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.]