Colombo Attacks

by Munawar Alam

February 2021

Full fledged war was raging in the north of Sri Lanka between the government and the Tamil Tigers, who wanted a separate state to be carved out of Sri Lanka. Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka was the target of Tamil Tigers. They wanted to strike the country in its heart.

We had been warned by the UN Security when the war started, to remain vigilant. If anyone notices somebody behaving strangely, or if there is any unclaimed baggage, not to go nearby and immediately alert the police.

Every morning we packed our kids to school with fear in our hearts, mumbling prayers. They were going to school in private vans, and as international students were certainly a target. Either being hijacked, ambushed or a suicide bomb attack on any of these vans and buses full of students, would give the Tamil Tigers big news coverage, and a sense of vicarious victory.

On some of the days, we sent them by our own car. Depending on what information we got from UN Security, we were playing it by the day. We were also advised not to talk to children too much about it for fear of scaring them.

One day, at office, we were engrossed in our work, when news filtered that close to the fort area in Colombo, where important office buildings including the presidential office, many businesses and shops were situated, a bomb had exploded beneath a bus carrying armed soldiers, injuring some of them and a few passersby. At that time, we were still unaware of the real damage.

Then suddenly there was a commotion in the office, and as counting of staff and their whereabouts was taking place, somebody uttered, “does anyone know where Amare is?".

I tried calling Amare on his mobile, but there was no response.

Next we knew that Amare had a meeting scheduled close to the explosion site. All of us were in deep shock, and a surreal quietness enveloped the office, as the office staff tried to contact him in desperation, and there was no response.

After about 90 minutes, somebody was able to connect with Amare. He was being treated in a hospital. Much later, we found out that he was walking past this bus to attend a meeting, when a bomb splinter stuck him in his foot. Thankfully, the bomb was on the other side of the bus, so the impact of this splinter was not too big. But it was big enough that it pierced through his shoes and struck him in his foot.

On another day, in the evening of 21 February 2009, a Saturday, we as a family were relaxed and watching our favorite TV show in the lounge on the first floor of our colonial house. Serene wind from the Indian ocean nearby caressing through the large windows, was cooling us, as we snacked and laughed. A house guard, below, was patrolling the outside garden, checking for strange objects, and making sure all gates and doors are properly closed.

Suddenly the lights went off. This was unusual for the Ward place, where we lived. It was a high-end area, full of colonial bungalows built in early 1900s for the British officers of that era. Civic amenities were fairly good. Lights going off at this time in the night (21:20 hrs, Colombo time) meant there was some security issue.

By this time, we had become used to this, as it was not the first time. To reduce the threat level of any impending attack, the lights in the city would be switched off, as a deliberate action by the municipal authority. We had also been advised not to light any candles or use a torch or any other battery-operated device, if the whole area was in darkness.

Zeba peeped out of the window to check the other houses. She could see that almost all of Colombo was out of power – in complete darkness.

This meant that the security alarm system has been triggered. Then we could hear some distant gunshots. Our guard, scampering all over the green lawn downstairs looked towards the sky, and shouted, “planes, planes, planes - two of them. They just past over our house.” He kept running in madness all over in an adrenaline rush. He had served the Sri Lankan army and became a guard with a security agency upon retirement. By now, his voice was hoarse, and visibly upset and angry.

Then there were more anti-aircraft gunfire and the sound was becoming louder and closer to us. We craned our necks, looking out and upwards from the window and could see tracer bullets in the sky, leaving a trail of lines along its path. We also had been warned not to stay near a window in such a situation. We were excited and panicky.

I ran downstairs. Saruf had run ahead of me, stricken by fear and hid himself in the guest room. I tried to open the front door, when Saruf, over 10 years old, yelled, “Papa, don’t go outside, don’t go outside”. He came running towards me, yelling and again ran back, jumping on the bed in the room. He was frantic and kept yelling, completely scared.

When the guard would light up a torch, Saruf shouted, “this guy is mad.” They had been told in school to maintain darkness, to avoid alerting the attacker, so not to light up anything if the lights are switched off in Colombo.

Miha, aged 12, kept her cool.

Then there was a shudder and our whole house vibrated – the windows vibrated as when loud music is played. The thunderous roar and the shudder was enormous. It seemed unending. After a few long minutes, the sound subsided, and silence pervaded the atmosphere.

Zeba too ran along with me, and kept coming outside with me, pleading, “Munawar, come inside, don’t go out, come in.”

In the melee, I kept coming inside the house and out in our lawn, breaching the UN Security advisory, asking the guard what had happened. Meanwhile our two maids, Hemlata and Dambika also came outside. There were some very serious discussions ongoing amongst the three, in their local language, which I did not understand.

After all this drama, we walked upstairs, tired, physically and mentally, and sat inside the house for a while in the dark until the power was restored.

We immediately switched-on the Indian TV channels. The TV media seemed to be quick and had gathered quite a lot of information during this 1 and ½ hour ordeal. The Tamil Tigers to prove their strength and the fire power, had sent two CESNA planes, that had sneaked over the Colombo sky, in the night, un-noticed, laden with RDX. They were suicide bombers.

Next morning, we heard that one plane had crashed and hit the Inland Revenue Department, just next to formerly TransAsia Hotel (now Lake Cinnamon), where we went regularly for squash, tennis and swimming. That crash would have created this supersonic or subsonic waves that passed through our house too. Both planes were felled by anti-aircraft guns. The plane that crashed on to the Inland Revenue Department building injured 40 persons, and was claimed by the Tamil Tigers as victory.

Isn’t it an irony, killing meant victory for some?

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