'Beyond comprehension': Torontonians gather to mourn, seek solace after Sri Lanka Easter attacks
"Peaceful" is not a word Gary Anandasangaree would use to describe Sri Lanka. It's a country he fled at the age of 10 amid a decades-long civil war.
But while peace may not been achieved on the island in the past 10 years, "there was some semblance of order in some places," Anandasangaree said.
That all changed Sunday, when a sudden attack killed at least 290 people and injured hundreds more with a series of coordinated bomb blasts that rocked churches and hotels across the country. Many of the attacks, believed to be carried out by suicide bombers with a local Islamic group, targeted worshippers gathered to celebrate Easter, authorities said.
Today, Anandasangaree is a Scarborough-area Liberal MP in a city home to an estimated 250,000 people of Sri Lankan origin.
'Come together, mourn together'
And on Monday, he was of several Canadians who organized vigils to pay tribute to those killed and to seek solace among those who have witnessed violence in their homeland before.
The vigil, held at 7 p.m. at the Malvern Methodist Church, was a chance "to bring everyone together," he said. The place of worship overflowed with people, not unlike the churches in Sri Lanka on Easter — though this time, to remember the victims.
"It's a way for us to really come together, mourn together, to start the long healing process together and also to support each other," he said. Faith leaders — including a Catholic priest, a rabbi and an imam — also spoke at the vigil.
"We are deeply saddened, all of us, in the city of Toronto," Mayor John Tory said.
The Easter Sunday bombings, says Anandasangaree, are the latest in a line of religiously motivated terror attacks around the world and called for Canadians of all faiths to denounce hate and intolerance.
The explosions — centred on the cities of Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa — collapsed ceilings and blew out windows, killing worshippers and hotel guests in one scene after another of smoke, soot, blood, broken glass, screams and wailing alarms.
While no group has officially taken responsibility for the attacks, Sri Lankan Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne attributed the attacks to a group known as National Thowfeek Jamaath. Police said they have arrested 13 people in connection with the bombings.
'We started panicking'
Toronto resident Princely Soundranayagam was among those who learned his family member was seriously injured. It was Sunday afternoon when he heard the news from a relative.
'When we heard an attack at the Bedico church, that's when we started panicking," he said. His cousin had been severely injured and was unconscious in hospital.
"It's really sad and it's frustrating because there is no solution," he said, adding he worries the Sri Lankan government will use the attack as justification to clamp down even further on freedoms.
During the civil war, which came to an end in 2009, a powerful rebel army known as the Tamil Tigers was crushed by the government. Meanwhile anti-Muslim bigotry has swept the island in recent years, fed by Buddhist nationalists, though the island also has no history of violent Muslim militants.
The country's small Christian community has seen scattered incidents of harassment in recent years but nothing close to the scale of devastation seen Sunday.
Anandasangaree says Sunday's attacks risk destabilizing a country that's still struggling to establish a fragile peace, adding many of his fellow expatriates are anxious about its longer-term consequences for loved ones back home.
'Situation remains volatile'
Officials with Global Affairs Canada have said no Canadians were among the 39 foreigners killed in the attacks, but stepped up travel advisories for anyone in or headed to the country.
"The situation remains volatile," reads the advisory, which urges Canadians to exercise a high degree of caution.
Other attacks could occur throughout the country, the statement warns. Local authorities have declared a state of emergency and a curfew could be imposed at any time. Access to some social media has also been temporarily blocked, the statement says.
Spokeswoman Amy Mills urged Canadians in Colombo, the nation's capital, to limit their movements, avoid impacted areas, and take direction from local authorities.
In the hours after the attacks, some 200 Sri Lankan-Canadians attended a service at the Toronto Harvest Missionary Church in Scarborough to pray for victims and their families.