January 02, 2020
By Dishan Joseph
The church bells ring loud and clear this December, as we celebrate Christmas. We cherish this aura of calm. Yet in the month of April the pealing of the bells was silenced. We heard the screams and anguish of our brothers and sisters. We saw the fear that filled the eyes of children. As we reflect on the joys of Christmas and the seven months that we endured after Easter Sunday, we can never forget the role of the armed forces and the police. A few minutes after the multiple explosions our valiant comrades stood by us.
It was they who took the initiative as first responders. In their strong arms they respectfully carried the dead. In their kind arms they caringly carried the injured to the many ambulances. It is these men who entered the churches like celestial beings, and gave bottles of water to the frightened and shocked Christian survivors, including the clergy. As Christians, irrespective of our denominations this December we must appreciate and thank these men. It is a reflection of our faith to value their efforts in guarding our churches.
Since Easter Sunday I was able to continuously witness the way our troops and policemen respond to various needs. I visited the three churches affected by the terror attacks. First was the Shrine of St. Anthony in Kochchikade, Colombo 13. At this venue sailors from the adjacent naval base were the first responders. Naval patrolmen took up the first watch. Days later after the crime scene was duly cleared the sailorsengaged themselves in washing the entire church. I witnessed this wonderful gesture of teamwork by the sailors, most of them Buddhists. Over the next few weeks the Navy did an excellent job in restoring the shrine prior to its annual feast.
The Sri Lanka Army put its full weight on assisting St. Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya (Negombo). Officers and soldiers from the Engineers Service Regiment worked day and night to rebuild this church. Likewise, in the Eastern Province the Army once again pitched in to help rebuild the Zion Church, and their target was to complete it before Christmas. In Negombo and Batticaloa the Army maintained security giving the villagers a sense of hope.
The armed forces went beyond building the churches. Christian churches all over the island were given security as required. In those crucial days as the nation was recovering, a separate command the OOC (Overall Operations Command) was set up. This command co-ordinated the security of the entire Western Province and the Puttalam district. Platoons from the Army, Navy and Air Force were deployed to protect the churches. Security was beefed up in Colombo, and the troops were reinforced by policemen from local stations. Security was also extended to temples and mosques as required. Another significant duty was the guarding of schools. The STF engaged in mobile patrolling.
Many Christians only saw their armed guardians on Sunday mornings and evenings at church service. But I was able to observe how much sacrifice these young men made. Many of these soldiers and policemen had not gone home on leave. They hadn’t seen their families for weeks. They arrived at cathedrals, chapels and shrines by 5.30 am on Sunday mornings. At some venues as per existing threat levels they stood guard throughout the week. These compassionate soldiers, sailors and airmen sacrificed their holidays and recreation time to protect us. When it rained they stood at the church gates, fully soaked. As the noonday sun made them sweat they continued to stand. They ate their military rations or the food given to them by the churches. Sunday school kids gave them flowers in their own little way of saying thank you.
Another team that carried out a tremendous task was a unit from the Police Kennels operating in Colombo. Unknown to the citizens of Colombo this K-9 unit quietly went about checking church venues as per security requirements with their explosive detection dogs. I witnessed their teamwork. Both, dogs and handlers worked overtime. To this day the armed forces and police stand guard as we sing hymns and pray. Their altruism and courage is a reflection of their commitment to serve all Sri Lankans. We are confident that we are in a more secure environment now. May God bless our armed guardians. A sincere thank you, to you all.