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Unearthing mass graves

Illustration by Keera Ratnam wavesofcolour

This week excavations took place in mass graves across Tamil Eelam, as even more bodies continued to be unearthed. Almost 15 years after the Mullivaikkal genocide, the grisly discoveries are a reminder. Sri Lanka’s bloody history of mass atrocities cannot be buried. The past will eventually resurface, and it must be reckoned with.

The chilling findings were made in at least two new places. Muhumalai, a region that saw years of fierce fighting until 2009, and Pungudutivu, an islet off the Jaffna peninsula that has been under Sri Lankan occupation since at least 1995. Both illustrate the vast spread of bloodshed that took place over the decades, and the efforts made to cover them up. Mass graves litter the Tamil homeland, from the islets of the North to the villages of the East. Many are yet to be found.

Though excavations have started at these two sites for now, there is little hope that answers to who those buried are and how they died, will be given. As Sri Lanka has done repeatedly, it will delay, obfuscate and refuse to provide any accountability if it implicates state forces. In Kokkuthoduvai, the government is refusing to provide funds for further excavations. In Mannar, forensic reports have been delayed yet again. In other cases, magistrates have been transferred or lawyers denied site access. As the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) highlighted last year, even in the “very rare cases” where convictions were made over such findings - that too only for mass graves in the South of the island - pardons followed shortly thereafter. The 1998 revelation of the hundreds buried at Chemmani, for example, has still seen no convictions. No one has ever been held accountable for mass graves in the Tamil homeland. Sri Lanka has proven time and again, it will take every single avenue, bureaucratic or judicial, to ensure that they will not. 

Some of those buried in the many graves across Tamil Eelam will no doubt be Tamil fighters, with remnants of uniforms or dog tags having been unearthed alongside the bodies. That does not, however, mean their deaths do not deserve further investigation. We know that many cadres were unlawfully killed, some massacred whilst they waved white flags and others executed after surrendering. Hundreds of others were simply forcibly disappeared never to have been heard from again. Their families and the Tamil people are still waiting for answers.

These are not just unnamed skeletal remains. They are real people who deserve dignity, even in death - the fighters and the thousands of civilians who were victims of massacres, abductions and executions. For themselves, for their families and for relatives of the disappeared who are still searching for their loved ones, their deaths must be accounted for. The only way that can happen is if an independent, internationalised process is enacted to ensure that every step of the process – from the excavation of such graves to the prosecution of those responsible for them – is carried out swiftly and transparently.

As we approach 15 years since the massacres at Mullivaikkal, the recent discoveries are stark reminders that the sand on that beach alone holds the bodies of many, many more. Long, arduous years have passed since those atrocities and Sri Lanka remains far from addressing them or any of the other decades of abuses. But as the resurfacing of these bodies illustrates, despite Sri Lanka’s attempts, the crimes of the past cannot simply be buried away.

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