Feature

Central Bank bombing: 21 years later

by Ashanthi Warunasuriya

 

One of the deadliest attacks carried out in Colombo during the 30 year war was the bombing of the Central Bank. On 31, January 1991 at around 10.45 -11 am, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, the central nerve system of the country’s economy, was destroyed by a massive bomb explosion triggered by the LTTE. Nearly decades after the end of the war, people still recall the horrific memories of the bombing.

She retired from her post at the Central Bank last year. Before joining the Central Bank Vijitha had worked as a journalist at the Divaina newspaper. In 1990, she joined the Central Bank of Sri Lanka as an Assistant Director. Last year she retired after working as a Deputy Director.

In 1996 she was in the debt department of the bank as a Senior Assistant Director. Her husband D.V. Harischandra was also employed in the bank. Vijitha and her husband were at the bank on that fateful day.

Vijitha was seven months pregnant at that time. It was her second child. On that day, despite not being well, Vijitha had reported for duty as usual at 8.00am in the morning.

“Bomb attacks were common back then. But nobody expected the Central Bank to be attacked. It had tight security. Although I went to work as usual in the morning, I was not feeling well. After breakfast it became worse. Around 10 am in the morning I went to the office rest room. Our building was separated into three blocks. I was on the third floor. My department was situated in the middle part of the building. But the rest room was situated on the first floor. At around 10.25am in the morning I heard a large noise. I also heard some of our colleagues asking each other what that noise was. With that I came outside the rest room. Between the two towers of the world trade center we could clearly see the adjoining road. I glanced out the window but could not see anything. Then I asked a minor staff worker who went past what had happened. He didn’t know anything about it but said that it sounded like unloading a truckload of rocks. There was some construction work going on in a nearby building so I ignored it and went back to my department. When I went there, I noticed the staff members were all tensed. Then our Director came and told us not to look out from the windows. But I went to see what was going on as my husband was also working at the bank at that time. There I saw people running down the road. I then tried to take a call to my husband. But suddenly there was another large noise. Everything became dark and the ceiling above me came crashing down on us,” she said.

At that time only five to six people had remained in the office. Most of them had gone out after the first explosion.

“When the ceiling collapsed, what I could only do is close my eyes and wrap my arms around my belly. When I opened my eyes after a few seconds I found the whole office was destroyed. A lady who was standing close to me grabbed my hand and took me outside. Surprisingly I was not harmed at all. But my husband was injured. Even at that point I did not know that it was a bomb explosion. At the ground floor the security guards helped me to get out of the building. My husband was waiting for me outside. I saw a lot of injured people. The army came and advised us not to go towards the bank but to go towards the Galle Face ground. My husband and I then walked up to salve-island. From there we got a taxi and went home,” Vijitha said.

Although Vijitha and her husband were among those who survived this horrific attack, the trauma they suffered took many years to heal. “We even had problems with our unborn child after this incident. It resulted in a premature birth. After birth my daughter was scared of even the smallest noise,” she said.

The final toll from the Central Bank attack was 91 dead and over 1400 people injured. Around 100 people were permanently blinded from this incident and 28 people lost their limbs.

The truck (42-6452) containing about 440 pounds of high explosives had crashed through the main gate of the Central Bank. As gunmen traded fire with security guards, the suicide bomber in the lorry detonated the massive bomb, which tore through the bank and damaged eight other buildings nearby.

According to reports at the time, the lorry was followed by a three-wheeler, carrying two LTTE cadres armed with automatic rifles and an RPG launcher. Among the wounded were two US citizens, six Japanese, and one Dutch national. Most of them were bystanders or civilians manning small shops set up near the bank. While the bomber, identified as Raju, died immediately, the backup team SubramaniumVigneswaram alias Kittu, and Sivasamy Dharmendra alias Raju, were apprehended by law enforcement with information provided by the public. Police and the security forces launched a massive manhunt for others who were involved in this terrorist incident. It was eventually determined the bombers had come from Jaffna, in the north of the country and were LTTE members.

Tourism plummeted to 40% after the Central Bank bombing and another in July on a train that killed more than 70 people. Until 2006, the Central Bank bombing was the deadliest LTTE bombing of the civil war.

Vijitha recalled some of the memories her friends had shared with her about their experiences on that horrific day.

“I lost four of my closest colleagues from that incident. They worked at the library which took most of the damage from the blast.

One of them came to work with us in the same vehicle. It was only after a few days from the incident that I heard that she was dead. If that lorry had crashed into the Central Bank then we all would have been dead. But luckily the security guards were able to stop it near the entrance by shooting at it. They had advised my husband to lie on the ground as the shooting broke out. But one of his close friends died and two were permanently blinded,” she said.

Vijitha says the horrific memories still drive a chill through her spine. “If I had stayed inside that rest room then I would not have made it out alive as that tower was badly damaged from the blast”.

The Central Bank attack has entered the history books as one of the most brutal atrocities committed during the war. For many years to come, it will be remembered for the bravery of the people who faced such horrors and the dedication of the people who finally brought back peace to our motherland. (Courtesy The Sunday Leader)

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