Colombo, Sri Lanka skyline

It’s Been A Wild Week Between Bombs And Earthquakes

I’m back in Colombo after an amazing trip that took me to the Philippines, Australia, and Singapore. It was a fantastic month of travel but the end of my trip was mired with a devastating attack in Sri Lanka pulling me on one side while earthquakes in the Philippines pulled me in the other direction.

It has been 7 full days since the devasting Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka that have has taken the lives of over 250 people and wrecked millions in its wake. Today is the first time in a week that the government didn’t impose any night time curfews.

Does anyone want to actually go outside at night these days? I don’t think so..

Let’s Rewind This Story To 7 Days Ago

I was sitting in Melbourne airport waiting for Qantas Flight 37 (review coming soon!) to take me to Singapore. I remember sitting the Plaza Premium Lounge (review also coming soon!) trying to get my last fix of Melbourne lattes when I noticed a large lower third on the TV screen with the words “BREAKING: Deadly bombs go off in Colombo, Sri Lanka” flashing on the Australian news channel.

When I saw it at first, I was equal parts shocked, equal parts angry because the newscaster was speaking about something else and not what was being displayed on the lower third. I wanted answers but the stupid TV wasn’t giving it to me.

I whipped my phone out and immediately texted my fiancée and her parents (who all live in Colombo) on a group chat we have for our wedding planning.

Whatsapp chat I had on Easter Sunday Attacks
The first bomb went off at 8:45am

My fiancée was with me in Melbourne and had gone ahead the day before to Colombo, landing in the early hours of the morning of the attack. I was relieved when her father responded saying they were all okay and out of harm’s way.

It was getting closer to my departure and my phone was blowing up for the wrong reasons with friends and family from all over asking if I was safe. In my state of shock, I was able to respond to everyone and also check on news updates of the incident at the same time.

Multiple churches were hit in the nation’s capital along with several 5-star hotels in a coordinated string of bomb attacks.

I sat at my departure gate in Melbourne airport with this glazed look, completely, utterly shocked at all the news that was developing. In fact, Sri Lankan airlines flight 605 destined for Colombo was boarding right next to mine. I could only imagine what was going on in the minds of everyone onboard that flight.

Glued to my phone, I read up as much as I could about the incident until I was forced to turn it off for takeoff. It was a 9-hour flight to Singapore and I was effectively cut off from the world en route. Whilst on board, I feared what I was going to discover after I land and turn my phone back on.

9 hours later, I cleared Singaporean immigration, grabbed my bags, and headed to my hotel as fast as I could. I turned the news on and also spoke to my fiancée on the phone for the first time since the attack. She was asleep when everything went to hell in a handbasket and woke up while I was in the air. I could sense how terrorized she was from the sound of her voice.

Both of us lamented at how all of this mirrored our childhood growing up in Colombo in the midst of the 26-year civil war that ravaged Sri Lanka at the end of the 20th to the beginning of the 21st century. What was even more frightening was that fact that the hotels that were targeted were places that either of us and/or our friends could have been in. These hotels were no more than 30 minutes away from my house and I have been in the hotel buildings on several occasions frequenting its restaurants and bars.

Let alone the fact that it was Easter, these attacks were on a Sunday. I love Sunday brunch. It could have easily been me at that the hotel restaurant (where the bombs were detonated) on that fateful day. It was really hard to comprehend that fact after thinking about it some more.

It was now past midnight in Singapore and I found it hard to fall asleep even with all the jet lag and time difference giving me permission to do so. My body was exhausted but my mind was racing trying to come to terms with what was going on back in Sri Lanka.

Somehow, I managed to close my eyes and fall sleep around 1:30 am that night after responding to messages that I had received from friends and families while my phone was turned off in the air. I tucked my phone right next to my pillow just in case I needed to answer it for whatever reason.

But Wait, There’s More

I woke up 7 hours later to a normal-ish day of watching Game of Thrones and catching up with friends from Sri Lanka who were visiting Singapore at the time. At dinner, we all tried to dissect this literal bombshell that rocked the place we called home.

All of us were heading back there the following day and dreaded what we were going back to. I effectively drowned my sorrows the only way I knew how – by guzzling down delicious dumplings from Din Tai Fung like I was Hoover vacuum.

At the dinner table, one of my friends asked if my family back in the Philippines were safe after the earthquakes over there. I told her that she must have been mistaken Taiwan for the Philippines because I was not aware of any recent earthquakes in the area. I scarfed down more dumplings and thought nothing of it.

Taiwan Is Hit by Powerful Earthquake (New York Times)

The next morning was my last one in Singapore with my flight to Colombo set for later in the afternoon. I woke up, grabbed my phone and saw the news about a 6.1 magnitude earthquake hitting the Philippines, specifically in Luzon island, where the capital, Manila, was.

Looking at a map of the seismic activity, the epicenter was no more than 3 hours away from where my brother and parents live. My friend was right from the night before!

Ring, ring. “Here we go again”, I thought to myself.

“Mom, are you guys okay?”, I asked my mom. I was relieved to hear her voice telling me that she and my Dad were perfectly fine and to call my brother and sister-in-law who lived in Manila because there were parts of the capital that felt it.

Ring, ring. “Kuya (elder brother in Tagalog). Are you guys okay? I heard that people in Manila could feel the earthquake?”. He told me that they were all fine and they didn’t feel anything despite sitting in a car while everything was unfolding. He even joked about turning the CCTV on in their house and watching his dog fast asleep through all of it.

Phew. Everyone I loved over there was safe.

These back-to-back disasters really had me going.

What’s Colombo Like Now?

I was a little nervous about landing in Colombo late at night because the government had imposed curfews every night since the attack to try and keep the peace. Fortunately, airport pick ups were allowed as long as the vehicle was cleared by the police to do so.

As I walked through the airport in Colombo after landing, I couldn’t believe how empty it was. The terminal was far from busy and close to deserted. It was so empty that I was able to get to the pickup point in less than 25 minutes after landing which is unheard of at Colombo airport when you factor in clearing immigration and luggage collection.

The arrival hall was rather devoid of any tourists and airport employees all sat around a large television trying to glean as much as news as they could as the country was trying to comprehend with what had happened two days ago.

Since there was officially a curfew in place, even vehicles that were cleared for airport drop offs and pick ups were not allowed to enter the terminal’s main drive through. Instead, all vehicles were instructed to go along the main road that outlined the arrival and departure terminals. This is where I caught my ride and we made our way to Colombo proper.

The airport highway was unsurprisingly deserted and the vehicle I was in was stopped at 2 checkpoints along the 22 miles/35 km journey to my house. The only vehicles and people on the road belonged to the armed forces who all carried big guns.

This was like my childhood all over again.

Fast forward to today and the country is still reeling at the revelations that the attacks were masterminded by the Islamic terrorist group ISIS. With every passing day, news and updates trickled on social media to everyone despite the government banning most social media networks to curtail misinformation.

As it is an ongoing investigation, everyone is advised to stay home. Businesses and schools remain shut to prevent large groups of people gathering and be potential targets for another attack. The government has even gone on to ban the use of drones and unmanned aircraft.

Texts I received about the SL Easter Attacks
Text message alerts from the local media station AdaDerana

In the past 5 days since I’ve been back, I’ve only left my house 3 times to visit my fiancée and friends. There is a thick uneasiness with everyone, including myself. Our everyday life is severely disrupted with fear and nervousness consuming our day with every news alert that comes through on our phones.

The inept government of Sri Lanka has copped to failing the citizens they were sworn to protect after news broke out about the government receiving intelligence that warned of an attack that was not acted upon. There is adamant finger pointing going on with high ranking government officials with the general populace seething at their seemingly lackadaisical response and infighting since the attacks.

I went out for lunch earlier this afternoon and the streets were E-M-P-T-Y. Post-apocalyptic almost. I stopped by a large grocery store and it was far from being at capacity. The air conditioning was not even working at full throttle because of the lack of patrons. The people in there, like me, were all trying to act like everything was normal while they shopped, but there was an eery feeling that was inescapable. Everything and everyone was suspicious.

If you have read this far, I thank you. As I try to grasp everything that is going on around here, using this blog as an outlet to collect and present my thoughts has really helped.

Pray for Sri Lanka ??

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Nico Atienza

Chief Storyteller

An expat remote worker based in Colombo, Sri Lanka with a penchant for window seats on planes, travel, and technology that makes everyone’s lives easier.