Photo courtesy of The Independent

Sri Lanka’s bloody and brutal 26 year war, which ended 14 years ago, has left many questions unanswered; one of the most important is where are the many thousands of the missing?

The answer could lie in the numerous mass graves dotted across the country that hold the remains of not just the casualties of the civil war but also those who disappeared during the two JVP uprisings in 1971 and from 1988 to 1989.

Sri Lanka lacks the knowledge of forensic science and the resources to pursue detailed analyses of what lies in these mass graves. Some sites themselves are inaccessible being inside military bases. DNA has to be matched to surviving family members but some may not be still looking. The problems are numerous and seemingly unsurmountable.

There are tens of thousands of bodies lying undiscovered in mass graves across the country. Over the last 30 years, around 32 mass graves have been identified and 20 have been partially exhumed but hardly any family has had the remains of their loved ones returned. The graves are unmarked and unprotected, and in some cases, new structures have been built over or around them.

A new and detailed report on Mass Graves And Failed Exhumations in Sri Lanka compiled by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, Families of the Disappeared, Center for Human Rights and Development and the International Truth and Justice Project, examines the many obstacles and deficiencies in investigating mass graves.

“None of Sri Lanka’s numerous Commissions of Inquiry were mandated to look into mass graves. Instead, efforts to uncover the truth have been stymied. Magistrates and forensic experts have been transferred abruptly, police have delayed carrying out judicial orders, families’ lawyers have been denied access to sites, no effort has been made to find living witnesses, no ante mortem data was collected and, in the very rare cases where someone was convicted, they were then pardoned.

“It is a story of a lack of political will – an inadequate legal framework, a lack of a coherent policy and of insufficient resources. For the families of the disappeared it is a story of unresolved tragedy; the bereaved are forced to live – and die – without ever finding their loved ones. Most of the exhumations carried out to date were forced upon the authorities after the locations of the mass graves were accidentally revealed during construction work or – exceptionally – on the basis of information provided by members of the security forces…,” the report said.

In an attempt to reveal some of the secrets hidden in the mass graves, film maker Ruvin de Silva has produced a powerful and moving documentary, In Plain Sight – Searching for Truth Behind Sri Lanka’s Mass Graves. The documentary details how long and hard families of the disappeared have fought for the truth and explores the connection between disappearances and mass graves.

“I sincerely hope it brings about positive changes for the families of the disappeared. It’s crucial that the younger generation is aware of the atrocities committed by both militant groups and the state. We must learn from and acknowledge our recent past, and what our country has endured. The harm we have caused to one another. And above all, it’s essential that we at least try to prevent history from repeating itself,” Ruvin said.

Ruvin and researchers Sophie Bisping and Sakina Aliakbar answered questions from Groundviews on the motivation for making the documentary and the painful process of digging for the truth. 

Why did you to choose this as a topic for your documentary?

Ruvin: The documentary film was based on a report conducted by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES). The primary objective was to document and visually archive these sites so that they can be accessed for educational purposes. As a filmmaker, I was motivated to take on this project in order to visually capture these sites that I believe are at risk of being erased from Sri Lanka history.

Do you have an estimate of the number of mass graves?

Sophie: We do not have an estimate of the total number of mass graves that exist in Sri Lanka. There could be a large number, depending on how one defines a mass grave. While there is no universally agreed upon definition, the UN-sponsored Bournemouth Protocol on Mass Grave Protection and Investigation defines it as “a site or defined area containing a multitude (more than one) of buried, submerged or surface scattered human remains (including skeletonised, commingled and fragmented remains), where the circumstances surrounding the death and/or the body-disposal method warrant an investigation as to their lawfulness”. Other NGOs define it as needing three or more bodies to warrant the name of “mass grave”. Depending on how open this definition is, many sites in Sri Lanka could fit this description and be considered mass graves. While 32 sites have been identified so far, there are seven main ones, located in Sooriyakanda, Chemmani, at the Jaffna Durayappa Stadium, Matale, Kalavanchikudy and two different sites in Mannar.

What are challenges in identifying remains and does Sri Lanka have sufficient expertise to do this?

Sophie: There are many challenges in identifying remains. On the site itself, the recovery, recording, and custody of human remains need to be undertaken with specific planning to ensure a clear chain of custody for identification and accountability processes. There needs to be sufficient facilities for the storage and preservation of human remains, which also have the capacity to welcome families who could identify the associated evidence (clothes or objects that the deceased had with them). Another way to identify bodies would be to match DNA samples from the remains to a data collection of DNA from missing persons, which can also be taken from the families. This data must be collected in a manner that protects the rights of survivors and the deceased. Practices relating to personal data should conform with domestic provisions concerning data protection. The capacity to process and test DNA can be done through third parties and Sri Lanka would certainly benefit from such help. Inviting teams of international experts to support its own expertise in the matter would also help to ensure unbiased investigations. The complexity of DNA matching and the difficulty of having accurate databases make identification through DNA rarely successful. It is more likely that bodies will be identified because they carry items with them that families will recognize. Therefore, the main challenge is to ensure a proper excavation and storage of evidence.

What is the correlation between disappearances and mass graves?

Sophie: Given the high number of enforced disappearances, it is probable that many disappeared persons’ bodies would be found in mass graves. This is recognized legislatively as the Act that established the Office on Missing Persons gives the latter the power to request excavations and oversee the process. There are currently 60,000 to 100,000 unresolved cases of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, a number far exceeding the number of bodies that have so far been found in mass graves which amount to below 1,000 according to our research.

What about graves inside military compounds?

Sophie: Sites inside military compounds may be more difficult to access but their specific location could also help identify the remains found. This would especially be the case if some records exist indicating who was detained at which compound. Furthermore, if the site is in a military compound, it is of course more likely that it was created by the military, which can provide some information about the event that caused the creation of a mass grave.

How can family members find out if their relatives are in a mass grave?

Sophie: If an excavation takes place near a site where they believe their family members died and if remains are exhumed, they can come forward and provide information about the event and potentially identify their family member. However, if there is no investigation taking place, it is difficult for families to find out if their relatives are in a mass grave.

What was the reaction of family members you interviewed?

Ruvin: The families of the disappeared have no faith in the state’s ability to provide them with truth or justice regarding the fate of their missing family members. The magnitude of their struggle is difficult for me to comprehend, yet their strength and resilience are equally astounding. And through their voices and protests they are making the disappeared visible.

Sakina: We had many conversations on the ethics and process of speaking to family members of the disappeared. We were concerned about retraumatizing them, especially as processes of exhumation and excavation are complex enough. It took some time for us to establish a relationship with families, a safe space that we had committed to creating. After attending conferences and gatherings where family members would congregate and speak at, we spoke to mothers/sisters/wives of the disappeared that wanted to be heard and wanted to tell their story. That process was fluid and organic, one that was ever-changing based on how we went about it.

What happened in the Mannar mass graves case, were they were found to older cases?

Sophie: There are two sites in Mannar: one found in 2013 close to the village of Thiruketheeswaram in the Mannar district, the other discovered in 2018 in the town of Mannar. Investigations concerning the first site were stalled in 2014 after it was decided that the excavation methods had excessively damaged the evidence. Investigations concerning the second site resulted in conflicting analyses: the carbon dating done by an external laboratory located in the United States indicated that the samples could originate from the 15th-18th century. However, experts on the site identified evidence that indicated that the site was not older than the 1980s-1990s. This discrepancy could be owed to the fact that there was not a clear chain of custody of the samples analyzed. Because of this, the investigations were halted. However, in February 2022 the Mannar High Court Judge ordered the resumption of excavation of the Mannar mass grave and also allowed some families to participate.

Military leaders such Gotabaya Rajapaksa have been implicated in mass gravesites. Is there any hope that they will face justice?

Sophie: Without proper investigation that could clearly establish a link between military leaders and the creation of mass graves, it would be difficult to prosecute them specifically for criminal charges linked to mass graves. One would have to establish that these leaders have either directly ordered the creation of those sites or been involved in the events that led to mass graves or had sufficient knowledge of these events. This information could become available if Sri Lanka establishes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as was done in other countries or if a special judicial process (such as a hybrid court involving both local and international judges) is initiated involving local and international lawyers to assess potential war crimes and violations of international human rights law by military leaders.

A map of mass gravesites from the report.