Sri Lanka: Excavations at mass grave with children risks closure

By Kithsiri Wijesinghe

Experts investigating a mass grave in northern Sri Lanka fear that the excavations will be forced to a halt due to lack of state funds. 

Forensic officers and archaeologists confirm that skulls and remains of at least thirty humans including children under the age of 12 years were found, in the Mannar SATHOSA mass burial site after digging for more than a fortnight.

Video footage from the site shows perforations on several skulls.


Anti-disappearance activists and local human rights lawyers from the war-torn region are convinced that the grave contains bodies of Tamils abducted, tortured and killed allegedly by state security forces.

Emergency meeting

In an emergency meeting held at the Mannar court complex on Monday (25) senior officials had decided they have no other alternative than discontinuing excavations if state authorities fail to provide essential assistance in future.

Chief investigating judicial medical officer (JMO) Saminda Rajapaksha and archaeologist Raj Somadeva attended the meeting presided by Mannar District Judge TJ Prabhakaran.

Specialists involved in the investigations say that government authorities are yet to provide the necessary facilities for judicial medical officers, archaeologists and forensic analysts who travel from faraway places to the excavation site situated more than 300 km from the capital.

“The judge informed us that providing accommodation and transport to experts who travel to Mannar from Colombo and other areas has become a problem,” Professor Raj Somadeva told JDS.

“If that issue cannot be addressed, he said that we will be compelled to close down the burial site,” the chief archaeologist added.

Government commitment

The lead forensic investigator was critical of the government’s lack of commitment to break the deadlock and the red tape involved.

“The main problem of course, is the government not taking steps to resolve this issue,” Dr Saminda Rajapaksha told JDS.

“Even though I work in the health department, orders to investigate a mass burial site is given by the court. Therefore, I requested the justice ministry to provide the facilities. I haven’t got a response. Everybody is ducking the issue.”

Dr Rajapaksha further said that the absence of legal guidelines or a procedure for the excavation of mass burial sites in Sri Lanka is a major obstacle to performing their duty.

Rejected funding

However, a local human rights lawyer who requested anonymity was frustrated that the investigators have refused receiving donations from non-state institutions.

“The Mannar Bishop’s house and several priests have offered to provide the necessary funds and facilities. That has been rejected. The investigators are looking up to the government knowing that the funds are not going to materialize. The consequence will be the closure of the grave.” 

Mannar Bishop Dr. Fidelis Lionel Emmanuel Fernando had called for an independent probe to identity of the bodies and determine the cause of death.

However, the investigators have turned down the offer from the church.

"We are not willing to accept any funds from non-state entities," they said.

"If the investigations are funded by any local or international NGOs, we will be accused of producing reports to serve their interests. So, if the government is reluctant to ensure funds, we will have no option other than closing it down. We cannot compromise our integrity," they further added.

Two years ago, investigators were forced to abandon the excavations of a mass grave from the same area due to the government’s lack of interest.

Excavations of the Thiruketheeswaram mass burial site discovered in December 2013 was discontinued in June 2016. 

It contained at least 82 bodies.☐



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.