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Sri Lanka Easter
I came face-to-face with the bomber who nearly killed us
Opinion by- Haneke Manoharan
They brushed part us, moments before the first explosion.
We knew we had come face to face with them, but we didn’t realize how close they were until we saw the CCTV footage of the Shangri-La on the news.
It was about 8.40am, two weeks ago, when we walked from our hotel room to the Table One Restaurant on Level 03 of the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo. I remember saying Happy Easter to my friend Sam Nottle as we got into the lift.
The same waitress that served us the morning before greeted us at the door. She was lovely and said hello again. We followed her as she tried to find us a table near where we sat the day before, by the big floor-to-ceiling window facing the ocean.
We stopped in the front section as she looked around for a free table. It was so much busier than the day prior. It was Easter brunch, so I guess people from outside the hotel were also having breakfast there that morning.
That was when I remember the first guy brushing past me. I remember his face distinctly, he had a thick beard. His eye line sat above mine and he was about 20cm from my face, looking over the top of my head at the tables around us. He had this intense and somewhat preoccupied look in his eyes which i mistook for looking for a table or someone he knew in the restaurant.
He was so close that I could feel him breathing in my face, so I stepped back into the wall and turned my head away from him. I remember being annoyed that he was in my personal space and in such a rush-it was just breakfast, there wasn’t any need to rudely push past people. Well that’s what I thought, anyway.
The two men had stopped abruptly in between the three of us. They were talking to each other softly, swinging these huge backpacks around as they looked around the room. I thought, “It’s a hotel breakfast buffet, most people just bring their room key and phone”. What they were actually carrying in their backpacks isn’t something that ever really crossed my mind. I mean, you see these things on the news, but you never think it will happen to you.
Sam gave the other guy a bit of a look: they were completely absorbed in their own conversation, without much consideration for anyone around them.
Our waitress apologized and said she couldn’t find a table by the window, so we walked around the two guys as she took us to the side section and looked there-no tables either. Then she thought she saw a free table in the front section, so we went back a second time, only to see someone’s belongings on the table. She apologized again and she’d have to sit us in the other side section of the restaurant-a decision that saved our lives
‘All I could see was darkness’
I told Sam I was going to get my breakfast and started walking towards the buffet. I was about five meters away from the buffet when I saw a bright flash of light to my left and heard his deafening sound.
I remember seeing my hand in front of me as I was walking and then feeling the sheer force of the first explosion against my left hand for a split second before being completely blown of my feet and thrown in the air backwards.
I must’ve blacked out from the impact briefly. It all happened so quickly. When I opened my eyes, all I could see was darkness-ash, water (from a burst pipe), debris and pieces of the ceiling were falling around us.
I couldn’t hear anything at where the first bang had come from and thought maybe the building was collapsing in on itself. We didn’t know what was happening.
I got up onto all fours and turned to see Sam crouching by the wall, holding onto our table and looking past me at the absolute devastation behind. He has this look of pure horror in his eyes.
I called out “I’m so scared” and crawled towards him.
Through the ringing in my ears I could hear this harrowing, full-throated screaming
By the time I got to Sam, the second bomb went off. It was a little further away than the first one.
At the point, I realized the building wasn’t collapsing. I thought they were just going to keep bombing us until we were all dead. Or they’d start shooting at us. I was certain we were going to die.
That’s when we crawled towards the window. The glass had completely blown out. Sam tried to jump out but I grabbed onto his shoulder and tried to stop him. I thought it was too high and we’d break our bones, or worse, we’d be paralyzed. We were three floors up and the ground below us was completely covered in shattered glass. I remember hanging my leg cover the edge and thinking if they started shooting or if we heard another explosion, we’d just jump.
We could see people gathered out the front of the hotel looking in at us. Sam yelled out to one of the security guards asking for help, He gestured us to duck down. There was nothing anyone could do- no one knew what was happening or if there were going to be more explosions.
We were wedged in behind a partition and plank of wood, next to where the first explosion happened. A man near us, who was all bloodied, started calling out to someone ahead of him.
Sam tried to get his attention and asked if it was safe for us to get up. He looked back at us with this look of shock and confusion in his eyes.
Sam turned to me and said “we have to get out of here”. So we stood up.
A horrific, unimaginable scene
That was the first time I saw the full extent of what had just happened. People were bloodied and paralyzed with shock and there were dead bodies everywhere. The first thing I saw was a man desperately trying to wake up a woman who wasn’t moving.
We saw a man standing a few meters away from the site of the first explosion. Sam called out to him a few times before the he registered we were trying to get his attention. Sam said “hey, we have to get out of here”. He just looked at us, paralyzed with grief and said, “I can’t, my wife and my son.” His world had just been destroyed in front of his eyes.
There are really no words to describe the gravity of the destruction; it was a scene I couldn’t have imagined was possible. That’s when I looked down and realized I was completely covered in other people’s blood and flesh. But I was numb, I couldn’t feel anything. At the time, I didn’t know if it was my blood or not.
Gathered by the fire escape were four children. They were all bloodied, with looks of pure fear and confusion in their eyes. Probably no older than six or seven. And behind them, a man holding a girl in his arms, she looked about 10. She had a ponytail but her head was hanging back and she was lying limp in his arms.
These children were the so-called first “innocent generation” after the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, almost 10 years ago. Now that innocence has been taken away from them.
A man was standing in the fire escape gesturing to us to come through the door. We guided the children through the door first, and then Sam and I went through.
We rushed down the fire escape, but as we came to each landing, were filled with this fear that someone was going to open the door and start shooting, or worse, they’d bomb the whole stairwell.
We finally came out into the underground car park. A woman had turned to me with her husband, who was wearing a white shirt with what was now a blood-red sleeve. She asked me to help her husband take his shirt off, I remember saying it was more important they get out first. But she pleaded saying he was a diabetic, she was obviously just so worried about her husband. So I took off his shirt and twisted it around his shoulder to try and stop the bleeding, but I was still in shock and was struggling to tie it tight enough.
Sam had found the car park ramp out to the side entrance of the Shangri-La in the meantime and came back to get me. We ran up to face a group of people looking in at us in pure shock.
You can’t unseen it
We contacted our families and I contacted just about everyone I knew in the country trying to get onto someone who could help us get somewhere safe. My family across the world amazing, they contacted everyone they knew and helped us get somewhere safe pretty quickly.
The two of us walked along the beach away from the hotel and my aunty picked us up not far from there and took us to her home. We stayed there for the next couple of days, she was incredible. Everyone was incredible. I’ve never seen people rally like that to help others in a time of a need.
Despite all the warnings about further attacks, on that day itself hundreds of people risked their lives and gathered churches and hotels to try and help recover bodies and save what lives could be saved.
The security and intelligence forces were working tirelessly and are still working around the clock to get a handle on the threat of further attacks.
It was both astonishing and heartbreaking at the same time, to think that the actions of few extremists have now changed the lives of so many incredible, selfless people, forever.
Sri Lanka never deserved this. Nowhere and no one ever deserve this.
It is senseless, indiscriminate bloodshed. Hundreds of innocent lives were lost.
Hundreds of people lost those closest to them. Children are parentless. Parents are childless.
The country is now left trying to pick up the pieces of the actions of a few extremists. It’s absolutely devastating.
The world is a different place for a lot of us. You can’t unseen these types of things.
The fragility of human life stares you in the face, and you suddenly find yourself having to make sense of a very different world to the one you thought existed.
But we were incredibly lucky, it’s like we’ve been given a second chance at life.
All I can say is I won’t take that opportunity for granted. I want to live out my life for those around us who didn’t get live out theirs.
This could have happened anywhere in the world. My heart breaks for Sri Lanka.
The compassion, love and bravery that permeated the streets of Sri Lanka in the days following the attacks are a real testament to the strength and resilience of the people.
Despite all the grief and despair that has filled the nation, so many people were apologetic to us, but it wasn’t their fault.
The only people to blame are the ones who walked into those hotels and churches on Easter Sunday and thought they had the right to do what they did.
I might be born in Australia, but I still consider myself Sri Lankan and Sri Lanka will continue to hold a big place in my heart.
I will return in time. I won’t let the meaningless and mindless actions of these extremists taint my view or the connection I feel to such a warm-hearted and beautiful country.
To let them do so would be to let them win and undo the hard-earned peace of the country. I only hope that others can see this for what it is and visit Sri Lanka too when it is safe to do so-this wasn’t Sri Lanka, it was the actions of some extremely misguided people who failed to recognize that we are all part of the same race, the human race.