'Beyond comprehension': Canadians gather to mourn, seek solace after Sri Lanka Easter attacks
MP Gary Anandasangaree, who fled country as child, organized vigil in Scarborough, Ont.
"Peaceful" is not a word Gary Anandasangaree would use to describe Sri Lanka. It's a country he fled at the age of 10 amid a decades-long civil war.
But while peace may not have been achieved on the island in the past 10 years, "there was some semblance of order in some places," Anandasangaree said.
That all changed Sunday, when a sudden attack killed hundreds of people and injured hundreds more with a series of coordinated bomb blasts that rocked churches and hotels across the country. Many of the attacks, believed to be carried out by suicide bombers with a local Islamic group, targeted worshippers gathered to celebrate Easter Sunday, authorities said.
Today, Anandasangaree is a Scarborough-area Liberal MP in a city home to an estimated 250,000 people of Sri Lankan origin.
'Come together, mourn together'
And on Monday, he was of several Canadians who organized vigils to pay tribute to those killed and to seek solace among those who have witnessed violence in their homeland before.
Edward Anura Ferdinand, president of the Sri Lanka Canada Association of Ottawa, said hundreds of Sri Lankans planned to gather in several cities to light candles, sing hymns and come to terms with the recent bombings. One such vigil unfolded Monday evening on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Anura Ferdinand said the horror of Sunday's violence is compounded by the memories it revives, adding many Sri Lankan-Canadians are grappling not only with the latest events but memories of the bloody civil war that drove many of them out of the country in the first place.
"We are in the position of healing our wounds after a 30-year war," he said in an interview. "There was a time when breaking news was a common thing, every now and then you would hear explosions. . . . There are so many bad memories that come to my head personally and so many of the other members when we heard about this."
The Toronto vigil, held at 7 p.m. at the Malvern Methodist Church, was a chance "to bring everyone together," he said. The place of worship overflowed with people, not unlike the churches in Sri Lanka on Easter — though this time, to remember the victims.
"It's a way for us to really come together, mourn together, to start the long healing process together and also to support each other," he said. Faith leaders — including a Catholic priest, a rabbi and an imam — also spoke at the ceremony.
"We have been sustained by other communities coming to us, particularly after the assault on Pittsburgh and we have tried to reach out to other communities when they have been in need," Rabbi Debra Lansberg said.
"We are deeply saddened, all of us, in the city of Toronto," Mayor John Tory said.
The Easter Sunday bombings, said Anandasangaree, are the latest religiously motivated terror attacks around the world. He called for Canadians of all faiths to denounce hate and intolerance.
The explosions — centred on the cities of Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa — collapsed ceilings and blew out windows, killing worshippers and hotel guests in one scene after another of smoke, soot, blood, broken glass, screams and wailing alarms.
While no group has officially taken responsibility for the attacks, Sri Lankan Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne attributed the bombings to a group known as National Thowfeek Jamaath. Police said they have arrested 13 people in connection with the attacks.
'We started panicking'
Toronto resident Princely Soundranayagam was among those who learned his family member was seriously injured. It was Sunday afternoon when he heard the news from a relative.
'When we heard an attack at the Bedico church, that's when we started panicking," he said. His cousin had been severely injured and was unconscious in hospital.
"It's really sad and it's frustrating because there is no solution," he said, adding he worries the Sri Lankan government will use the attack as justification to clamp down even further on freedoms.
During the civil war, which came to an end in 2009, a powerful rebel army known as the Tamil Tigers was crushed by the government. Meanwhile, critics say anti-Muslim bigotry has swept the island in recent years, fed by Buddhist nationalists, though the island also had no history of violent Muslim militants.
The country's small Christian community has seen scattered incidents of harassment in recent years but nothing close to the scale of devastation seen Sunday.
Anandasangaree said Sunday's attacks risk destabilizing a country that's still struggling to establish a fragile peace, adding many of his fellow expatriates are anxious about its longer-term consequences for loved ones back home.
'Situation remains volatile'
Officials with Global Affairs Canada have said no Canadians were among the 39 foreigners killed in the attacks, but stepped up travel advisories for anyone in or headed to the country.
"The situation remains volatile," reads the advisory, which urges Canadians to exercise a high degree of caution.
Other attacks could occur throughout the country, the statement warns. Local authorities have declared a state of emergency and a curfew has been imposed. Access to some social media has also been temporarily blocked.
Global Affairs Spokesperson Amy Mills urged Canadians in Colombo, the nation's capital, to limit their movements, avoid impacted areas, and take direction from local authorities.
In the hours after the attacks, some 200 Sri Lankan-Canadians attended a service at the Toronto Harvest Missionary Church in Scarborough, Ont., to pray for victims and their families.
With files from The Canadian Press