Sri Lanka was rocked by a series of coordinated terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday. By midweek, the toll from the coordinated bombings at churches, luxury hotels and other sites stood at 321 dead and 500 wounded.
The bloody and barbaric events triggered dark memories for The Weekend Sun’s sports columnist Peter White. He vividly recalls a terror attack while in Sri Lanka covering a cricket festival. This is his personal encounter with terrorism.
It literally stopped me in my tracks.
The reports I saw of multiple suicide bombers inflicting death and mayhem on such an unprecedented scale across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday almost stopped my breathing for a few seconds.
After the initial shock and horror at what I was watching, long forgotten memories came flooding back to me from April 2006 when I was in Colombo staying at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel.
The palatial five-star hotel was one of the sites targeted by a suicide bomber who had checked in as a guest Saturday night before he unleashed his death and destruction at breakfast the following morning.
Close to disaster
Back in 2006, I was a shocked bystander to a political suicide bombing at the Army headquarters not that far from the hotels hit on Sunday. Eight died and countless others were injured. The attacker was a woman who made herself appear heavily pregnant to conceal the explosives.
I was in a minivan 200 metres away from the compound when the bomb exploded. I remember the chilling feeling as the intensity of the sound reverberated through the area. It is unlike any other explosion I have heard.
I was in Sri Lanka on a dream assignment for a cricket-loving journalist. My task was to produce a daily newsletter distributed to the 38 teams contesting the international Air New Zealand-organised Golden Oldies World Cricket Festival.
It was the 12th nine-day biennial tournament staged and amongst the players from all over the world were former Australian players Doug Walters and Trevor Chappell. Trevor played each day while well-known larrikin Doug played a bit but mostly kept up a constant vigil in the faux English pub inside the Cinnamon Grand.
The night after the suicide bomber attacked the Army HQ, a meeting was held in the magnificent meeting area of the hotel that was severely damaged on Sunday. Sri Lankan cricketing luminaries Russell Arnold, Sanath Jayasuriya and Marvan Atapattu mixed and mingled.
But all talk was about whether the tournament should go on. At one stage it seemed we may all be going home early but thankfully a consensus to stay was reached. There was a real feeling of unity among the cricketers from around the world.
For the next six days it was a worrying time when we left the hotel to go to the match venues, including three international test grounds. Security was tight and obvious with armed police protecting so many foreigners in one place who were potential targets.
Brutal and bloody
Last month in Christchurch and around New Zealand we became used to seeing heavily armed police guarding mosques. It is not something you forget in a hurry.
Back in 2006, the Tamil Tiger rebels were blamed for the attack and the government launched air strikes on their positions in the east in retaliation. It was a brutal and bloody civil war that had wrecked Sri Lanka with the first suicide bombing in July 1987.
Ironically the 10-year anniversary of the peace accord is meant to be celebrated next month. Not likely now.
I remember well reading the local paper over breakfast the morning after our bombing drama. I learned that escalating violence in the north and east of the country left about 100 people dead in the three weeks before we arrived for the tournament. That was a shock.
Now I realise that where the suicide bomber struck at the Cinnamon Grand was where I too had queued for freshly poached eggs and bacon. It is a weird and uncomfortable feeling to know that where I was the three children of Denmark’s richest man Anders Holch Povlsen and many others were killed.
My thoughts are with the beautiful people of Sri Lanka after the Easter carnage that has seen the death toll rise to well over the 300 mark.
Tourism is so vital to the Sri Lankan economy. It is crucial people keep going to the country named Lonely Planet’s Top Destination for 2019. I am so proud my sister and her partner intend to go ahead with their 10-day tour of the country scheduled for next month.
Let’s hope the Easter carnage is not the start of another concerted bombing campaign in the country of wonderful tea, big smiles and big hearts.