While a US carbon dating report into six human skeleton samples taken from Sri Lanka’s largest mass grave revealed they belong to the 15th century, the Mannar Magistrates’ Court is yet to rule on the next step in the exhumation. The court is to hear the case on March 22. Two weeks ago, the radiocarbon [...]


Mannar mass grave: US report a small piece in complex puzzle


While a US carbon dating report into six human skeleton samples taken from Sri Lanka’s largest mass grave revealed they belong to the 15th century, the Mannar Magistrates’ Court is yet to rule on the next step in the exhumation. The court is to hear the case on March 22.

The excavated site of the Mannar mass grave. Pic by Lambert Rosarian

Two weeks ago, the radiocarbon dating report by Florida-based Beta Analytic Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory, which found that the remains belong to between 1499 and 1719 AD, was submitted to the court and made public.

The chairman of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), Saliya Pieris, told the Sunday Times a multi-disciplinary holistic approach should be followed. “The carbon dating report is just one aspect of the investigation that is needed to determine the truth about the mass grave,” he said.

Reports from the Archeological Department and the Judicial Medical Officer involved in the excavation, and other reports are due to be submitted to court.

Mr Pieris also said that, although the OMP, as a mandated state body is funding and overseeing the excavations, it is up to the Mannar Magistrates’ Court to determine further steps after considering other pending reports.

The OMP spent Rs1.1 million for the month-long excavations at the Mannar mass grave as of December 31, 2018. Rs1.8 million was spent on the laboratory, transport, and travel to Florida.

Another institutional obstacle the investigators face is that there are no archaeological forensic experts. Currently, consultant judicial medical officers, who graduated from the College of Forensic Pathologists of Sri Lanka, are tasked to investigate other possible mass graves.

JMO Dr Saminda Rajapaksa, who oversaw the Mannar excavation, acknowledged the need for more trained forensic archaeologists in the wake of claims of other mass graves.

“Adopting a standard operational protocol for trained archaeological forensic experts is underway with the assistance of the Ministry of Health and other necessary stakeholders to facilitate excavations when a mass grave is identified elsewhere in the country,” Dr Rajapaksa said.

However, lawyers reprersenting the families of missing persons in the district, are of the view that the skeletons were taken from the deep pit of a suspected ancient burial site. They believe the skeletons sent for carbon dating were taken from the seventh layer from the ground level whereas skeletons suspected to be buried recently were excavated and are in court custody.

They argue that some artefacts and objects that were recovered belong to the recent past. So far, 346 human skeletons, including some 20 skeletal remains suspected to be of children, have been exhumed.

The JMO took the six samples from a cross section of the mass grave in the presence of Mannar Magistrate T Saravanarajah.

After the radiocarbon dating report revealed that those skeletons belonged to the 15th century, some local historians were quick to link them with the massacre of some 600 Catholics by the then King of the Jaffna Kingdom, Cankili Raja (I) Cekaracacekaran in 1544.

In a joint statement, the lawyers also noted that there are several more tests to be conducted, which may also have to be referred to experts for analysis and reports. “It is only on receipt of the reports of all such tests that any meaningful conclusion could be reached as to the age and position of such skeletal remains,” they said.

The lawyers are V Puvikaran PC, and attorneys at law C Ranitha Gnanarajah, V S Niranchan, G Rajakulendra and K S Ratnavale.

“The report that has been received is only in respect of one aspect of the mass grave and the analysis and report on the layers of the soil and the artefacts and materials discovered at the site [are] still due and any speculation on the entire process based on the available report alone may be premature and be prejudicial to the process that is being carried out under the directions and supervision of the court of law, namely the Magistrate’s Court of Mannar,” the statement added.

But the process of identifying the victims is complex and complicated, according to a senior official from the OMP who stressed that the process would take years.

For example, in Cyprus it took 25 years to identify the mass grave site of those who were reported missing in 1981. It was only in 2001 that investigators found the mass grave site and recovered the bodies and later carried out DNA testing to determine the identity of victims, he said.

Meanwhile the families of the disappeared want answers before they die.

Manuel Uthayachandra, a mother from Mannar who is still seeking answers over the disappearance of her 24-year-old son in 2008 is sceptical about many artefacts and objects, such as a polythene cover of a local biscuit brand that was recovered. At least 333 people from Mannar are reported missing since 1980, according to mothers of missing persons in the district.

“We want to know what happened to our missing children before we die. So far, 23 elderly parents of missing persons have passed away without knowing what happened to their children. I pray to God everyday to let me know the fate of my son before I die,” the elderly mother said.

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