Second largest mass grave unearthed in Sri Lanka

Upwards of 90 skeletal remains have so far been uncovered as the full investigation begins

Sri Lankan three-wheeled taxi drivers wait for passengers along a road in Colombo on August 22, 2018. (Photo by LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP)
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Experts in Sri Lanka have uncovered what they believe to be a mass grave containing the remains of dozens of people that would be the second largest unearthed since the end of the country’s civil war in 2009.

In the northwest former frontline town of Mannar, the remains of more than 90 people have been unearthed.

The 26-year war between the government and separatist Tamils left at least 100,000 dead - around 40,000 of which came in the final 2009 battle - and thousands of others missing. The bloody conclusion in 2009 saw government forces battle the remaining Tamil fighters into increasingly small pockets of territory.

A Sri Lankan court has ordered a full investigation and excavation of the site, a former co-operative wholesale depot near the town’s main bus terminal, the BBC reported.

Experts were notified when workers at the site reported finding human remains while they dug foundations for a new building earlier this year.

"The entire area can be divided into two parts. In one segment we have a proper cemetery. In the second part, you have a collection of human skeletons which have been deposited in an informal way," Professor Raj Somadeva, a forensic archaeologist from the University of Kelaniya near Colombo who is leading a team of experts at the site, told the BBC.

He added that the remains of at least six children had so far been discovered but that there was still a large area to uncover and more bodies could be found. No clothes or other items that could help forensic teams identify the skeletal remains have been found.

The town of Mannar was largely under military control during the conflict but much of the surrounding district was held by Tamil fighters.

The forensics experts are yet to determine how long the remains have been buried and the cause of death.


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As each skeleton is removed, it is transferred to the court in Mannar that will rule on the future course of action once the investigation is concluded.

Since the end of the war, a number of such grave sites have been found across the country.

However, the discovery brings back memories of the largest mass grave found in the country a short distance away in Thiruketheeswaram, a prominent Hindu temple in the Mannar district.

The remains of 96 bodies were found in 2014 and four years on, there has been no statement of whose remains were found or who was responsible for the murders.

Although the government denies the killing or disappearing civilians, rights groups contend that at least 20,000 went missing during the conflict.

Under international pressure, the government set up the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) earlier this year to investigate the fate of the missing.

Both Tamil and government forces are accused of widespread rights abuses.


Sri Lanka’s civil war in stats

• The war took place from 1983 to 2009 between the army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist movement fighting for the north’s independence.

• The mainly-Hindu Tamil community, about 12 per cent of the population, faced discrimination after Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain in 1948.

• 100,000 people died, including soldiers, during the war, with about 40,000 in the final phase in 2009.

• One million Tamils fled abroad.

• 65,000 people are still missing, with 90,000 women widowed.

• 137,000 homes still need to be rebuilt.

• 100,000 refugees live in Tamil Nadu in southern India, 65,000 of them in refugee camps


Earlier this year, a UN report concluded there had was "little evidence" the hoped-for reforms to promote inclusiveness and justice were materialising in Sri Lanka after the country's transition to a coalition government in 2015.

The damning report came after a UN visit to the country at the request of the government. It was issued three years after the country appeared to be on the cusp of major progress with the election of a unity government following decades of civil war.

Ben Emmerson QC, the UN rapporteur on countering terrorism, met with senior Sri Lankan officials on his visit but concluded that progress towards a fair justice system and reconciliation had “virtually ground to the halt” in the country.

“None of the measures so far adopted to fulfil Sri Lanka’s transitional justice commitments are adequate to ensure real progress,” he said in his findings.

He said that Tamils, the minority group whose fighters battled for an independent state for more than two decades, have been left to feel “stigmatised and disenfranchised” on the island.