South Africans Unite in Grief for Sri Lanka and Empangeni

By Kiru Naidoo

South Africans from across the spectrum linked arms in the wake of the horror bombing of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on the holy day of Easter Sunday. President Cyril Ramaphosa led the national expression of deep distress. He condemned the attacks in the strongest terms stressing solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka.

Even though the motives or perpetrators are unclear at this stage, the President went further to say that South Africa will continue to use its non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council to prioritise the fight against terrorism and extremist groups across the world.

Tragedy also visited South Africans at the start of the Easter weekend when a wall collapsed at the Pentecostal Holiness Church in Empangeni during a Passover service on Thursday evening killing over 50 and injuring a further sixteen. KwaZulu-Natal Premier Willies Mchunu pledged emotional and material support for the bereaved families. Following an emergency sitting of the provincial executive council; he also called for an investigation into the safety of the church building.

Reaction to the Empangeni tragedy from both government and civil society was swift. A high-level government delegation comforted the families immediately after the incident. The humanitarian ACT Foundation was among those coordinating with local authorities in offering its support. Good Friday prayers across faith communities also remembered those who had experienced loss of loved ones in Empangeni.

The incessant weekend rain did not hold back South Africans from all walks of life coming out in solidarity with Sri Lanka. An impromptu candlelight vigil was held on the steps of the Durban City Hall on Sunday evening. Leading the multi-faith group in a prayer for peace, Anglican Bishop Emeritus Rubin Phillip remarked on the ceaseless solidarity from the international community during the anti-apartheid struggle. Similar vigils were held around the world from Cape Town to Karachi and Los Angeles.

The human toll in the church and hotel bombings in Sri Lanka continues to climb. Close to three hundred dead, hundreds more injured, many seriously and millions across the globe shaken. The coordination and scale of the carnage points to carefully planned acts of targeted terror.

The temptation to point fingers at possible motives or perpetrators in the absence of hard evidence compounds the trauma and drama in a nation consumed by layers of political intrigues even within its political and religious elite. There are very real fears that these attacks could plunge the small South Asian nation into the sort of turmoil and instability that gripped it for three decades.

Sri Lanka is yet to heal from a bitter civil war that pitted an aggressive Sinhala nationalist establishment and military against the aspirations for self-determination of its minority Tamil community. Armed resistance was led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Systematic execution, rape, torture, arbitrary detention, land dispossession and forced relocation through burnings of entire villages by the Sri Lankan military characterised that war. Amnesty International and the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Human Rights then headed by Judge Navaneetham Pillay were among those who roundly condemned the Sri Lankan military and government for war crimes and called for investigations and prosecution for human rights violations.

The LTTE too attracted criticism for its conduct in the war including its forced recruitment among Tamil civilians. A brutal military campaign ending in May 2009 defeated the LTTE. In spite of undertakings to rehabilitate Tamils affected by the war, the Sri Lankan authorities have attached no priority to that exercise leaving gaping wounds and fuelling antagonisms.

The destructive tenor of Sinhala nationalism has also targeted its mainly Tamil-speaking minority Muslim population. In February and March last year, Sinhalese mobs supported by right-wing Buddhist monks attacked mosques and Muslim-owned businesses first in the town of Ampara and then spreading to the Kandy district.

The ensuing mayhem and deaths led its president,Maithripala Sirisena to declare an island-widestate of emergency in early March. He invoked similar provisions giving wide-ranging powers to the military in the wake of the Easter Sunday bombings. Little has been said about the intelligence failures in pre-empting the attacks that were ostensibly aimed at the Christian minority.

Various speakers at the Durban vigil ranging from the ANC to the Active Citizen’s Movement, the Gandhi Development Trust and the 1WomanImpact Foundation pointed to the horrors of war and terror and that campaigns for peace should constantly occupy our energies.

There is a college picture somewhere in my study where I am in the same row as the Sri Lankan politician, Gamini Dissanayake, later killed in an LTTE suicide bomb. Elsewhere are pictures on the Durban beachfront with LTTE commander SP Tamilselvan and others as they campaigned internationally for a political solution to their grievances.

They were killed in the 2009 military offensive and shown in gruesome videos taken by Sri Lankan soldiers as war trophies. No conflict or tragedy is ever too far from one’s doorstep.

Naidoo serves as a government official in KwaZulu-Natal. These are his personal views.

Mettle Administrative Services

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