Mass graves: The dead tell a tragic tale of delays and disputes

Within a sprawling plot of bare land near the beach at Kurukkalmadam in Batticaloa is a mass grave that has not been excavated.

The bodies buried there are from 1990, according to the Muslim residents of the area. The deceased are members of their community, more than 150, some insist, massacred by the LTTE that year. They can point out the precise location of the site.

In 2014, the Kaluwanchikudy courts ordered an exhumation after 66 relatives of the dead wanted the skeletons to give them a proper burial. But it never took place. Like the families of other Sinhalese and Tamil missing persons, these Muslims have gone from pillar to post pleading for closure.

The Magistrate asked the office of the Chief Judicial Medical Officer (Colombo) to carry out the exhumation. That bureau, taking cognizance of the task’s complexity, requested the Justice Ministry for a budget to support a team of experts for the length of time (it could be several months) needed to do a proper job of work. The Ministry did not respond.

Now, intermittently, the Magistrate sends reminders to the JMO office in Colombo to proceed with the exhumation. The area OIC issued a letter again the other day. But without logistical support, there is no assurance the process will be taken to a satisfactory conclusion. And the JMO is not willing to embark on a half-baked exercise.

The Kurukkalmadam example is just one instance of why Sri Lanka needs a permanent mechanism to tackle mass graves, their exhumation and related investigations. There isn’t one. And not a single body found in any of these graves has been identified in the recent past.

Not even from Matale, where the dead are said to be Sinhala victims. There were glaring shortcomings in that investigation, too, such as lack of independent supervision when bones were collected and sent for carbon dating. This led to allegations of sample switching. The process has stalled. And everything has now been brushed under the proverbial carpet.

One of the main flaws in mass graves investigations in Sri Lanka is that all JMOs (except the Chief JMO Colombo) are transferable every four years. When the officer who started the process leaves, it is difficult for his or her replacement to take over. The Mannar JMO who dealt with the site found in November 2018 containing 283 skeletons is now on transfer order to Colombo.

There was also no identification of bodies from the mass grave discovered in Mannar in 2013. The JMO who carried out that exhumation was then moved to Anuradhapura.

The exhumation of mass graves is complicated. When human bones are recovered, the police inform the Magistrate who requests the area JMO to conduct an investigation and postmortem and submit a report to court containing details such as cause of death and for how long the person has been deceased.

“When it comes to a mass grave, where large numbers have been disposed of, one JMO can’t and should not have to do it,” said a medical source who did not wish to be named. “It takes a long time and one JMO cannot take the responsibility.”

The skeletons have to be exhumed separately. “You have to be very patient,” he said. “Each has to be recovered carefully and the time it requires depends on the number of bodies. Various medico-legal questions have to be answered. The manner of disposal, the positioning of the body and its depth, everything is crucial.”

And all this is before the identification stage which, in the case of mass graves in Sri Lanka, remains the most elusive. Among other things, it involves collecting deceased’s ante-mortem (before death) data from relatives to be compared with postmortem information. It could include DNA tests. But the country does not have a central repository of missing persons to make this task easier.

To tackle many of these issues, a post called JMO Anthropology was created in early 2018 at the Institute of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology. It was anticipated that orders would be directed to him when mass graves are found. He would then float a team that includes JMOs around the area of discovery. An anthropology laboratory was set up under the Institute and the Ministry of Health.

This way, a permanent JMO would be in charge of the process, thereby guaranteeing continuity. There would also be a secure location at which to store the samples. And such a mechanism would strengthen the Government’s argument that it is geared to handle such investigations locally.

“There is foreign funding floating around for anthropological investigations and many international organisations are keen to latch on,” said one doctor. “They are ready to come here. But we have the experts here. We have to strengthen our procedures.”

There is an additional cog in the wheel now, with the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) being established. The law empowers this body to act as an observer at excavations and exhumations of suspected gravesites. For the first time, two OMP officers observed the selection of bone samples from the mass grave site at the Sathosa building in Mannar.

But there has to be takers for the system set up at the Institute, for any of this to work smoothly. And the structure must be formalised. “The international community is now watching and we could face serious problems if we don’t act,” the medical officer said.

So, too, are relatives of the missing who have been waiting for years–in the case of the JVP insurgencies, for decades–for answers.

The only recent mass grave excavation that was brought to a satisfactory end was the investigation into skeletons found at the Shangri-La site building in Galle Face. Ironically, they turned out to be the occupants of a cemetery set up in British colonial times.

“Nobody challenged that outcome,” said a doctor who was involved. “Not even the international community.” But things will not be so straightforward in future.

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