Grave secrets from a troubled past

The recent discovery of a mass grave in Mannar town in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province has raised fresh questions about the island nation’s history of violence. It has also re-opened old wounds and triggered traumatic memories among the survivors of the deadly conflict that ended barely 10 years ago. Meera Srinivasan reports From 10 feet away, it looked like a grin, the row of teeth stretching from ear to ear. Freshly dug out from many layers of soil, the mud-covered skeleton lay on its spine, awaiting a number. “That would be 283,” says W.R.A.S. Rajapaksa. He is standing on an elevation inside the site, located at a busy junction in Mannar, an island town in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province. In his blue smock, the Consultant Judicial Medical Officer at Mannar District General Hospital looks like a surgeon, except that this operation is taking place under the sun, inside a messy soil pit. So he is also wearing a cap and rubber boots. On a Monday morning earlier this month, at least four skeletons were clearly visible at the site, while parts of another were protruding from the soil. Where they lay — some piled one on top of the other and a couple to the side — it was at least two metres below ground level, says Rajapaksa, the chief investigator of the latest mass grave to be found in Sri Lanka. As of Friday (January 18), 300 skeletons, including those of 23 children below the age of 12, have been identified. Members of his team that comprised fellow judicial medical officers, forensic archaeologists and analysts had resumed excavating the skeletons after a break for Christmas and the New Year. Wetting their brushes in a cup of water, they gently pried aside the soil deposits over the bones, making them visible, little by little, to the world they had left behind.

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