BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka — When Elaisha Debbie was born six years ago, her mother gave her a copy of the Bible and wrote a message at the end: “Always take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
What’s left of that verse is just the memory of her mother. Debbie can’t see anymore.
Debbie lost both her eyes, parents, and one of her two brothers in last year’s Easter bombing in Batticaloa on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. The coordinated suicide bombings killed more than 250 people and injured more than 500 others in different cities (killing 26 and injuring more than 100 at Debbie’s evangelical Zion Church alone). The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack on three churches and three upscale hotels where Western travelers frequent, carried out by the local Islamist extremist group National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ).
The Sri Lankan government was criticized widely for having intelligence of the plan but not warning churches or increasing security. And while the government offered one million Sri Lankan rupees ($5,772) to the families of those who died and 100,000 ($517) to 300,000 ($1,717) Sri Lankan rupees to those injured, many survivors say the amount isn’t enough.
Elaisha Debbie before the attack outside her church. Photo courtesy of the family.
The cost of Debbie and her aunt’s treatment is much more than the family can afford, even after collectively exhausting their savings. While the Catholic Church has helped the Catholic survivors, smaller local NGOs like the National Evangelical Alliance and Heal Lanka are trying to help the others.
Particles of the bomb still remain lodged in Debbie’s head, but Sri Lankan hospitals lack the technology and expertise for the surgery, her uncle Robert Antony Moses said.
A Canadian doctor has agreed to perform her surgery after examining her case, Moses added, “but it will require a lot of money, and we are trying to arrange that amount.” He left his job as an electronic engineer to coordinate and administer Debbie’s treatment.
Debbie’s parents were Sunday school teachers at the church and owned a book shop in the church’s premises. The bomb exploded a few meters in front of the shop, killing her parents and brother and injuring her aunt.
Debbie with her aunt, uncle and older brother who survived the attack. Photo by Avinash Giri.
“Whenever the family feels sad about losing their loved ones, Debbie says, ‘Why are you crying? They are in heaven with Jesus, and he is taking care of them,” said Vethany Moses, Debbie’s aunt. Debbie’s other aunt, 24-year-old Rebekah Arasarathanam suffers severe third-degree burns on most of her body. She has gone through several plastic surgeries, and some more are left.
“I was speaking to my mother on the phone when the bomb exploded,” Arasarathanam said. “I thought my phone had exploded.” After the explosion, she fell unconscious. “I could only see fire everywhere after I came back to my senses.”
Debbie wants to be a Sunday school teacher just like her mother. She says that when she grows up, she will spread the gospel to thousands of people. “Jesus has already made eyes for me,” she said. “He will give it to me when my time comes.”
Rebekah Arasarathanam with her parents. She suffered third-degree burn wounds all over her body in the Easter Sunday bombing at the evangelical Zion Church in Batticaloa. Photo by Avinash Giri.
The family says that after the blast, their faith in Jesus has become stronger. “He is our only hope,” said Robert.
Arasarathanam has since rededicated her life to Jesus. “He is our strength by which we can live through these tough times,” she said.
Pastor Ganeshamoorthy Thirukumaran, the assistant pastor of Zion Church, is still grappling with the sorrow of losing his teenage son in the blast.
“Christianity is based on the teachings of peace, love, and forgiveness,” said Thirukumaran. “If we seek revenge, we will be betraying our faith.”
He lives a few kilometers away from Debbie’s home in a half-constructed house with his wife and two kids.
“This house is full of his memories,” Thirikumaran said, trying to control his tears. “Whenever I see his clothes lying in the house, I recall him doing different things wearing those clothes. He called me Dada. He liked music. He would make the whole house lively with his songs.”
The pain of losing him is unbearable, he added. “But we worship Jesus who was crucified on the cross. He has warned us in the Bible that similar atrocities can be done against us as well, so we have to be strong like he was.”
Days before the attack, his son had won a prize for an essay, which ended with the lines: “We should dedicate our lives to Jesus like Paul… and be prepared to die like him.”
The family of Pastor Ganeshamoorthy Thirukumaran surrounds the photo of his deceased son, Shalom Malkiya, along with the trophies that he had won in different church competitions. Photo by Avinash Giri.
Raghu Balachandran, Head of Relief and Development at the National Evangelical Alliance, helped organize the immediate response to help victims access medical treatment, extend treatment for those who needed it, and help the survivors and their relatives find new employment.
“Many lost their jobs after the attack as they had to take of their families, we are helping some of them start their own business,” he said.
ISIS indoctrinated the nine suicide bombers along with more than 100 other Sri Lankan youth. After the attack, self-proclaimed Caliph of the IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said in a video message published by Al Furqan media network that the attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka were to avenge the recent defeat of his fighters in Syria.
For many, the attacks evoked the memory of the bloody three-decade-long civil war between ethnic Tamil separatists and government forces in Sri Lanka, where nearly three-quarters of the population are Sinhalese Buddhists.
Batticaloa is home to equal numbers of Sinhalese Buddhists, Tamil Hindus and Christians and Muslims and witnessed a lot of violence, especially during the first decade of the civil war. Faith leaders, activists and politicians worried the Easter Sunday blasts could spark communal tensions in Batticaloa as well as in Sri Lanka. But in the past year, the situation has remained peaceful for the most part.
The attacks sparked resentment against the regime of President Maithripala Sirisena, who was then voted out of power in November.
He lost to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was the defense secretary in the final days of the Sri Lankan civil war. Over 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed during the last years of the war, and Gotabaya Rajapksha along with his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the then Sri Lankan president, are critics blame them for it.
The deadliest attack happened at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, about 20 miles north of Colombo, where more than 100 were killed, and hundreds more were injured. The attacker had exploded the bomb near the sitting-area of the church, known as one of the most beautiful churches in the area.
“After the attack, we feared that people would lose their faith in God,” said Michelle Subasinghe, a church official at the St. Sebastian Church. “It happened on the day of Jesus’s resurrection inside a church, where people feel safer than their homes.”
St. Sebastian Church, which was ravaged by the explosion, has now been rebuilt to match its past beauty. The church houses a statue of Jesus still spattered with the blood of victims from during the blast as a memorial to those lost and a reminder that Jesus suffered too.
A statue of Jesus is displayed in St. Sebastian Church in Negombo with the blood of the bombing victims still on his robe. Photo by Avinash Giri.
Outside the church, next to another Jesus figurine, names of all those who died in the attack are engraved on a stone with the lines:
“I am home in Heaven, dear ones;
oh, so happy and so bright!
There is perfect joy and beauty in this everlasting light.
All the pain and grief is over, every restless tossing passed;
I’m now at peace forever,
Safely home in Heaven at last.”