Groundviews

Sri Lanka’s forgotten mass graves: Google Earth and remembering the dead in Nandikadal

The end of war in Sri Lanka, captured for posterity by Google Earth published last week by Groundviews was the first look at the end of the war in Sri Lanka through historical satellite imagery freely accessible via Google Earth. The article was an open invitation for those using Google Earth to scan for and alert others over areas and artefacts of interest, that in turn could strengthen discussions around the hellish final weeks of war in Sri Lanka. Given the nature of imagery from around this period and centred on Nandikadal, the article explicitly noted,

What Google Maps and Earth does NOT enable one to do, given (1) the quality of some of the historical imagery (which sometimes features extensive cloud cover of vast regions) and (2) the large gaps between the available historical imagery (mid March, late May, after the official end of the war and killing of the LTTE’s leader, then mid-June and early August) is any robust analysis on when shelling in a specific region took place, and importantly, by whom.

Shared widely on Facebook, Twitter and via email, the article clearly indicated that one of the best references today for the research and study of the end of war in Sri Lanka is Google Earth. Imagery accessible via Google’s servers simply isn’t available through other sources or archived elsewhere in the public domain.

Whereas the previous article studied the sheer scale and extent of the destruction and human displacement in Sri Lanka during the final phase of the war, between March and May 2009, the focus here is on mass graves in and around the so-called Civilian Safe Zones (CSZs). Our first article was anchored to two key UNOSAT reports. The present study is anchored to the High-Resolution Satellite Imagery and the Conflict in Sri Lanka report by the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Programme of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), published in August 2009. As with the UNOSAT reports, the AAAS study – commissioned by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – was met with official condemnation and Ministry of Defence counter-analysis after its public release, largely anchored to the sections dealing with the removal of IDP structures within the CSZ between 6 and 10 May 2009, fresh indications of shelling and most controversially, ejecta patterns leading trajectory azimuth analysis of this shelling (i.e. where heavy artillery was purportedly fired from).

This article is NOT concerned with these highly emotive and deeply contested aspects.

Instead, it focusses on imagery available through a Google Earth layer released by AAAS to accompany its report, looking at Nandikadal on 6th and again on 10th May 2009. Google Earth itself features imagery from 5/24/2009, just days after the official end of the war, up until 10th August 2011. Through simple image difference analysis (using a programme called Kaleidoscope for the Mac), this study looks at how mass grave sites, first identified by AAAS, have changed over time.

For general orientation, the sliver of land sandwiched by lagoon and sea highlighted in grey below, between Puttumattalan in the North and Mullaitivu in the South, is the area of study.


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The AAAS Google Earth layer looks at this same region, and features a number of analytical artefacts superimposed to the base map layer. Note that of all the points of interest on the layer, the subject of study here are only the locations of the grave sites.


Click here for larger image.

The first grave site identified by AAAS is at 9 18′ 31.66″ N 80 47′ 09.42″ E, around 320m off the A35 from Mullaitivu to Puthukkudiyiruppu. As the AAAS report notes,

“By May 6 numerous probable IDP structures are present, along with a graveyard (outlined in red) containing an estimated 195 burials. By May 10 the graveyard has expanded substantially. By May 24, an area across the street has been cleared and is also being used for interments, bringing the total to 342 graves (estimated) at this location”.

In the video above, the expansion of the gravesite is evident in just four days – the darker layer is from 6 May, and the lighter layer from 10 May. The high resolution photos used for the analysis above can be downloaded from here (6 May) and here (10 May). What Google Earth affords us, with historical imagery leading up to August 2011, is an opportunity to see, and for the first time, how this grave site changed in the years after the end of the war.

Download the two high resolution images from Google Earth used in the video above from here (May 2009) and here (August 2011). The difference in the terrain is evident – three years after the end of the war, the mounds of earth for each grave have disappeared and there is scrub vegetation dotting the site. Without reference imagery from the past, it is impossible to determine that this is a grave site for hundreds looking at the imagery from 2011 alone.

The same is true of the second example in the AAAS Google Earth layer / report, located at 9 19′ 52.62″ N 80 45′ 40.13″ E. The AAAS report notes,

The second graveyard identified in this study was located approximately 3.6 kilometers northwest of the previously described location. The layout of graves was very similar to the previous site, consisting of evenly-spaced rows and columns. Its scale however, is far larger than the first, as illustrated in Figure Seven. First identified in imagery from May 6, this site consists of an estimated 960 graves on that date. Unlike the first site, this graveyard exhibits no signs of growth between May 6 and May 10, nor between May 10 and May 24. One noteworthy characteristic of this site is that it was identified in media reporting as belonging to the LTTE. While AAAS has no way to substantiate this statement, the similarities between this site and previous, southernmost graveyard may indicate a common origin.

What we can now see on Google Earth adds to this analysis by AAAS. For example, though there is no growth between May 6 and May 10, nor between May 10 and May 24, there is significant growth between 3/16/2009 and 5/24/2009.

Download the high resolution images here (March 2009) and here (May 2009). The greener image in the video above is from March, which shows a plot for the grave site far smaller than what is captured by imagery in late May 2009. In May, the plot measures (using Google Earth’s in built measurement tool) around 65m by 89m. In March, this was around 27m by 35m.

Today, this is what the grave site looks like.

Download high resolution image here. Compare this to what it looked like in May 2009.

Download high resolution image here. Again, it is impossible looking just at the imagery from 2011 to even guess there is a large grave site at 9 19′ 52.62″ N 80 45′ 40.13″ E.

The final example from the AAAS report is from 9 21′ 29.10″ N 80 43′ 59.18″ E. As the report notes,

“The final graveyard analyzed by this study was located 4.3 kilometers northwest of the second graveyard, and almost 8 kilometers northwest of the first gravesite described above. Identified in media reports as being a burial ground for civilians, this location differed substantially from the others in its organization and size. Unlike the rigid pattern of the previous two sites, the layout of this area was much less regular. As shown in Figure Seven, apparent burial mounds were scattered throughout the area. These mounds were also less regular in their individual shapes than those at previous sites, which rendered their identification difficult in the available imagery. In total, 44 burials were identified at this site on May 6, with no changes observed between May 6, May 10, and May 24. Again, the irregularity of this site made counting of the graves very difficult, and many graves are undoubtedly not visible in the imagery.”

This is what this grave site looked like in late May 2009.

Download high resolution image here.

This is what it looked like in August 2011.

Download high resolution image here. Note that the left side of this Google Earth image, which just about captures the grave site, is at a higher resolution than the right hand side of the image. This is on account of differences in Google Earth’s own base map data. It’s very clear however that nature has completely taken over the grave site.

There is another dimension to the analysis of these grave sites. Access to the areas where the final weeks of the war raged on in 2009 is now open to anyone from Sri Lanka, as well as tourists from abroad. Thousands of tour groups have visited these areas, as documented recently by the BBC’s Charles Haviland, and in this article which appeared in the Economist earlier this year. As the BBC report notes, many sites previously off limits have turned into must-see attractions.

Yet it is ironical that while the overt devastation of this area affords many photo opportunities, what’s literally now under grassy knolls, bracken and young trees is the true, hidden cost of war. This is evident in, for example, a site like Panoramio – a large photo hosting site that users can upload geo-tagged photos to. This is what Panoramio looks like for Nandikadal at the time of writing.

Click here for larger image, or go to the live site here. Reflected here, through the telegenics of war’s debris, is a pattern of sight-seeing. You see a higher concentration of photos around the remains of Farha III, a ship captured by the LTTE some years ago than any other location. Every photo captures above ground destruction. One, ironically, was taken a stone’s throw from a large grave site identified by AAAS. With nature taking its own course, as early as in 2011, the graves are hidden and underfoot to many who have walked around in this area.

The imagery from Google Earth is a unique and sombre reminder of war’s human toll. Google Earth already records nature’s embrace of grave sites over just three years. Five, ten, fifteen years hence, with new development in these areas and the clearing up of war debris, it is unclear what will become of these grave sites and skeletal remains. They are already erased from the public conscience. No media – local or international including the AAAS and the human rights organisations that commissioned the report – have focussed on them post-war. They are, literally, out of sight, out of mind.

How can and should we remember the dead and buried in Nandikadal? Whose graves are they, and does this matter? Do they deserve to be remembered? Will the Government, as it has done in the past, just build over these grave sites? Do these sites, with just basic respect for the dead, deserve protection from traipsing tourists and nature? Could remembering and respecting the dead in and around Nandikadal, as much as they are in the South, contribute to a more meaningful reconciliation and healing post-war? Should schools use this imagery from Google Earth in their teaching, so that those fortunately too young to remember a country at war, are shown its human toll and violence?

Writing about the destruction of grave sites belonging to the LTTE, columnist Vihanga Perera noted in July 2012,

… the demolition of the memorial stones and tombs was brought back to my mind in a recent visit to the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Kandy. This cemetery is a space provided for and maintained by the Commonwealth War Cemetery Council, based in Greenwich and has 200-odd memorial stones for those who had perished in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) during World War II. The significance of this arrangement is that the memorial graves belong to both those commissioned to the Allied as well as the Axis Forces. Of the latter, there are tombs dedicated to the memory of Italian as well as Japanese officers who had perished, most probably, during the unsuccessful twin aerial attack. More strikingly, the tomb stones do not state nationality, victory or defeat. The fallen are laid to rest and commemorated as one and equal. Those who fought against the other in opposite camps are commemorated in neighbourly plots.

The memorials are solemn as well as dignified. The well meditated layout without gaudy ceremony or flattering decor more than amply articulate the futility and pity which war, on the whole, resonates on both the victorious and the defeated. The commemoration, therefore, is neither an inhuman condemnation of the “loser;” nor a jingoist beat up of parochial nationalism. In that cemetery the one who lost the war is yet retained as a human being and in dignity too…

Post-war, many of us marvel at what is being constructed above ground, around SrI Lanka. Yet as journalist and psychologist Daniel Goleman notes, “societies can be sunk by the weight of buried ugliness”. How we choose to remember these graves of Tamils in the North of Sri Lanka can be a litmus test of reconciliation, or cinder for continued communal conflict.