The ‘act of kindness’ videos went viral earlier this week
A waiter in a black vest and matching pants rushes across the room with stainless steel pitchers in hand. Chefs in toques (large white hats) and aprons hold out bowls of water while people soak towels and dab their eyes with the cool rag.
These are the unusual scenes that unfolded at the Galadari Hotel in Colombo on Saturday morning after it became an unexpected place of refuge for dozens of protesters who fell victim to tear gas attacks.
Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans took to the streets that day to protest the ongoing economic crisis. As hordes of people stormed the prime minister’s office, thousands more watched the takeover from the surrounding area.
In order to arrest the demonstrators, the army deployed forces and tear gas, some of which landed on the premises of the Galadari hotel, located just 650 meters from the building which the demonstrators were seizing.
Sampath Siriwardena, the general manager of Hotel Galadari, recalls standing outside the hotel’s entrance, watching the drama unfold as the tear gas cannons were aimed at him.
“Security immediately ushered me in and locked the doors. But looking outside, I saw complete pandemonium. Monks, priests, women and children were caught up in the tear gas attack, blinded, torn and struggling to breathe. They knocked on our doors begging to let them in.
It was a split-second decision by the luxury hotel’s general manager to open the doors to protesters caught in the middle of the attack. As soon as he did, thousands of people flocked.
“I was not there to protest, but to show my solidarity. We never intended to go near the presidential office or the house and thought it was safe to stay near the Galadari hotel and watch,” said Ayomi Pieris, a housewife from 32, who went with her husband and two children aged 12 and 9. “The tear gas came out of nowhere, and it was my youngest son who was the most affected. He couldn’t see and he was screaming; it was then that the doors of the hotel opened. I was grateful,” she said.
Sri Lankan protesters, who successfully ousted three powerful Rajapaksa brothers – whom they blame for widespread corruption and mismanagement in the debt-ridden country that is on the brink of economic collapse and famine – have won a reputation for discipline.
As protesters and onlookers scrambled to escape the tear gas attack, hotel staff said they remained “peaceful and grateful” for the reprieve.
Nearly a thousand people – men, women and children – thronged the luxury hotel’s lobby, bars and restaurants, as staff members rushed to help those affected. Social media posts showed a Buddhist monk in saffron robes and a Catholic priest sitting next to each other in the hotel lobby, treating their eyes with soaked towels.
“All the staff helped us,” said Jayantha Sellahewa, Ayomi’s brother and an active member of the Struggle Movement which calls for the overthrow of corrupt politicians in the country. “Everyone from managers, bellboys and kitchen staff rushed in with buckets and ice to help soothe our eyes. They grabbed towels and napkins, whatever was available. They took care of the children first. It was a great act of kindness,” he said.
Social media posts thanking Hotel Galadari staff for their acts of kindness have gone viral; others with videos of men, women, and a number of children being helped by staff were released widely.
“The hotel kept its doors open to the public for nearly four hours until the situation calmed down outside and we were able to leave safely,” Pieris said.
Hotel Galadari management called Saturday’s door opening “just a humanitarian act”, carried out in “automatic mode”.
Siriwardane, who spoke to Khaleej Times, said: “We’re not politically motivated, and we just did the right thing at the right time. Our staff didn’t think, they just reacted by helping. Because that’s what Sri Lankans are – we are a kind and empathetic nation.”