Each life a story, every person a book. The stories each and every one of us has to tell are invaluable, but some stories need to be preserved and shared. Some stories need to be remembered, and we need to be reminded of them.
The entire country was shocked by the 2019 Easter Bombings. Being a nation traumatised by civil war, the attacks introduced terror to a new generation whilst reopening the wounds of those who had experienced the horrors of the past war.
Not wanting their experiences to be forgotten or overlooked, the Sri Lanka Reconciliation Movement, which consists of members from the Easter Attack Survivors’ Project (EASP), in collaboration with the Rotaract Club of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo held a ‘Human Library’ event in commemoration of the Easter Attacks.
The occasion involved many members of the student body, including representatives from the university’s religious and cultural organisations, faculty members and invited guests. They encouraged each and every individual to share their story from 21 April 2019; a collection of ‘books’ sharing their stories.
“I was shocked and horrified when news was reported of the attacks, and was worried that it would lead to further violence, which it unfortunately did,” shared one ‘book.’
“I was hoping that the authorities would step in and do something about it, and that the Islamic community would speak out, condemning what happened, because I thought it was important that the people take up a stance against what had happened.”
“I was just a young girl when I woke up that Sunday morning to the news of the attacks, and by nightfall, I remember word spreading on the possibility that Muslims were behind this attack,” shared another.
“I wanted to show that their attack didn’t reflect or represent the views of a majority of Muslims, and to try to find a way to figure out what went wrong, and prevent such a horrendous event from ever occurring again.”
Everyone agreed that what the survivors had undergone was tragic and heartbreaking.
“I had the opportunity to speak with some of the survivors while working with the EASP,” another ‘book’ added. She and her husband had started from humble beginnings and grew their livelihood, with a successful business, a beautiful family and a comfortable life.
“It took years to build their lives, and all of it was lost in a flash,” she recounted. “I was worried that by discussing what happened, we would cause her trauma to resurface. But she replied that it doesn’t matter, because what happened continues to haunt her every single moment in her life.”
But it was also made clear that the survivors of the attack weren’t the only people to have suffered.
“My son was born post-2009, and is from a generation that didn’t live through the war, which is a beautiful thing,” shared another. “One day, my son came home crying. One of his classmates had said that it was his fault that those people had died. I had to sit my child down and teach him about racism and how to respond and protect himself. I remembered how my mother taught me the same thing, and I wondered if she felt the same way I did at that moment.”
“I was on the train, travelling to Colombo from my hometown in Jaffna when I got the news alert about the bombings,” shared another ‘book.’ “I shared it with my friend and both of us were very afraid. Afraid that it was the LTTE again and afraid that violence would start spreading. Afraid that we would be in danger if we continued our journey to Colombo.”
Violence did in fact spring up, and racism continued long after the Easter attack.
“I was coming home from the mosque one late evening, when I saw one elderly gentleman faint and he seemed to be suffering from something. Being a medical student, I thought I should at least try and help in some way. It became clear that he needed to be taken to a hospital as soon as possible,” recounted another ‘book’. “I tried to stop a tuk driver, but not a single one even stopped to help us.”
Although racist tension was at an all-time high in the country, it should be noted that love between Muslims and Christians still prevailed.
“Being part of the EASL, we wanted to tell the stories of the survivors, which included visiting many of the people who survived the attacks. Although we had the assistance of the priests of the churches, with most of us being Muslims, we were worried that we wouldn’t be welcome, or worse, would be outright rejected.”
“Instead, we got to meet some of the most humble and caring people ever,” the ‘book’ shared through teary eyes. “They had no hatred towards us, or Islam, it was one of the most touching and unforgettable experiences of my life.”
The Human Library allowed the sparking of new conversations and more, emphasising the importance of communication, between people and between languages. It made it possible to go beyond respecting one another, and accepting and embracing one another’s uniqueness and differences. It is proof that we can come to a mutual understanding, and share one another’s feelings, talking about the tragedies we’ve faced, while building hope that we will never have to experience another such catastrophe again.
(Pix by Sarath Kumara)
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage