Photo Essay: The Settling Dust of War in Sri Lanka

By Catherine McGrath

When I think of Sri Lanka, I can’t help but let images of war creep into my mind. For nearly 25 years, the country was embroiled in a gruesome civil war that would forever engrain fear into the culture. During my time there, I noticed hints of pain seep into every conversation that touched on the topic of the war or violence. Sri Lankans didn’t want to talk about it. Even if they had, I would never be able to comprehend what they went through.

Waking up to the news on Easter morning that multiple bombs had exploded in coordinated terrorist attacks across Colombo, the nation’s capital, my body instantly tensed. The thought of this beautiful country experiencing more violence than it already has weighed on me. A recent trip through Sri Lanka introduced me to how generous, kind, and overly hospitable I would forever know this culture to be, and made the news on Easter all the more surreal.

It’s been 10 years since the civil war ended, and all Sri Lankans desire is to cultivate peace. Despite their experiences with war and suffering, Sri Lankans embody resilient smiles, generous hearts, and welcoming arms.

01

There is hopefulness in the eyes of Sri Lankans. This hope is also expressed in their actions, words, and smiles. They long for harmony and seamless coexistence.

02

This little island is wild and untamed—unlike anywhere I’ve been before. A 10-hour ride across the island from Colombo to Arugam Bay weaved through motorbikes, stray elephants, loose livestock, and tuk tuks galore. Sri Lanka buzzes with life.

03

I never felt unsafe in Sri Lanka. In fact, I’ve never received more help from strangers while traveling than here.

04

I felt a sense of freedom while twisting through the vibrant mountains of the country. I couldn’t stop looking out the window in pure awe of the landscape’s effortless beauty.

05

There’s a spiritual battle raging in Sri Lanka between light and dark. It’s evident that there’s a strong desire for peace and unity, but glimpses of fear and hurt still flutter throughout the country. How does a culture that’s experienced great amounts of unpredictable violence gain assurance in safety and stability?

06

I was scolded for saying the words ‘Jesus’ and ‘Bible’ too loudly on a walk one day. I could not comprehend how to refrain from saying those words I use so freely in the U.S. Although Hindu and Buddhist practices dominate the island, religious freedom is limited. Religious conversions are not warmly welcomed and carry the risk of heavy persecution.

07

The mornings brought stillness before the island came alive with blaring calls to prayer and the howl of monkeys echoing throughout town.

08

Sri Lankans work to correct the hurt and pain their country experienced during the civil war by bringing peace and joy to everything they do. You can see it in their eyes and their actions. They’re gripping tightly to a past reality while also trying to let it go.

09

To me, Sri Lanka felt like an honest country where vulnerability floated throughout the communities. The women wanted to sit with me and invite me in to their homes; the children had nothing but hopeful smiles beaming through them; the men extended careful gestures of helpfulness.

10

Signs of suffering and devastation exist all over the island, remnants of the war. But Sri Lankans are good at making you feel comfortable and safe. Multiple times locals offered me a place to stay, transportation accommodations, or suggestions on the best places to spend my time.

11

“She wants you to come for dinner,” her grandaughter told me. We were complete strangers separated by a language barrier, on a three-hour train ride together through the mountainsides.