On November 24 last year, workers digging a trench in the compound of Matale hospital, central Sri Lanka, made a gruesome discovery. Using a backhoeing machine ahead of plans to build foundations for a new bio-gas unit behind a kitchen, workers began to unearth what appeared to be human remains.
Forensic excavation over the next three months confirmed at least 154 human skeletons, the largest mass grave discovered in Sri Lanka, where more than three decades of civil war ended with the defeat of the rebel Tamil Tigers in 2009. Preliminary forensic reports submitted to Matale court earlier this year paint a picture of torture and killings. Some bones showed evidence of nails hammered in before death and one leg bone was tied with a carefully knotted metal wire.
“There are several skulls that remain devoid of their skeletons,” a sign of decapitations, reads one of the forensic reports. Evidence also points to the use of firearms and blunt instruments before death.
For President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his powerful family, the ongoing investigation into what happened in Matale has turned into a ticking political and judicial time bomb. Not only has the case subjected the president’s questionable rights record to embarrassing scrutiny, it has also implicated his brother, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, in serious abuses perpetrated against the country’s Sinhalese majority, the source of political support for both men following their victorious ending of the civil war four years ago.
With the next court hearing in Matale set for August 19, investigations continue to focus on three key unknowns: Who are the victims, and how and when did they die?
The discovery of artifacts buried with the bodies dates the grave to between 1986 and 1990 with further tests still needed for a more accurate timeframe, according to forensic reports. So far no bodies have been identified. But with each piece of evidence speculation is growing that the grave dates back to a two-year counter-insurgency operation by the Sri Lankan army resulting in more than 20,000 people disappeared in the Sinhalese south by the end of 1989, according to government inquiries.
At lunchtime on December 19 of that year, two soldiers wearing Sri Lankan army uniforms entered the home of Wedikara Kamalawathi, just outside of Matale, and detained her two teenage sons for questioning. Both had been involved in student rallies, said Kamalawathi, but she insisted they were not members of the People’s Liberation Front (JVP), a group which killed hundreds of soldiers and police and their families during the uprising.
The next day, Kamalawathi said she and other parents followed a convoy of army vehicles transporting their children to a detention camp inside a college close to Matale hospital.
When she went there to search for her sons with her husband a few days later, a guard showed them a book with a list of names and then turned them away.
“The names of my two sons were crossed out in red ink,” said Kamalawathi, tears streaming down her face. Susantha Janaka, 18, and Rohana Nisantha, 17, were never seen again.
They were among more than 450 people recorded as missing in the Matale area during the period of the uprising, according to a later presidential inquiry. Only low-level police and soldiers have faced punishment for the atrocities of this period.
In May 1989, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was promoted and posted to Matale as the district coordinating officer “tasked with bringing the JVP under control,” notes CA Chandraprema in Gota’s War: The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka, published in May last year.
A glowing portrait of the defense secretary, the book details Gotabhaya’s earlier career in the army and notes that he remained in Matale until the JVP uprising was put down at the end of 1989. Only one senior JVP cadre in the country survived. Gotabhaya then moved to the U.S. and later secured an American passport, returning to Sri Lanka to help brother Mahinda’s campaign for the presidency ahead of his victory in 2005.