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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.

The existence of twelve Mass Graves have been reported to this Commission.
They are:

1. The Hokandara Mass Grave
2. The Essella School Mass Grave
3. The Wavulkelle Mass Grave
4. The Walpita Government Farm Mass Grave
(2 to 4 are in the Gampaha District)
5. Ambagahahenakanda Mass Grave
6. Bemmulla Mass Grave
7. Kottawakella, Yakkalumulla Mass Grave - Galle District
8. The Dickwella Mass Grave at Heendeliya
9. Diyadawakelle, Deniyaya, Mass Grave
10. Wilpita Akuressa Mass Grave
(8 to 10 are in the Matara District)
11. Angkumbura Mass Grave - Matale District
12. Suriyakanda Mass Grava - Monaragala District

The Hokandara, Essella, Wavulkelle, Walpita Farm, Angkumbura and Suriyakanda Mass Graves have been disinterred on judicial order. This Commission accepts the evidence of the existence of the others. Their existence raises the likelihood of other mass Graves being in existence, unreported as yet.

Mass Graves have been located at the sites of pits carved out by a bomb explosion as in the cases of the Hokandara, Dikwella and Angkumbura Mass Graves. The Wilpita, Akuressa Mass Grave is located at the site of Army Camp. They may be located at public place such as a public highway (Hokandara), the village school (Essella) or a government farm (Walpita), Even when located in a remote place as in the case of the Suriyakanda Mass Grave they are often within sight and control of state security installations.

These Graves are a far cry from the shallow unmarked Grave set up in attempted concealment of an individual crime. And of an entirely different genre from the JVP's public display of brutally butchered victims' bodies. Sophisticated logistics have gone into their creation: modern fire-arms; heavy vehicles.

All these Mass Graves reported to this Commission are a matter of knowledge shared by the people of the area where the Mass Graves are located, even though unknown nationally and unacknowledged by the authorities. Several have attempted to report their knowledge to the authorities at the time when the Mass Graves came into existence. The police either do not record or record the report as merely that of a "disappearance": "I did so on superiors orders" admitted the recording officer to the Criminal Investigation Department which was conducting investigations on the Magistrate's order consequent to the disclosure of the existence of a Mass Grave (Hokandara Mass grave) in the middle of the main road of a Colombo suburb.

Others with knowledge did not report to the authorities through fear, understandable in the circumstances.

In several instances the authorities could not have failed to have been aware themselves of the creation of the Mass Grave in question, for they occur in public places: a busy through fare as in the case of the Hokandara Mass Grave, a Government Farm or a State school (Walpita and Essella). But the recording and investigative authorities of the state are signal in their failure to record and investigate. Credible evidence has been led to the Commission that the Hokadara Mass Grave remained and open grave for a period of at least one week. And yet, police officers now holding senior positions professed to the Commission complete ignorance of its existence, while producing police Books of Record of a visit so inspection to the site of the original bomb explosion. This is another hall-mark of these cases, and constitutes significant evidence of whom the authorities considered to be creators of the Mass Graves in question.

At another level, the lack of action by the recording and investigative authorities signified an attitude of indifference. For instance, the judicial Medical Officer in his report of his visit to the Vavulkelle site has noted the statements of a police officer as follows:
Stated that when he visited the scene he saw the fire blazing with logs and tyres and burning bodies. He did not extinguish the fire as his superior officers have asked him to see that such bodies are destroyed and dumped off

A female petitioner before the Commission giving evidence in respect of the same Mass Grave unknowingly corroborated the police officer's account of his conduct related above.

When we heard bodies were burning at Wavulkelle after my husband and uncle were abducted, uncle's family hired a car and got there early. So they were able to identify the partially burnt corpses. I went on foot and by the time. I got there some one had buried the remains scattering them around. Dogs were eating some of the remains; others were scattered around; besides what was dug up the magistrate afterwards. So I couldn't find my husband's body. His ring was found among the remains by the CID.

In several instances, the site of the Mass Grave was the scene of destruction wrought by subversive act. The bodies therein were reprisal killings in respect of that subversive act. e.g.

Hokandara Mass Grave was in a crater created by a subversive bomb explosion in which police officers died. The Mass Graves at the Walpita Farm came into existence following on the destruction by subversives of the farm building and the post office, the Rural Bank and a private shop at that junction. It is in evidence before the Commission that a pile of burning bodies had been on display at that junction that day.

The creation of a Mass Grave in the compound of the Yatagama School at Essella was preceded by the sound of the arrival of heavy trucks to the village and the sound of the gun shots, followed by a very public exhibition of the bullet riddled bodies of several young men and women in the drain adjoining the school located in the vicinity on the ancestral home of a army officer which had suffered a 'subversive attack.

Several of us from adjoining villages went to see the bodies lying in a row in the drain by the Yatagama school. Some bodies were very much charred. In some cases the cloth had burnt away and the bodies were baked. I remember in one instance the face was untouched ; it was blind-folded, with a gun shot injury on the forehead.

The above is the evidence of a petitioner in another case unconnected to the Essella Grave.

In some instances such as Essella and Hokandara, the bodies themselves were weapons of terror, and there was no attempt to conceal their existence prior to their internment in a Mass Grave, although pains had been taken to prevent individual identification. More usually, there are "disappearances", on the one hand, and there are "Mass Graves", on the other : whether in the same area or not.

The significant relevance of the existence of Mass Graves to the subject of our mandate cannot be over-stated. 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 idntification of a corpse disinterred to a particular person who has disappeared, There is a significant correlation also to the validity of the evidence of the alleged returned detainees describing various practices of torture in places of detention.

There are very many more Mass Graves known to the local inhabitants of the area in which they are located. In view of the nature of the evidence coming to light from the excavations to date, it is very evident that a full record of the location and other attendant particulars of such graves should be collated while personal first-hand knowledge of them still exists. This must be done without delay for a further reason. On the date that the Suriyakanda mass Grave was due to be opened on the Magistrate's order, fresh corpses dug up from fresh graves were left along the route in obvious intimidatory warning to potential witnesses : "This is what will happen to you if you disclose what you know".

Excavation however should await until such time as the requisite forensic and technical knowledge and skills are available in Sri Lanka as valuable evidence is destroyed by the exposure of buried human remains in the absence of adequate preventive safeguards being observed. The excavation of Mass Graves in now an area of specialised knowledge and skills. 1

Dr. Ravindra Fernando, professor of Forensic Medicine, University of Colombo stated :

Identification of human remains is one of the major problems in the investigations of crimes in Sri Lanka. Inadequate facilities and non-availability of expertise result in undue delay in criminal investigations where human identification is an issue. Sometimes, the investigations have to be abandoned.

It is accordingly advisable to establish a Human Identification Centre (HIC) in the University of Colombo, to:

(a). Train forensic pathologists and scientists in all aspects of identification

(b). Provide modern state of the art techinques, including DNA profiling, computerized facial reconstruction and photo comparison, video superimposition and anthropometric analysis.

The HIC can be established by:

(a). Providing infrastructure facilities, such as necessary buildings, communication and other office facilities and other modern equipment and consumables.

(b). Training scientist in the Scotland Yard or other similar laboratory for a period of three to six months on modern identification techniques.

This Commission recommends the establishment of a Human

Identification Centre as outlined by Prof. Fernando.

There is another inference to be drawn form the phenomenon of Mass Graves in this period. In this period corpses had a value of their own independent of a particular identity. Bodies were set alight with "tyre necklaces". Charred defaced bodies by the road side, bodies on lamp-posts, were a common sight intended to strike the beholder with terror. And yet the supply available of bodies was "too much" what a sad commentary of the times.




End Notes:

1. see Manual on the Effective Prevention Investigation of extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions. United Nations NY 1991

Posted on 1999-01-01


Cyberspace Graveyard for Disappeared Persons
Asian Human Rights Commission

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