby suddenly shrieked, “Don’t touch it!  It might be a bomb!”  (We’d given my grandfather a lift to Enniskillen so that he could do some shopping, and the bag actually contained his groceries, which he not-very-wisely had left on top of the car before going in to look at the agricultural show himself.)  Also engraved on my memory is an evening when I and at least one of my siblings had been left in the custody of our grandmother.  Our father was supposed to come at a particular time to collect us – but he didn’t show up.  As the evening wore on and it became dark, the atmosphere in the house grew increasingly tense, with our grandmother fretting and then panicking.  She telephoned all the places where she thought our father might be, but everyone she called said they hadn’t seen him and had no idea of his whereabouts.  He arrived in the end, but by this time the poor old woman was out of her wits with worry and we, as kids, were petrified – as much by her behavior as by the awful possibility of what might have happened outside.

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It was like a shadow – not one that was always cast over you, but one that never seemed that far away either.  You could forget about it and have the normal, happy, carefree life that kids are supposed to have, but you could never forget about it for long.

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And I feel sorry for the people of Sri Lanka who’ve just had this baleful shadow fall over them – in the case of many of the younger people, for the first time.

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Still, what can decent people do?  I honestly believe the answer is just to bash on with things – doing the activities you find rewarding, hanging out with the people whose company you get pleasure from, visiting the places you find interesting and welcoming.  And at the same time, you have to not let your behaviour and thinking become reined in by fear.  Because the moment you allow yourself to be cowed by evil bastards and allow their vile actions to dictate what you do and think is the moment you hand them victory.  Which is simply not acceptable.

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