On Easter Sunday in April 2019, eight coordinated explosions in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa targeted churches and high-end hotels, killing 259 people including 66 children, and injured more than 500 people.
The Zion Church in Batticaloa was one of the targets. 30 lives were lost; amongst them 13 children. Further, 13 children were injured and over 600 children and their families faced psychosocial trauma as a result of this attack.
As a response, with the financial assistance from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), UNICEF provided essential medical equipment for emergency paediatric care, and strengthened the Government’s capacity to manage and respond to the critical requirements of child protection and psychosocial support for the victims.
A disaster of this magnitude was not something the authorities were prepared for; the urgency and extent of the disaster meant that immediate identification and response to the critical needs of the injured was required to minimize the number of deaths and assist in the recovery – short- and long-term – of those who survived.
Due to the lack of equipment to manage paediatric and neonatal resuscitation, the Accident and Emergency Unit of the Batticaloa Teaching Hospital faced challenges in responding to the medical emergency. This resulted in paediatric emergency care for the injured children being provided in the high-dependency unit of the adult surgical unit, risking the loss of valuable lifesaving time.
Further challenges were faced by the authorities in the child protection front; coordinating and providing the necessary childcare services and addressing the psychosocial needs of victims.
With financial support from DFAT, UNICEF supported the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs (MoWCA) and the Ministry of Health (MOH) in assessing the situation of children and women, providing services, coordinating the collection of data and response, and procuring essential paediatric medical equipment to ensure that children and adolescents were prioritized in the response.
The provision of critical medical equipment enabled management of paediatric patients in the Accident and Emergency Unit, ensuring early effective management of injured children.
To build Government capacity in responding to matters related to child protection in the aftermath of the disaster, UNICEF strengthened the functioning of the Child Protection Unit (CPU) at the Batticaloa Teaching Hospital. This included renovation of the unit, making it accessible and child-friendly, and providing necessary equipment.
The funding also enabled the training of 35 Government Officers on mental health and counselling, enabling them to support more than 300 people , requiring psychosocial services.
Meshak Mahendran, 14, survived the bomb blast, but his ten-year-old brother Jebishan was not so fortunate. “The children are usually dropped off at church for Sunday School at 7.30 a.m. and we join them at 9 a.m. for the church service,” says Premini, his mother. “That day, as we were approaching the church, we heard a loud sound. Meshak was thrown back by the force of the blast and was saved. We identified the body of our other son in hospital.”
Meshak did, however, suffered burn injuries on his face and was struck on his head and legs with shrapnel, and received treatment at the Batticaloa Teaching Hospital. There is still shrapnel embedded in him and he experiences recurring headaches and will need long-term medical attention; his recovery – both physical and psychological – will take its course.
But Meshak shows optimism, which defies his health condition. “I can’t go outdoors just yet because my skin is sensitive and hasn’t healed fully. But it won’t take long. My friends spend a lot of time with me at home now. I am playing indoor games, so I am grateful for this gift of a basketball. I will go back to school as soon as the doctors say it is okay.”
Apart from Meshak, 12 children who were injured in the Easter Sunday Bombing and other daily admitted children continue to benefit from the strengthened capacity of the Batticaloa Teaching Hospital. The provision of medical equipment as well as institution capacity building by UNICEF through DFAT will continue to provide lifesaving health services, child protection and psychosocial support for many years to come.
The long-standing partnership between UNICEF, the Government of Sri Lanka, and the Government of Australia, through the generous financial contribution from the people of the Government of Australia, enabled this timely humanitarian assistance in support of the children in Sri Lanka.