After many years of civil war between the Sinhalese & Tamil population, the Sri Lankans were going to celebrate ten years of peace in 2019. Ten years in which Sri Lanka has become a more and more popular tourist destination. In 2019, Lonely planet announced Sri Lanka as the number 1 tourist destination in the world.
One month before they were going to celebrate their tenth anniversary of peace, on the 21st of April 2019, Sri Lanka was startled by 8 terrorist attacks mainly in Colombo, but also in other parts of the country. Six bombings happened in Catholic churches and hotels and two in apartment complexes. When this happened, we were in Unawatuna in the South and we’d left Colombo just 2 days earlier. I was sitting in a modern cafe in a tourist town, drinking an expensive but good coffee. It was actually my mom who told me first, I was talking to her on Whatsapp when she asked me if I’d already heard the news. It took some time before the gravity of the situation became clear. Somehow we’re so used to this kind of news that we get a little numb. But when my inbox on Facebook and Instagram started exploding I realized that it had to be serious: it was all over the news in Europe. Elias and I were planning on travelling further down the coast that day, but now we weren’t sure what would be the safe thing to do. Since we wanted to go to a small, not so touristy town, we figured it would probably be safer to go there, than to stay in Unawatuna, where there were many Western hotels.
We arrived in Midigama at our tiny home-stay and figured we would be safe here, this was the most local place we’d been to until then. When we went outside to check out the beach, our host family was quietly watching the news. Our host tried to explain in broken English that we had to be back at 6 PM, because there was a nation-wide curfew. The beach was beautiful, but it was too calm… We realized there was no one there, no tourists and no locals. I checked the news again and two more attacks had happened. I tried to contact my family but noticed all social media was down. The government blocked all online communication tools in order to prevent speculation and to complicate communication for possible organised terrorist attacks. We decided to leave the beach, look for some dinner and spend the rest of the evening inside. Normally we would’ve liked a beach to ourselves but we didn’t like the atmosphere. While looking to fill up our tummies before the curfew started at 6, even at 4h30 PM, everything was closed. The streets were deserted. The Sri Lanka we knew, with street vendors and tiny restaurants on every corner, was nowhere to be found. Sri Lanka was mourning. We decided to ask our host for some dinner and luckily he was happy to cook us some rice and curry. The family was still watching TV. After dinner we went to our room where I downloaded a VPN so I could contact the worried at home. Good thing I learned how to avoid social media blocks in China ;-). We wanted to go to Weligama the next day, but since this was a bigger town, we decided to stay one more night in Midigama and see how things were unfolding. Since we went to bed at like 8 PM we decided to wake up for sunrise on the beach, only realizing the next early morning that we were at the West coast and the sun wouldn’t rise from the sea side…
From then on everything slowly got back to normal. Or at least, for one part. The curfew lasted (on and off) for about two more weeks, which resulted in a lot of early nighters for us. We just continued doing our thing, travelling and volunteering and we didn’t feel unsafe at all. What worried us the most was the news we heard and especially Western countries panicking because of it. Most countries changed their travel advice and the Netherlands even tried to get all the backpackers back on a special national insurance fond. I think they feared another civil war, after some riots against Muslims in some areas of Sri Lanka. At this point we considered leaving the country too. But then we realized that we only felt unsafe when we watched the news, which is made for shocking and scaring you. The military was doing many checks all over the country, police was in heightened state of awareness; it would be the worst possible timing for terrorists to plan another terrorist attack. Besides, we didn’t really fear a civil war. Although it was (and is) not completely unlikely, when talking to Sri Lankans it became clear that nobody is looking for another war. They’ve had so much worse. Their biggest worry is not war, but money. Many tourists were leaving Sri Lanka and it would probably take a full year for tourism to get back to the normal level.
This is what made our Sri Lankan experience so different from most peoples’: being one of very few tourists. Silver linings: Being able to visit places while being the only tourist, getting super nice hotel rooms for hostel prices, long stretched beaches for ourselves… We don’t know a Sri Lanka with many tourists, because only by the time we were leaving, tourists started to come back. In some places we really missed the people; walking around in streets with many cozy bars without any people feels a little sad and lonely. Also, sometimes we were really desperate to meet some other travelers, just to have some social contact apart from each other. But sometimes we wondered if certain tourist hot spots would have been too crowded for us… In some places it was clear that normally they would’ve been really busy… Neither of us like mass tourism and we usually try to avoid the general tourist attractions everyone is going to. It would have been very different.
On another note, we can’t deny that there is some ethnic tension in Sri Lanka, and if it was already there before the attacks, it definitely became worse after. Sinhalese & Tamil people seem to be fine with each other now, but this time Muslims are the underdog. They are a minority of about ten percent, but a lot of people don’t like them. Nobody told us ‘all Muslims are bad’, but many people are not happy with their growing presence in the form of mosques, Muslim schools and political representation. What worried (and astonished) us, was that a couple of weeks after the attacks, some Buddhist monks in Kandy set up a hunger strike until the three Muslim ministers in the government stepped down from their positions. After so many years of civil war, for a large part caused by the fact that the Tamil minority was suppressed, I really can’t understand how this would be a good move. NOWHERE in the world has it proven a good strategy to suppress minorities and take away their rights. This is what creates terrorists in every minority, whether it’s Muslim, Tamil or Christian. Once more religion has disappointed me: apparently it doesn’t matter if you are a Buddhist, praying for peace, or a Muslim, it all comes down to the same thing: misinterpreting or misusing your religion to prove you are right and others are wrong. Ugh.
A final positive note: we love Sri Lanka, with all its diversity. We met lovely people from all religions and as far as these conversations went: everyone wants peace, health and happiness. I pray (to whatever god wants the best for ALL people) that they can continue to live in peace.