Australian-Sri Lankan lost his wife and only child in Easter attack
Wearing a bright yellow dress and a flower in her hair, 10-year-old Alexendria Kolonne spent Easter Saturday singing songs and playing the guitar for her family.
A day later, she was dead, murdered alongside her mother by a suicide bomber in their local church — two of the people who died in six coordinated attacks on churches and hotels across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.
Four days after the coordinated attacks, the Sri Lankan Health Ministry revised the death toll, saying 253 people had died. That toll is significantly lower than the 359 initially reported to CNN by a Colombo police spokesman this week. The health ministry cited the condition of remains and the difficulty in identifying them for the discrepancy.
Alexendria died in St Sebastian’s Church, in Negombo, an hour’s drive north of the capital Colombo, where more than 100 people were killed — the location with the highest death toll.
At 8:45 a.m., the church was packed with people attending Easter mass. The service was ending when the attacker walked into the church and detonated the bomb in his backpack.
Alexendria’s father, Sudesh Kolonne, was waiting outside the church, as there were no seats left inside. When he heard the blast, he ran inside and searched desperately for his wife and daughter.
It took him 30 minutes to find them.
“It was black and dust,” Kolonne tells CNN at his home in Negombo. “I was praying and looking. Finally, I found my daughter.”
“My wife was trying to say something,” Kolonne says. “And I try to lift her to hospital. I think she died on the way (in the) ambulance.”
“Both died in front of me,” the 46-year-old says. “Both died in my hands.”
An ‘unbelievable loss’
A few hours earlier, the Australian-Sri Lankan dual nationality family had been getting ready at home for the mass. Alexendria even had a special dress for the occasion.
“These two were so excited on Sunday to go to church for the ceremony,” Kolonne says.
His wife, 45-year-old entrepreneur Manik Suriyaaratchi, was a devout Catholic, and Kolonne, an education consultant, is a Buddhist. He says they both liked to “celebrate other religions.”
The couple, both Sri Lankan born and naturalized Australian citizens, met 25 years ago. They married in 2005 and returned to Sri Lanka in 2014. Kolonne splits his time between Melbourne and Negombo.
“We had a really good family. Especially my daughter,” he says. “(It’s an) unbelievable loss. My family’s gone.”
Grieving under threat
Alexendria and Manik were buried alongside each other in a private funeral in a cemetery south of Negombo on Tuesday.
Many of the other victims from the St Sebastian’s Church attack are being laid to rest together in a mass burial site close to the church, which was opened to accommodate the overwhelming number of bodies.
A series of somber ceremonies take place here every day, with relatives carrying in the caskets under the scorching sun as mourners surround them to grieve and sing hymns.
But families can’t even mourn in peace.
Fears of further attacks at mass gatherings have led to heightened security — with relatives having to lay their loved ones to rest quickly, surrounded by heavily armed soldiers. Even the hearses are given a security check.
A planned mass memorial service at St Sebastian’s Church on Tuesday was cut short, after police warnings about a potential threat forced the clergy to curtail it to protect the hundreds of mourners.
Calls for calm
Religious leaders are calling for calm, to try to discourage reprisal attacks and prevent Sri Lanka from spiraling into sectarian violence.
“At the moment, our people are very sad and very emotional and we have to maintain peace,” Father Nishantha Cooray tells CNN outside St Sebastian’s Church.
“Certain people can create certain problems, and we have to be very careful … we cannot harm or persecute or attack any person.”
Priests have been traveling from all over the country to support the grieving community. Father Cooray traveled from Kandy, large city in central Sri Lanka, several hours’ drive east of Negombo.
“We go house to house, feel their sadness and tears. Being with them, we share their grief,” he says.
Sustaining religious harmony in Sri Lanka’s multi-faith society is the key to preventing further violence, Cooray adds.
“We have seen all these Hindus and Buddhists come to share our sadness with us,” he says. “All have come here.”
Sadness is turning to anger for some families of the victims, as more details emerge about the government’s lack of response to repeated intelligence advisories.
India sent three memos warning of possible attacks on churches and tourist spots, including one just two hours before the bomb blasts.
Sudesh Kolonne describes the suicide bombers as “absolutely stupid, nothing else,” but he is unequivocal about the Sri Lankan government’s failure to protect his family.
“This is murder,” he says. “Our politicians represent us. (It’s) their fault. They’re the ones responsible for this.”
Update: This story has been updated to reflect the death toll has been revised by the Sri Lankan Health Ministry.
CNN’s Angus Watson contributed reporting