Watch: Staff at Galadari Hotel in Sri Lanka rush to help protesters after teargas attack

Videos of the "act of kindness" went viral earlier this week

By Qadijah Irshad

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Published: Thu 14 Jul 2022, 6:22 PM

Last updated: Thu 14 Jul 2022, 10:39 PM

A waiter in a black waistcoat and matching slacks dashes across the room with stainless steel pitchers in hand. Chefs in toques (tall white hats) and aprons hold out bowls of water as people dip towels and dab their eyes with the cool cloth.

These were the unusual scenes that played out at the Galadari Hotel in Colombo on Saturday morning after it became an unexpected place of refuge for scores of protesters who were met by tear gas attacks.

Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans had taken to the streets that day to protest an ongoing economic crisis. While hordes of people stormed the Prime Minister’s office, thousands of others watched the takeover from the surrounding area.

In an effort to stop the protesters, the military deployed force and teargas – some of which landed on the premises of the Galadari Hotel, located just 650 metres from the building the protesters were taking over.

Sampath Siriwardena, the general manager of Galadari Hotel, recalls standing outside the entrance of the hotel, watching the unfolding drama when the teargas canons came his way.

“The security immediately ushered me inside and locked the doors. But looking outside, I saw complete pandemonium. Monks, priests, women and children were caught in the tear gas attack, blinded, tearing and struggling to breathe. They were banging on our doors pleading to let them in.”

It was a split-second decision made by the general manager of the luxury hotel to open the doors for the protesters caught in the middle of the attack. As soon as he did, thousands of people flooded in.

“I was not there to protest, but went to show solidarity. We never intended to go near the presidential office or home and thought it safe to stay near the Galadari Hotel and watch,” said Ayomi Pieris, a 32-year-old housewife, who went with her husband and two children aged 12 and nine. “The teargas came out of nowhere, and it affected my youngest son the most. He couldn’t see and he was screaming; that’s when the hotel doors opened. I was grateful,” she said.

The Sri Lankan protesters, who have succeeded in ousting three powerful Rajapaksa brothers — who they blame for the extensive corruption and mismanagement of the debt-ridden country that is on the brink of economic collapse and starvation — have gained a reputation for their discipline.

As protesters and onlookers rushed in to escape the teargas attack, staff at the hotel said they remained “peaceful and grateful” for the reprieve.

Almost a thousand people — including men, women and children — milled about the luxury hotel’s lobby, bars and restaurants, as staff members rushed to help the affected. Social media posts showed a Buddhist monk in saffron robes and a Catholic priest sitting next to each other in the lobby of the hotel, treating their eyes with soaked napkins.

“All the staff helped us,” said Jayantha Sellahewa, Ayomi’s brother and an active member of the Struggle Movement that has been calling to overthrow corrupt politicians in the country. “Everyone from the managers, the bellboys and the kitchen staff rushed about with buckets and ice to help soothe our eyes. They grabbed napkins and towels, whatever was available. They took care of the children first. It was a great act of kindness,” he said.

Social media posts, thanking the Galadari Hotel staff for their acts of kindness, went viral; others with videos of men, women and a number of children being assisted by staff were shared widely.

“The hotel kept their doors open for the public for almost four hours until the situation calmed down on the outside and it was safe for us to leave,” said Pieris.

The management at Galadari Hotel called Saturday’s opening of doors “just a humanitarian act”, performed on “auto mode”.

Siriwardane, who spoke to Khaleej Times, said: "We are 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 this is what Sri Lankans are about – we are a kind and empathetic nation.”

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