Survivor of Sri Lanka bombing fears returning to church

GEMUNU AMARASINGHE and EMILY SCHMALL
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Sri Lankan security forces officers inspect a suspicious vehicle parked near St. Anthony's shrine before it exploded in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 22, 2019. Easter Sunday bombings that ripped through churches and luxury hotels killed more than 200 people. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

NEGOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — St. Sebastian's Church in Sri Lanka's Negombo city was packed when Nilantha Lakmal arrived with his wife and three daughters for Easter Mass.

The pews already full, the family joined dozens of others in the front garden, listening to the priest through the church's open doors.

From the corner of his eye, Lakmal saw a man with a large blue backpack walking quickly down the left-hand aisle of the 1940s Gothic-style church, patterned after the Reims Cathedral in France.

Within seconds, a bomb went off.

"I was scared. I was shouting. I was shouting for my daughters. I was shouting the name of my youngest daughter. I was running around, looking for my family. It felt like a long time but I found them," Lakmal said.

He hurried them to an auto rickshaw that was waiting on the street near the church, and then headed back to look for his parents and his nephew, who had arrived at the church separately.

All eight relatives were unharmed, including his daughters aged 8, 6 and 1.

Nearly all at once, seven suicide bombers attacked three churches and three luxury hotels, according to a Sri Lankan government forensic analysis. The bombers were all Sri Lankan nationals and part of a local militant group named National Thowfeek Jamaath. Hours later, three more bombings took place.

All told, at least 290 people were killed and about 500 others were wounded. The Easter Sunday violence was the deadliest the South Asian island country has seen since a bloody civil war ended a decade ago.

At St. Sebastian's, where Lakmal was married and where he baptized his daughters, he said he led shocked and wounded people flowing out of the building toward the street. He didn't have the wherewithal to go inside.

On Monday, he said he got a headache as he recalled seeing bodies taken from the sanctuary and tossed into the back of a truck.

He spoke to The Associated Press outside the home of a 12-year-old girl who was killed in the blast and whose mother was being treated for critical injuries at Negombo's main hospital.

Lakmal, 41, remembers well the bloody end of Sri Lanka's civil war, which the United Nations estimated left about 100,000 people dead. The war ended in 2009 with the government's defeat of the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group from the ethnic Tamil minority fighting for independence from Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka.

But he had never expected his neighborhood church in Negombo, a largely Catholic city north of Colombo, would be a target.

Lakmal frequently went to St. Sebastian's for Bible study or to pray before the statue of the Catholic martyr holding a shield and a sword.

The church had been planning to celebrate a big feast day for Jesus' mother Mary at the end of May.

But even if it had reopened by then, Lakmal said he doubted he'd return.

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Schmall reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka.