Groundviews

From mass grave to cemetery: Questioning the claims in Mannar

Various explanations have been offered by Government officials around the discovery of skeletal remains in Mannar some months ago.

The BBC reported in January that a government medical official overseeing the excavation, Dhananjaya Waidyarathne, said the bodies had been buried in layers and that he was “very much worried” (sic) that no signs of clothing or human-made artefacts had been found in the mass grave. The skeletal remains of 83 – women, men and children – have been found on the site. As The Republic Square notes, Government authorities originally suggested that it was the result of an LTTE massacre in the region that was controlled by the Tamil separatists for a long period and a police spokesman had also averred that the bodies could be the result of a malaria epidemic in the region in the 1930s.

On 9th March, excavations at the site stopped. In a report to Reuters, Senerath Dissanayake, Director General of the state-run Archeological Department said it is not a mass grave as the bodies had been “buried systematically”.

“These are about 50 years old. It is a grave yard. Even our officers can identify and see the cut marks of the graves. We have found 83 skeletons so far and we will stop (excavation)from tomorrow,” he told Reuters.

This revelation was given wide publicity in the State media, including in the Daily News newspaper, which on 10th March noted on its front page that,

The Commissioner’s announcement comes in the wake of various elements trying to point the finger at government forces following the discovery of what is now confirmed to be a normal graveyard.

The Daily News goes on to report that Dr. Dissanayaka said that “This spot was a cemetery that was in existence between 1940 to 1953” and that senior research archaeologists Namal Kodithuwakku and A.A. Wijeratne had also come to the conclusion that the location was a very old burial ground.

In this context, Groundviews was sent the survey plan for the area, conducted in February 1955.

Click for higher resolution image. The area marked in yellow is where the burial site was discovered, and the excavations conducted.

P.Plan S 677 of Thirukethiswaram Village, does not record the existence of any cemetery during the time of the survey, or before. The lots in the area are explained in detail in the official survey documents from 1954, 1955 and 1961.

Click for higher resolution images. Groundviews was informed that opposite Lot 32 there was, until it was destroyed during the war in the late 80’s, an R.D.A. Circuit Bungalow and at some point of time, there had also been a co-operative store on the same lot. While this can be contested or dismissed as incorrect or partial recollection, Lot 32, the present day burial site, is only noted as featuring high jungle and a masonry well in the official survey general’s documents. Adjacent lots also show no record of a cemetery or burial grounds.

The claims by the Archeological Department are thus somewhat suspect. Unless Dr. Dissanayaka and the Archeological Department can far more accurately prove their assertion that this site was indeed a cemetery and all the skeletal remains are carbon-dated to around the time the land was used as such, it is unlikely those calling for more robust and independent investigations into the Mannar mass grave will be satisfied or silenced.