A lifelong New Yorker, I moved to Sri Lanka in 2008, when it was in the midst of a brutal and seemingly never-ending civil war. I quickly became accustomed to carrying my passport and stopping at checkpoints every few miles, where army officers would point their rifles into my car, checking for anything suspicious. I internalized the fear that a bus next to me could possibly explode with a bomb — a common tactic employed by the militant organization, LTTE, in those days — only sometimes caving and naively requesting that my driver avoid buses, a futile request on crowded Sri Lankan roads. My husband worked in the capital, at Colombo’s World Trade Center; the eerie similarity in name with NYC’s World Trade Center used to haunt me.
It is still hard for me to reconcile the peaceful nature of this predominantly Buddhist country with its violent history, because I really did not live through it for very long. Within a year of moving, the civil war was suddenly over. The emotional scars remain for those who did live through it, but the physical reminders of the war were gone — no more checkpoints and no more rifles.
Slowly, Sri Lanka began to be unearthed as the hidden gem that it was. Instead of having to implore friends to visit me, Sri Lanka was appearing on all sorts of travel hot lists, including The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler and Lonely Planet. Sri Lanka was finally having its long overdue moment and tourists were pouring in. Pristine beaches, breathtaking safaris, lush tea country, cultural and religious treasures — so many experiences, all wrapped into one small teardrop-shaped island.
After 10 years of this fanfare, we are back to the tears. Tears shed for more than 250 innocent lives lost due to terrorism, again. It could have been me and my family at those brunches — those were hotels that we frequented — or any of my Christian friends at those churches. Back are the security checkpoints, back are the guns and back are the curfews. Imagine, for an American, to be told that you cannot leave the house until curfews have been lifted. I could not access Facebook or WhatsApp, my primary methods of communication with my loved ones. The limitations on personal freedoms have been a lot to digest, but something I accept, considering the intent.
My children’s school will remain closed indefinitely. Answering my sons’ questions has been one of the hardest parts for me. My first experience with terrorism was when I was a Columbia College senior; I distinctly remember being in my Broadway dorm room when my parents called me, completely distraught. I rushed to the common room to watch the news with my floormates, all of us huddled around the screen watching the towers fall. All of it seemed surreal and incomprehensible to me at the age of 20. My children are, unfortunately, having to grapple with it at the tender ages of 5 and 7.
They have, until this point, only seen the seemingly happy co-existing of faiths. In my home, when one accounts for my household staff, we have all four of the major religions of Sri Lanka living happily under one roof, my own little melting pot.
Speaking of melting pots, I have never been prouder to be an American citizen. Since the attacks first unfolded, our American Embassy has been available to all of those directly affected and to those of us simply seeking information. News alerts have been informative, accurate and consistent; everyone I meet seems to want to know what the American alert level is. We hope that the FBI and other American agencies here helping with the investigation will be able to assist in finding the perpetrators of these heinous attacks so we can begin to rebuild ... again.
Sri Lanka is bleeding, but if it can emerge after 30 years of war, it will most certainly rise again, safer and stronger. America, the country of my birth, did after 9-11, as did India, the country of my family’s origin, after 26/11 [the 2008 Mumbai attacks]. Once the dust settles and the path to reconciliation recommences, I invite all of you to visit our beautiful paradise island, the country that has my heart.
“Reprinted with Permission from Columbia College Today.”
Sonia Dandona Hirdaramani ’02 continues to be involved with Columbia through her roles as member of the Young Advisory Council for the College, Class Agent International Vice-Chair, Regional ARC Chair and Class Correspondent.
By Sonia Dandona Hirdaramani