A spokesman for an organization representing Sri Lankan-Canadians says he has “no answers” in the wake of co-ordinated bomb attacks in his homeland that killed at least 207 people and injured 450 more.
Riyaz Rauf, vice-president of the Canada Sri Lankan Association of Toronto, says he found out about the bombings via text messages from friends just after midnight.
When he turned on the TV to watch the news, he says he was appalled by the “horrendous” images he saw. In a phone interview with The Canadian Press on Sunday morning, Rauf described the attacks as a “loss of humanity.”
The federal government warned Canadians in Sri Lanka to limit their movements and obey local authorities, saying the situation in the country remains “volatile” and more attacks are possible. It added that the High Commission of Canada to Sri Lanka in the capital Colombo would be closed on Monday due to the security situation.
Global Affairs Canada said in an email Sunday afternoon that there are no reports of any Canadian citizens being affected by the blasts, whose targets included hotels and a church frequented by tourists.
Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said the bodies of at least 27 foreigners were recovered, and the dead included people from Britain, the U.S., India, Portugal and Turkey. China’s Communist Party newspaper said two Chinese were killed.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined other world leaders in expressing sorrow and shock at the attacks, while condemning the targeting of worshippers on Easter Sunday.
“Canada strongly condemns these heinous attacks on hotels and Christians at prayer in churches. Places of worship are sacred, where all should feel safe and secure. No one should be targeted because of their faith,” the prime minister said in a statement.
“For millions of people around the world, Easter is a time to reflect on Jesus’ message of compassion and kindness — a time to come together with friends and family. We cannot let attacks like these weaken the hope we share.”
Sri Lanka’s defence minister described the bombings as a terrorist attack by religious extremists and police said 13 suspects had been arrested, though there was no immediate claim of responsibility. Most of the blasts were believed to have been suicide attacks.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the violence could trigger instability in Sri Lanka, a country of about 21 million people, and he vowed the government will “vest all necessary powers with the defence forces” to take action against those responsible. The government imposed a nationwide curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The eight explosions represent the deadliest violence in the South Asian island country since a bloody civil war ended a decade ago.
Rauf, who moved to Canada nine years ago, said he’s at a loss to explain the reasons behind the violence — but he’s confident his homeland will persevere.
“There’s absolutely no reason — no cause, nothing — for something like this to be happening in this beautiful country,” he said.
However, Rauf added: “Sri Lanka as a nation has come through the worst period that it could ever come out of. We had a civil war for 25 years. We are a bunch of resilient people who can overcome adversity.”
Amarnath Amarasingam, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo who has authored several books and papers on Sri Lanka, said even in a country “brimming” with ethnic and religious conflict, no one expected an attack of this scale.
“It’s just multiple kind of layers of complexity in terms of ethnic and religious relations, which this attack kind of really throws up in the air,” Amarasingam said in an interview Sunday. “Things could get ugly pretty fast from here, I think, if we’re not careful.”
Sri Lanka was dominated for decades by the sharp divide between the majority Sinhalese, who are overwhelmingly Buddhist, and the minority Tamil, who are Hindu, Muslim and Christian. The mistreatment of Tamils helped nurture the growth of armed separatists and led to nearly 30 years of civil war, with Tamil Tiger fighters eventually creating a de facto independent homeland in the country’s north until the group was crushed in a 2009 government offensive.
More recently, Muslims, who make up roughly 10 per cent of the country’s population, have been targeted by violence fuelled by rumours spread over social media about attacks on Buddhists. In 2018, mobs of Buddhists swept through small towns, attacking mosques and Muslim-owned shops, prompting the government to briefly declare a state of emergency.
Amarasingam said those tensions have lingered to some extent in Canada, which is home to roughly 150,000 people of Sri Lankan or mixed Sri Lankan descent, according to 2016 figures from Statistics Canada.
A significant portion of that population are Muslims, he said, and he imagines many are concerned the attacks could lead to a flare up in anti-Muslim sentiment or even violence.
Despite that, Rauf — who is Muslim — said he believes the community will also come together to support each other in this time of tragedy.
“One thing good about the Sri Lankan community that has migrated to Canada is that when they migrated from Sri Lanka, few people brought their baggages, their way of thinking from back home,” said Rauf.
“The new generations — the second generation and the third generation that have got used to living here — adopted the Canadian culture, understood the ethnic harmony here. They’re all united,” he said.
“For us, religion comes second — it’s humanity first, the person who is first.”
— with files from The Associated Press
Adam Burns and Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press