Sri Lanka attacks: 'I thought we had left all this violence behind us'

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St Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade, ColomboImage source, Reuters
Image caption,
Guards outside St Anthony's Shrine in the Kochchikade area of Colombo, where one of the explosions occurred

People caught up in Sri Lanka's deadly Easter Sunday attacks have been telling the BBC what they experienced.

Churches and hotels were hit by a series of explosions in Colombo and Negombo on the west coast, and Batticaloa on the east.

The blasts came as members of Sri Lanka's peaceful Christian minority prepared to attend church services for Easter Sunday.

Julian Emmanuel

Dr Emmanuel is a 48-year-old physician. He grew up in Sri Lanka, and now lives in Surrey, UK, with his wife and children.

They were in Colombo this week to visit some of their relatives who still live in the city. They were asleep in their room in Colombo's Cinnamon Grand Hotel when one of the bombs went off.

"We were in our bedroom and we heard this huge explosion which rocked our room, I think it was about 8:30," he said. "We were then ushered to the lounge in our hotel, where we were asked to evacuate through the back. This is where we saw casualties being taken away to the hospital, and we saw some of the damage to the hotel."

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Among the churches attacked was St Sebastian's in Negombo

A staff member commented that she had seen a dismembered body at the site of the explosion, while his friends sent him photos of the churches that had been bombed. The hotel itself, meanwhile, had "significant damage" - one of the restaurants had been blown up.

"We were going to go to church today, with my mum and nephew, but all the church services have been cancelled - there aren't going to be any more church services in the country because of what's happened this morning," he said.

"I spent my first 18 years in Sri Lanka, so I've seen a lot of ethnic strife." Sri Lanka was ravaged by decades of conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups, but has been relatively peaceful since 2009. "Whereas my kids, my children are 11 and seven, and they've never seen anything like war, and neither has my wife. For them it's quite difficult."

He added: "It's really sad - I thought Sri Lanka had left all this violence behind us, but now it's sad to see that it's come back again."

Usman Ali

Mr Ali lives in Colombo. He first noticed something was wrong when worshippers were "hastily" evacuated from a Roman Catholic church near his home.

His road, which leads up to the city's main hospital, was also suddenly filled with ambulances. He checked the hashtag #LKA - Lanka - and quickly learned what was going on.

Among the horrific footage and images was an appeal from the country's blood centres for people to donate to help the victims.

Image source, Usman Ali
Image caption,
The National Blood Centre in Colombo was filled with people hoping to donate

Mr Ali went to the National Blood Centre, and found it thronged with people.

"There were huge crowds and roads congested as people tried to park wherever and enter the blood centre," he said. "Currently they are taking down the name, blood group and contact number of persons who are willing to donate blood, and asking them to return only if a representative of the National Blood Centre contacts them."

People were spilling out of the building, he said, forming "massive queues leading all the way to the entrance".

Image source, Usman Ali
Image caption,
People formed long queues leading right up to the door

Once inside, there was a strong community spirit.

"Everyone just had one intention, and that was to help victims of the blast, no matter what religion or race they may be. Each person was helping another out in filling [out forms with] the details requested.

"I wonder where this attack came from. God save us."

Kieran Arasaratnam

Kieran Arasaratnam, a professor at Imperial College London Business School, was staying at the Shangri-La hotel, whose second-floor restaurant was gutted in a blast.

Mr Arasaratnam, a Sri Lankan who moved to the UK as a refugee 30 years ago, was visiting the country to help launch a social enterprise. He was in his room when he heard a sound like "thunder".

He told the BBC he started running for his life from the 18th to the ground floor amid desperate scenes.

"Everyone just started to panic, it was total chaos," he said. "I looked to the room on the right and there's blood everywhere.

"Everyone was running and a lot of people just don't know what was going on. People had blood on their shirt and there was someone carrying a girl to the ambulance. The walls and the floor were covered in blood."

Image source, Kieran Arasaratnam
Image caption,
The Shangri-La hotel's second-floor restaurant was gutted in a blast

The 41-year-old says he might have been caught up in the blast if he had not delayed going to breakfast.

He says he left his room at around 08:45 (03:15 GMT), the time when several explosions were reported to have occurred at hotels and churches in different locations.

"Something distracted me so I went back to the room to grab my debit card, opened the curtain and switched off the 'do not disturb' sign… and a big blast went off," he said.

He says he's currently in an emergency shelter. There, he says, he can "smell blood everywhere", with people injured in the blast needing treatment and searching for missing family members.

"It's awful seeing kids carried off covered in blood. I left Sri Lanka 30 years ago as a refugee and never thought I had to see this again."

Simon Whitmarsh

Simon Whitmarsh, a 55-year-old retired doctor from Wales, is on holiday in Sri Lanka. He was cycling near the city of Batticaloa when he heard a "big bang" and saw "smoke billowing into the sky about half a mile away".

A blast ripped through a church in the city as worshippers were gathering for services.

"Then we saw the ambulances, people crying, and we were told to leave the area," he told the BBC.

As a former consultant paediatrician, Mr Whitmarsh says he felt compelled to help those affected so volunteered at the local hospital.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Sri Lankan security forces secure the area around St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo

"By that stage, they had activated emergency protocols," he says. "The hospital was heavily guarded by the army, who were stopping most people going in.

"All the streets around it were closed. It seemed very well organised. All I did was find someone senior to see if I could help."

He says the nationwide curfew, imposed by Sri Lankan authorities in the wake of the blasts, has completely emptied streets and roads that were bustling only hours ago.

"Now it's curfew, there's nothing. No vehicles, no people walking, nothing," he says. "'Stay indoors' is the message."

He added: "London people have said they were thinking of going home, but we can't do anything until the curfew finishes."