Soldiers rebuild Zion Church, Batticaloa | Sunday Observer

Soldiers rebuild Zion Church, Batticaloa

14 July, 2019
Army: Hard at work
Army: Hard at work

Children are always a source of joy, with their innocent smiles. Unfortunately, during the terror unleashed on Black Sunday a group of Sunday School children died a violent death, their innocent lives swept away in a cowardly explosion. The beautiful children of Zion Church, Batticaloa who perished that Easter morning will be sadly remembered for decades. Having previously written about the reconstruction of the St. Anthonys Church, Kochikade and the St. Sebastians Church, Katuwapitiya which were devastated by the bomb attacks, I decided to undertake the long journey to Kallady, Batticaloa. The Sri Lanka Army had begun the building and restoration project of this church.

We left Colombo by evening, trying in vain to outdo the peak traffic hour rush. Having passed Dambulla we moved on travelling towards Habarana and Manampitiya. From here there is a desolate stretch of road bordered by dense forest, with wild elephants crossing at random. Having reached Valaichennai around 3am we finally reached the 231 Brigade Head Quarters.

After breakfast I was given a briefing by Colonel Mihidhu Perera, the Brigade Commander who was one of the first responders to the church. Christians who were once praying and listening to the sermon had been left for dead, covered in blood. I set off to the church with two soldiers. We passed the famous Kallady Bridge and could see the outer fortifications of the Old Dutch Fort. We passed the beautiful Catholic cathedral painted in blue. A few metres away the jeep halted and I saw the signs board in Tamil proclaiming Zion Church. At the entrance parents of the dead Sunday school children had erected a large canvass banner. The children’s colour photos were printed on it and still, all smiling back at us. After passing through a few armed soldiers we entered the church, or rather what is left behind of a once sacred sanctuary. The few walls that were standing were covered in shrapnel damage. Arched windows were visible minus the glass.

I met up with the two officers in charge of this project, Lieutenant Colonel Nandika Abeysekera and Lieutenant Viraj Liyanage. A group of 50 young soldiers were toiling in the intense heat, wearing yellow safety helmets.

The Colonel explained “We had to first clear the debris from this site. It was a very hard task given the fact that this is a church, and a place where people had died. We begin work every morning by 8am and proceed till evening. At present our aim is to restore this church, upgrading its aesthetic visual and replicate a chapel. Our soldiers work very hard. We hope to complete this task by December, enabling them to worship here for Christmas”.

I noticed some sections of the building had burned down. We walked towards the platform where the Sunday school kids were last seen, seconds before the explosion rocked the church which had 800 people packed inside that Sunday morning. I felt a cold chill standing on this platform. We climbed to the second floor and I was shown how the marble floor tiles had been dislodged and airborne- an indication of the powerful velocity of this blast. I noticed a civilian attired in brown clothes standing next to a pillar. I motioned him to come and he approached me with hands extended. Brother Sudhakar is a young father whose 7- year- old son was brutally killed that day. He narrated how his wife and other child had barely escaped death. Brother Sudhakar visits the site and is positive that the congregation would be here by Christmas. He said “I have lost my son. There are other parents like me, who have lost their innocent children. We move forward by the grace and love of Jesus”.

This predominantly Tamil speaking congregation which has 1100 members is headed by Rev. Roshan Mahesan, who counts 30 years in Christian ministry. He went on to explain “Our ministry was established in 1973. In 1981 the Zion church was built here and by divine providence we built the present church in 1994. Today we operate 13 branch churches. Our faithful members faithfully come from areas like Uranni, Iruthayapuram, Navatkudda, Kiran, Kallady and Batticalao town. As a church family we are sad about the Black Sunday attack, yet we are driven by our faith in God and we move forward. We lost 30 people and 86 members of my parish are injured and receiving treatment in various hospitals. A few have returned home since then. My focus is Bible based spiritual counseling for all those who were traumatised by this bomb blast. We conduct sessions for the little children – they take part in singing, drawing and other games. Even the adults get spiritual counseling. We never stopped services.

The very next Sunday we held our worship service at the William Hall. My own home within the church compound is destroyed. Yet my focus is to rebuild God’s house- our church. As we walked outside the heat was more intense. The young soldiers, mostly Buddhist continued to dig at the new foundation areas. Others were moving piles of sand. Some others were on the iron frames where the roof once stood. Masons, plumbers, welders, electricians and carpenters form the Engineer Services Regiment. The congregation is thankful to the army for undertaking this project.

As I was about to leave a soldier pointed at a wall where a teenager had written a verse from the Bible which said, “I have set the Lord always before me, because he is at my right hand I shall not be moved’. Indeed this congregation will rise from the ashes and remain stronger. The role of the Army in this task of rebuilding is worthy of deep appreciation.