Mass graves in Mannar: Yet at excavation stage : Skeletal samples to Florida for carbon dating | Sunday Observer

Mass graves in Mannar: Yet at excavation stage : Skeletal samples to Florida for carbon dating

Chief Investigation Officer, Dr Samantha Rajapaksha at work.
Chief Investigation Officer, Dr Samantha Rajapaksha at work.

There was speculation about the mass graves found at the old Sathosa building premises in Mannar, specially on social media. These news items were highly controversial. Even though the bone samples were ready for radio-carbon dating, they hadn’t passed the analysis stage. The investigations are still in the excavation stage. Some who are not a part of the investigation team had opined to the media.

Excavations of the mass graves found at the old Sathosa building premises, were to be completed on December 21, 2018.

The investigators had excavated the mass graves for 120 days as at December 20. The investigation team identified 283 skeletons and to remove 174 out of the excavation site. Twentyone skeletons believed to be of children were among the 174.

One significant finding was that some of the skeletons recovered had been tied together. Some persons and websites had quoted that they could be the skeletons of those tortured and had disappeared during the war on terrorism, as their legs were chained.

The Chief Investigation Officer, Mannar mass graves, Judicial Medical Officer, Dr. Saminda Rajapaksha said “We found on three skeletons that their fibula bones (bones below the knees) were bound by some item that had corroded - it could be a chain, cuffs or even some jewellery. Some had reported that they were cuffs or chains. Yet, we cannot be definite. We can come to a conclusion only after a proper analysis. But we are still in the excavation stage”.


Bones being dried at the excavation site.

Prior to that the investigators had only found some objects such as rings, polythene biscuit covers and similar stuff. Nevertheless, the chief investigative officer said that until a final report is made after the analysis, no one can reach a conclusion based on the findings.

The investigators had taken bone samples on December 18, which are to be sent to Beta Analytic Laboratory in Florida,USA for radio-carbon dating. Investigators had taken samples that represent all recovered skeletons.

“We found the remains at three levels of excavation. We have samples, representing all three levels. In addition, we have taken samples which represent horizontally located skeletons,” said Dr. Rajapaksha.

They have focused on transparency over bringing the skeletons samples for carbon dating. For instance from December 18, they had taken samples in the presence of the Mannar magistrate and his team. A combined team that consisted of Chief Investigation Officer, Judicial Medical Officer Dr. Saminda Rajapaksha and his team of consultant JMOs, Forensic Archaeologists team leaded by Prof. Raj Somadeva, Government Analyst’s Department, Police and The Police Scene of Crime Officers (SOCO) are conducting the investigations.

The skeleton samples were collected only by this investigation team.

To maintain transparency in investigations, the Mannar magistrate had given consent to a member from each civil organisation about disappearances in the area and a representative from the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) to participate in investigations as observers. The media was given five minutes to take photographs and video footage on sample collecting. The skeletons recovered have now been kept at a special room in the Mannar magistrate’s premises with security, said Dr. Rajapaksha.

In the third week of January, the skeleton samples will be sent for carbon dating. Dr. Rajapaksha will accompany the samples to Beta Analytic laboratory in Florida. As taking the samples from Sri Lanka to USA is a complex process, investigators are planning to avoid possible constraints.

“We are transporting these samples in sealed boxes. No one can open those in the course of transportation. If such a thing happens, it will damage the transparency we’ve been maintaining throughout. Therefore, all airports we will pass through have to be kept informed. I will take them in my hand luggage for security” said Dr. Rajapaksha.

He will be accompanied by another person, for transparency and observation. Financial provision for transporting skeleton samples are from the OMP. “ I personally believe Sri Lanka hasn’t handled a job like this in such a strict manner. We are trying to do this in a scientific way to keep transparency and to minimise all issues” he said.

Even though some people had related the temporary halt of the excavation of the mass graves last month with the political turbulence in the country, Dr. Rajapaksha rejected those claims. At that time, he and some of the OMP members were in Cyprus, studying mass graves. Excavations were at a standstill, when the doctor had to attend other pressing duties.

“True, there were some political turmoil in the past couple of weeks. But we faced no political pressure to continue our work” said Dr. Rajapaksha.

A complaint had been lodged at the Mannar Police on March 25, 2018, on finding human bones while digging for constructions at the Sathosa premises.

After a site inspection conducted by the Magistrate of Mannar, T. G. Prabhakaran, JMO Saminda Rajapaksha and the Police, identified the bones as human and commenced investigations. At the initial stage, the disturbed area had to be separated from the undisturbed area, said Dr. Rajapaksha. Investigations began on May 28, after determining the area with undisturbed skeletons. 

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