Human Rights, Mannar, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, War Crimes

Mass Graves: Nothing new to Sri Lanka

The recent discovery of mass graves  at Ganeshapuram in  Kilinochchi and at Nachchikuda in the  Mannar Districts  has  been very much in the news during the past weeks.  Such finds need not  surprise anyone.  Following an analysis of satellite images taken during the height  of the war, the American Association for the Advancement of Science  has already  reported  that on  19th April , 2009 the images showed the roads in the ‘Civilian Safe Zone’  to be  mostly deserted. The images taken on the 24th April, 2009 showed a large grave yard in the same area.  The report adds, that

the analysis identified three different graveyards, counting a total of 1,346 likely graves. The satellite images can neither reveal if these graves contain civilians or Tamil Tiger fighters,..

In the circumstances, it is likely that more and more graves would be discovered, if free access to the area is available to the people and the security forces do not  take any steps to obliterate the graves.

That is however only with regard to the graves alleged to be those of  the victims of the last  war in the Vanni.  There could be many more such mass graves in other parts where the war was fought.  Many may not know that during the period from  1st January, 1988 onwards, which period the former Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances of Persons  appointed in 1994,  had been mandated to conduct inquiries,  evidence with regard to a  large number of  mass graves in several parts of  the country came to light.  These are graves of suspected Sinhala militant youth, who had chosen to rebel against the government of that time.  I use the word ‘suspected’  because it was the finding of the said  Commissions that  most of those who had disappeared were  youth or other persons who had been staunch supporters of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, who were suspected by the then government, to be members of the Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna.   It is therefore no wonder  President Rajapakse who was then, just a Member of Parliament,  was in the fore front of the agitation of the parents and guardians of the disappeared youth in the Southern Province,  to call for a full investigation into these incidents and the culprits  brought to book !  It is estimated that nearly 60,000 Sinhala youth had disappeared during the relevant period.  Hardly any of them were found. It is likely that many of their bodies are still in the several mass graves  in respect of which evidence was made available to the Commissions of Inquiry.   Let us see what one of the Reports of a Disappearances Commission has to say on these mass graves  €“

The phenomenon of mass graves is a macabre pointer to the clandestine nature of the counter-insurgency operations carried out in this period. Their very existence and the recoveries from them bear vivid witness to a complete disregard of the constitutionally guaranteed safe-guard of the physical security of persons in detention.

This Commission listed twelve mass graves about which evidence had been placed before it.  Let us see some of the information available about these graves.

One may recall that during the Presidential Elections of 1994,  President Chandrika Bandaranaike who was  then one of the candidates at the elections, went around  speaking about these graves in relation to the disappearances of persons which was a widespread occurrence during those days.  She was present at the time the mass grave at Sooriyakanda was  exhumed, in an unconventional manner, with much publicity.  It was alleged that the bodies of  the abducted school children from the Embilipitiya High School were buried there. It was said that over 300 bodies had been buried at this site. The government of the time conducted a forensic analysis  but the investigations were said to be unsatisfactory.

The mass graves  in Hokandara, Dikwella and Angkumbura had been located in pits carved out by bomb explosions.  Some of these graves such as the ones at Wilpita, Akuressa, and others had been located near Army Camps.  Others were in public places like highways, as in the case of Hokandara, in public schools as in Essella or a government farm as in Walpita.

The mass graves  at Hokandara, Essella, Wavulkelle, Walpita Farm and Ankumbura   had also been disinterred on a judicial order.   It was in evidence that  the people of the area knew the existence of these graves  even though  they are not known nationally. Yet they had not been acknowledged by the authorities.  When some members of the public had made attempts to report on their existence to the Police at that time, the  complaints had not been recorded.   The disturbing piece of evidence in this regard was that some of the graves  had been kept open for a period of time as in the case of the  Hokandara Mass Grave.  The Judicial Medical Officer who visited the mass grave at Vavulkelle had noted  that  he saw the fire blazing with logs and tyres which had been used to burn the bodies.  There was evidence placed before the Commission indicating  that a pile of burning bodies had been displayed at the junction near the Walpita Farm mass grave. It was the same with respect to the mass grave at Essella  where bullet ridden bodies of several young men and women  had been found lying  lined up  in a drain near the  home of an army officer who had suffered attack by the subversives of the time.

It is interesting to note that  several of these mass graves such as the  one at Kotawakella,  Yakkalumulla,  Dickwella,  Deniyaya and Akuressa  are in the Southern Province, which is the  area from which the present day rulers of Sri Lanka hail !

The Report of the Commission referring to these mass graves stated that  –

The phenomenon of Mass Graves bears a significant correlation to the massive number of disappearances that have taken place in the period under review, independent of any identification of a corpse disinterred to a particular person who has disappeared,…

The Commission appointed to inquire  into disappearances of persons in the North and Eastern Province  do not mention specifically of any mass graves. The security situation at that time in these Province was a deterrent to witnesses complaining or coming forward with evidence against security forces.    However  the report of that Commission speaks of mass killings at the Eastern University, at Sathurukondan  and other places.  A few years later, following a bomb explosion that killed a few army personnel  at Kokaddicholai, almost all the villagers of Kokkaddicholai  were killed and dumped into the pit created by the bomb.

This article will be incomplete if no mention is made of the mass graves found  at Jaffna in Chemmani  at  the Duraiappah  Stadium, in the not too distant past.

In July, 1998 a former army corporal who was charged for the rape and murder of a school girl while he was on duty at the Chemmani check point, told a High Court Judge that he knew about a mass grave where about 400 bodies of Tamils were buried. He said that the bodies of those killed by the army were brought to Chemmani, along with people who were to be executed and then buried there.

A mass grave was found  1999 by municipal labourers at  the Jaffna Stadium grounds while they were doing  three excavations.   On the first occasion  8 skeletons, on the next 16 and on the third  25 skeletons  were found. It was suspected  that those skeletons were those of  Tamils killed  and buried en masse  during the occupation of the Northern Province by the Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1987.

It is not intended to go into the details of all these mass graves at this juncture as it  is considered sufficient  just to refer to them for the purposes  of the theme of this article. One also needs to remember that in the late 1995 bodies of  17 Tamils living in and around Colombo who had been abducted, were found floating in the Bolgoda Lake, the Alawwa oya and the Diyawanna Oya.  Following CID investigations  into these cases, 21 Special Task Force  police officers were arrested along with three civilians  and produced before the Chief Magistrate in Colombo  and remanded in 1996.   But due to reasons better known to the authorities, all but three of  these police officers were released subsequently. The three who were indicted before the High Court were also released later  and the proceedings  against them were suspended.

It should be noted that the mandates of the Commissions on Disappearances  did not permit them to investigate into these mass graves that came to their knowledge.  So they made the information about them available in their Reports and recommended that the government should investigate into them and bring those responsible to book.  That recommendation was never implemented. Consequently the perpetrators became emboldened. Many of them still continue in service with impunity and  they could very well be the ones responsible or at least for having played a part  in the creation  of the mass graves that are being discovered now.

It is significant to note that the graves  the Disappearances Commissions mentioned were those of  Sinhala youth who were suspected to be militants,  while the evidence of graves that are just coming up are  probably those of suspected Tamil militants from the Vanni.  If the perpetrators of the killings of Sinhala youth could have dealt with members of their own community so brutally, how they would have treated  the suspected Tamil militants  could easily imagined.   The recent history of Sri Lanka has so much evidence of mass graves that one need not be surprised when  more and more graves are discovered in the future.  Would Sri Lanka ever acknowledge such brutal incidents of mass graves  and related killings and  provide  solace to the to the grieving family members of  the victims by way of transitional justice?

[Editors note: M.C.M. Iqbal was secretary to two of Sri Lanka’s €œtruth commissions”, presidential inquiry panels into the 30,000 or more forced disappearances that took place in the late 1980s and early ’90s in the south, during a dirty war that many believe has yet to run its course. As the South China Morning Post noted in late-2009, Mr. Iqbal knows more than most about the skeletons that are locked away in the government’s closet €“ enough, he says, for him to no longer be safe in his home country.

We also strongly encourage you to read Still waiting for justice in Sri Lanka and The latest Commission of Inquiry in Sri Lanka: Another Exercise in Deception by the author, published earlier this year, anchored to failed Commissions of Inquiry in Sri Lanka.]

  • Vasu

    This article very interesting,

  • Niagara

    thank you for published

  • Punitham

    Thank you, Iqbal.
    It is the duty of Iqbal’s fellow Commissioners to come forward and support Iqbal to enable these serious matters to justice and then peace will follow it.

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    Thank you Mr Iqbal for these and as a commissioner appointed by the government you are the first person to talk openly about these.

    The next step is to present these to the international courts.

    I am not sure if you are in Sri Lanka but the government will not take kindly to your stark revelations.

    One tiny correction. Krishanthy 18 and her mother 51 were raped by 11 soldiers at the checkpoint. Her brother and neighbour who went in search of them were also murdered by strangling along with these two females in July 1996. When these four went missing Krishanthy’s sister wrote to President Kumaratunga. Then Amnesty International wrote to Weekend Express.

    As news editor I started the Missing Persons Bureau following this which led to the government asking the management to sack me and I resigned in Feb.1997.

    Kumar Ponnambalam and I visted the bodies at JMO’s office in September 1996. JMO refused me permission to photograph them. Also, the bodies were ordered to be cremated the same day.

    A boy playing in Chemmani cemetery found a leg sticking out and that is how the brutal murders were made public.

    Fr Harry Miller in Batticaloa (I am not sure whther he is alive or not) told me during one my visits in the nineties that some 2000 bodies of youth were buried under the stadium which is occupied by the army. Fr Miller, an American missionary came to Ceylon in 1947 and had been living at St Michels ever since and he is aa authority trusted by all including foreign journalists.

    Thankfully when I left Sri Lanka this time in 2001 I managed to smuggle out the commission reports and they are still with me if any serious person wants evidence of mass graves and killings.

    By the way what happened to the Batalanda Commission where Ranil is purported to have allocated a government housing unit to torture victims and murder them.

    The government can suppress commission reports but journalists are very much witnesses to these commissions. As the saying goes, “justice is slow but sure”.

    Remember Korean comfort women who were compensated sixty years after WW2 by Japan.

  • Father Miller came before the All Island Commission on Disappearances at its sittings in Batticaloa and handed a list of 7000 persons who had disappeared from Batticaloa. That Commissions mandate did not authorise it to inquire into those cases. Hence the list was annexed to the Report and submitted to the President for further action.
    Father Miller fell ill and is now in the US receiving treatment. That’s the information I got before I left Sri Lanka a couple of years ago.

  • Ratnam

    Good job Iqbal.
    The government will not allow anybody to investigate, but they expect everyone to believe them.
    Many might call you a liar, but I would like to ask them one question;
    What will they say if one of the murdered girl in the Chemmani graves is one of their daughter/sister/mother?
    -Those who lost a loved one would want justice. Please help.


    It is interesting that no one of these ngo $sultans dont talk about
    Ltte attacks on civillians. They have killed thousands of sinhalese,tamils and muslim civillians. Even during last days of war they killed and burned thousands to civillians who tried to escape from their clutches. They shoot escaping civillians. They even killed thousands of their own injured carders to avoid infomation leak to army. What did they do to those bodies? That is what comming out from those holes. It is always easy to those ngo $sultans to point finger at our soldiers and talk about the rights of ltte murders but who are going to talk about thousands of civillians killed by ltte.

  • Ratnam

    those who live by the gun will die by the gun.
    Justice has to be served, and the murderers must be punished to have a long lasting peace in Srilanka. By sweeping these crimes under the carpet, it would encourage the future polititians also to carry out the same.
    A strong message must be sent, but who’s going to tie the bell to the cat?

  • Grasshopper

    Thanks for article Iqbal!

    As much as I hate the the hypocrtical administrations of the Western bully nations – for hardly setting a precedence when looking after their own human rights violations but having the gall to point the finger at us – I absolutely hate our own Sri lankan politicians’ code of ethics.

    Why oh why do we keep electing these ar$eholes to our Parliament???!!!!

  • Thanka

    Thanks to psudo Humanitarian Activists turned politicians like Chandrika and Mahinda. For generations Sri Lanka will have such rulers and the entiree land and sea areas will keep on studded with mass graves and Commissioners will come and go leaving mounts of reports of findings only to exculpate the criminals. The case of the Indian Retired Judge who abruptly ended his mission is another classic example of a genuine attempt turned futile.

    Even now the President and his coterie call people to lodge complaints of breach of violation of Human Rights or war crimes to the proposed local investigation Commissions. Unfortunately there is no complaint received as said by Mr.Gottabaya and the President.

    One cannot help but tug his tounge in his cheeks.

  • Observer

    mass graves new? whole of colombo used to be a grave! burning tyres, bodies in diyawanna oya. where were the Navi Pillais/Phillip Alstons then? where was channel 4? was it the lack of bank rolling?

  • wijelion

    Why on earth people of this world leave sri lanka alone??? What happen had happen, is there any genius who can revise the events?? No..?? So why the fuss ? They tried that in iraq, and still trying in afghanistan, but not succeeded yet.. Everything in this world has a ‘price to pay’ . Let the people in that island solve their problems their way.. Problem solve..

  • Burning_Issue


    “mass graves new? whole of colombo used to be a grave! burning tyres, bodies in diyawanna oya. where were the Navi Pillais/Phillip Alstons then? where was channel 4? was it the lack of bank rolling?”

    It is because there weren’t the likes of Pillais, Alstons, and Channel 4 when the south was brutalised, such events happened again! If there had been accountability for all those killings and answers to many Sinhala mothers who are still waiting as to what exactly happened to their sons and daughters; Sri Lanka would not have gone through such turmoil again! At least we can put things right now!

  • Susantha

    actually the western media heavily criticized the government actions during the JVP uprisings and also the british government,the President even removed the British high commissioner later

  • Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam

    Thank you Mr. Iqbal for sharing your thoughts and experience from your vantage point.
    All the elected presidents since 1977, as Commanders in Chief, bear the responsibility to the Crimes you have referred to and more that have been published elsewhere. None of them have been held accountable by the people who elected them. It would have given the reader another dimension if the Brigadiers and Major Generals in charge of the areas where such crimes occurred. but that would be for another paper.

    You have lead us through the main Tunnel of Horror and spared us the journey through the other branching Tunnels. We can hear the screams of victims and their begging for their lives. All we have done is to close our eyes and plug our ears helplessly. The newest Tunnel of nightmare has no end in sight. How many more will be there in years to come. The latest BBC “Hard Talk” commentary and interview show us the Tunnels of Horror yet to be dugged.

    It seem our judicial and democratic systems have no credible independent process to bring all of the perpetrators in the line of command to justice nor to establish credible safeguards to prevent such crimes against humanity. The question we need to ask is whether the people who elected successive Heads of State, from the two main parties, should ultimately bear the responsibility?

  • Janaki

    According to that article only 1,346 people were buried in the final months — not 40,000. Interesting.

  • Vino Gamage


    For decades successive governments have been successful at damage control at the UN and have been ”appointing commissions” to buy time. Amnesty International and the UN reports were full of recommendations to address the human rights violations of 80s and 90s too.

    JRJ hoodwinked the world by spinning lies, eg. naxalites, naxalites, …

    Rajapakses : terroists, terrorists, ….

    UN began to appoint Special Rapporteurs(eg. Philip Alston) only within the last 10/12 years ago when oppressive governments have gone too far…

    When parliamentarians stop lying, we’ll have peace.

  • niranjan


    The lack of interest in mass graves in the past does not mean that mass graves should not be investigated now even if reports of such investigations end up on a shelf.
    There is more awareness of issues related to war crimes and mass graves now than there was in the past. This is due to developments in technology and communication not forgeting education with a human rights focus.
    One example is the University of Colombo’s IR degree that has a HR component in it.

  • justitia

    There are many more graves than mentioned, including the thousands who disappeared during past five decads.
    We will be known as a nation of graveyards.

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    As neutral observers to the issue of mass graves I throw a challenge to human rights activists to get together and take our own witness accounts and newspaper reports to the international war crimes tribunal.

    We will be failing as democratic and rightful citizens of Sri Lanka if we failed to act on the evidence we have which leaves the government with no alternative but to acquiesce to demands that it responds to the allegations made from every quarter with substantial evidence and justify its actions.

    My email is [email protected]

    I will not rest easy until justice is done.

  • longus

    Good that Mr.Iqbal touched on the atrocities that were committed during the Jvp insurgency during 88-90 period,but the fact stands out that at no point the UN or any other Western power ever contemplated of bringing “war crimes” charges against the Sri Lankan government in the Security Council or elsewhere.And at no point was it considered of an appointment of a special panel to investigate the “crimes against humanity”,in spite of the fact that nearly 20,000 people lost their lives in the conflict!

    May be the Western human rights guardians didn’t see the Sinhalese youth who got killed as HUMAN BEINGS,the sameway that they didn’t see the 100,000 civilians who got perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as HUMAN BEINGS!

    If you read the section E of the satelite picture analysis it is stated that there is no conclusive evidence to say there were motar launching points in the said pictures,to say that those motars were launched by the government troops.It is obvious that thousands of LTTE combatants got killed in the final phase of the conflict and there should be some way of disposing of their bodies-by the LTTE.

    So what’s the big deal the AI is crying about?

  • Tmama

    Actually these may be the bones of 600 policeman axed to death by LTTE. THe facts werehushed by the Premadasa government then.

  • Burning_Issue

    Dear Tmama,

    you said:

    “Actually these may be the bones of 600 policeman axed to death by LTTE. THe facts werehushed by the Premadasa government then.”

    Please tell this forum as to where exactly those 600 policemen were killed and which year.

  • longus

    Mr.”Peril’Tevanayagum,What fat hopes you have,about crucifying Sri Lanka in the Hague’s Kangaroo court?You can brush your teeth,do your “activities of daily living” and wait;nothing will happen to Sri Lanka to your dismay!People like Hon.Iqbal are waiting to grab their share of profits for betraying the motherland!Iqbal will take the side of his “skull-cap” that is upright!

    Let those Iqbals and “Perils”investigate the skeletons in Angels’ closets in far away heaven first, before poking their noses into Sri Lanka’s victory against terror.I can understand how you guys feel for your beloved militants….

    Dear burning_issue:I regret your amnesia or ignorance of the recent past!The LTTE butchered 750 odd policemen who surrendered to them on Presidential orders in 1990 in the Eastern Province.You think they died of natural causes?

  • Janaki

    “Please tell this forum as to where exactly those 600 policemen were killed and which year.”

    I don’t know about the case that Tmama is referring to but there is the burning to death of 900 Sinhala policeman when the LTTE took over the Mullativu base. Remember?

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    Longus either has dyslexia or he thinks that sarcasm the lowest form of wit is his way of dealing with dissent.

    In his abyssmal failure to counter arguments put forward he descends to the lowest levels of brandishing his opponents with mis-spelt names. Gutter journalism at its best.

    I’ll add his name to the list of blind racists such as Susantha. I do not place much credence on these racists who have nothing intelligent to say. They do not know what they are talking about because they are ignorant.

  • Nithyananthan

    Madame Pearl! Greetings to you!
    Your last comment based on your gross assessment is very much commendable and appreciated – enjoyed reading it. Empty pots make noise louder – as the dogs barking at the moon … Just ignore. Thank you! Nithy!

  • DD

    Nothing new in England either, only here they are called Paupers Graves. Children are buried upon each other for lack of room, covered with planks and soil put over.
    Then hungry foxes come at night dig them up and eat them.

  • longus


    I’m happy to note in your comment that esteemed intellectuals like you too make lists and label people who do not agree with your views! That may be what you “Human Rights Activists” call “tolerance” in adding two new names to your “list”! So, you practice what you preach,it seems!

    By the way,have I included your name in a “list of Tamil Racists”?

    You may furnish that list to a furture terrorist group in order to find and destroy the “Sinhalese Racists”.Unfortunately the late leader who died in the lagoon couldn’t pass his legacy to his offapring as they too got killed in the mud,so you can give it a try with his nephews and nieces,perhaps!

    If you don’t like the sarcasm in my writing it is your problem,Mme.Pearl.When the pro-LTTE Western media practice gutter journalism based on hear-say and gossip,it is perfectly acceptable to refined,old-school immitators like you,may be because they too,express your view.Then,it doesn’t matter whether it is from the gutter or not!

    Have you ever thought why Salman Rushdie got the booker prize for “name-calling” Prophet Mohammad by mis-spelling his name?-a crime in your refined mind!By the way your Western Master “sees no evil;does no evil”He is FLAWLESS!

    I have posed my arguments about the satelite picture analysis in my previous posting !