Some Survivors of Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka Must Learn to Live Alone After Losing Their Family Members

Naresh Denilson, 20, shown last month, is the sole survivor in his immediate family of the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka. His parents and sister were killed at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo. (Benislos Thushan/The Washington Post)

During the long month at the hospital, it was always the same nightmare. A deafening noise, followed by the world blasting into pieces. Then suddenly, Naresh Denilson’s eyes would open, his mind frozen with fear.

In the daytime, his relatives came to visit. His parents were recovering, they told him, and his elder sister was in the intensive care unit. Just focus on getting better.

They could not bring themselves to tell him the truth.

His parents were dead, their bodies found at the morgue in Colombo in the hours after the Easter Sunday attacks. His sister clung to life for a week. While Naresh, 20, was in the hospital, all three were buried in a local cemetery, one grave in front and two in back.

In the devastation of the April attacks that killed more than 260 people, Naresh’s situation was not unique. The bombers struck places where families had gathered — churches packed with worshipers, weekend breakfast buffets at hotels. In several families, only one person survived. For three Sri Lankan families, there were no survivors.

The attacks traumatized Sri Lanka, shattering lives and the nation’s sense of security. More than two months after the violence, a state of emergency is still in force. In May, rioters targeted the country’s Muslim minority, burning businesses and damaging mosques in reprisal for the attacks, which were carried out by local Islamist extremists.

Profound questions remain about the nature of the plot, the attackers’ connections to radical groups outside Sri Lanka and the lack of action by authorities despite repeated intelligence warnings that an attack was possible. On Tuesday, police arrested two former top security officials, including the national police chief at the time of the attacks, in the wake of their failure to prevent the blasts.

Sri Lanka — a teardrop-shaped island off the tip of India that is home to 20 million people, most of them Buddhists — turned out to be a soft target for the bombers: A three-decade civil war ended in 2009, and the intervening years were relatively peaceful. Months before the attack, Lonely Planet named Sri Lanka the best country in the world to visit.

“People had just gotten used to the idea that there doesn’t have to be war,” said Gaithri Fernando, a professor of psychology at California State University in Los Angeles who has studied Sri Lankans’ resilience in the face of trauma. Now, “I’m finding people who have just given up,” she said. “They’ve given up on the government. They see no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no one to look to for leadership.”

For Naresh, the questions of who knew what and how the plot unfolded didn’t matter. He wasn’t reading newspapers or watching television channels that were tracking the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the attacks. His world had narrowed to a room just big enough for a bed on the ground floor of his family’s modest home.

The attacks had fractured his left leg and lacerated his scalp. His face and arms were burned in the explosion. He requires help to get up, to bathe, to go outside.

Always slender, now he is stick-thin, with deep hollows under his eyes. A scar runs from the corner of his lips across his right cheek. Near his ear is a long black patch where doctors grafted a strip of skin from his thigh to heal a burn.

He has not yet been able to visit the graves of his parents and sister.

“I want to ask them: ‘Why did you all go and leave me alone here?’ ” he said.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Joanna Slater