‘Daddy, What Is a Curfew?’ Sri Lankans Face the Shattering of a Hard-Won Peace

‘Daddy, What Is a Curfew?’ Sri Lankans Face the Shattering of a Hard-Won Peace


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — As Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war was winding down in 2009, Ranil Thilakaratne’s wife, Anuradha, was pregnant with their first and only child.

Colombo, the capital city, still felt under siege by the separatist Tamil Tigers, who had pioneered suicide bombings as a weapon of war. During the war years, bus stations, airports, banks and houses of worship became frequent targets, and the cities became choked with barricades, security checkpoints and military presence.

People were careful to avoid crowded or confined spaces. Though Mr. Thilakaratne was a film buff, the couple gave up going to the movies.

Things were even more dire in the war zones, with shortages of food, electricity, and other basic necessities. Death became an accepted part of life. Tens of thousands of civilians, military personnel, and rebels were killed in the war and the survivors were left with deep emotional scars.

The Thilakaratnes’ son, Santhush Nathan, is now 10, as old as the island nation’s hard-earned peace. During that decade they and their fellow citizens in the capital shed the life of barricades and checkpoints for a peacetime routine where security became an afterthought. The country opened its splendid beauty to millions of visitors each year from the East and the West.

All of that has quickly deflated after the devastating bombings on Sunday that killed more than 350 people. Colombo, in particular, has reverted suddenly to the wartime mentality — or even worse.

Security forces now stand at every corner, making searches and deploying other measures that were rare even during those days of bloodshed, residents say. As the government warns that some bombers — members of a local militant group whom the Islamic State has described as its “fighters” — might still be unaccounted for, families are concerned about their every move. A curfew has been imposed.

Mr. Thilakaratne was at an Easter service when he heard of the first of the bombings that day. It felt like a dream, he said, and it took him hours to wake up to the realization of the carnage.

The city’s upended reality kicked in only when his son, Santhush, asked him a question he struggled to answer: “Daddy, what is a curfew?”

While for many older residents, the security measures are a flashback to the country’s dark days of war, for a generation that came of age in the past decade they are entirely disorienting.

“I have never experienced body checks before. When we came to work today we were thoroughly checked,” said Mohammed Imtisham, 18, a salesman in the city. “The feeling you get when they do it is not nice. It’s like they are treating us like criminals.”

Mr. Imtisham said the city felt besieged in a way that he had never experienced before.

“I have heard about curfews, but not experienced one,” he said. “This is a first. There is no freedom now. Before, we could hang out with friends for a bit after work. Now, we have to go straight home after work. After everything settles, I hope we can go back to our normal lives.”

For Mr. and Ms. Thilakaratne, as for many parents here, security calculations are now a consideration in everything they do.

They were the kind of trusting couple who rarely kept tabs on each other, even when one would be out very late. But now they often call or message when they are apart, to make sure the other is safe.

Ms. Thilakaratne had avoided going to her job at a private company since the bombing, working from home instead. When she had to stop at the office to pick up some papers, Mr. Thilakaratne agreed to it only if he could come along and wait outside.

“At least I would be there with her if something happens,” he said.

Mr. Thilakaratne runs a free phone counseling service for the mentally distressed. The day after the bombing was the toughest day so far, he said, with some families calling even the counseling line for information on loved ones who were still missing.

The line received about 150 calls, more than the daily average of 80 to 100. The volunteer staff was crushed, Mr. Thilakaratne said. To help cheer them up, the boss got busy in the kitchen making them lunch, cutting their four-hour shifts short by an hour.

Following a couple of weeks’ vacation, schools were supposed to open on Monday. But with threat levels remaining high, the government has dismissed classes until the end of the week.

Even when the classes begin, Mr. Thilakaratne said he told the principal at the Christian school his son attends that he would allow Santhush to return only if the authorities had conducted a proper sweep of the school.

Mr. Thilakaratne offered that he and some other parents would take time off work if their services were needed. “I will just stand guard there,” he said.



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