by Sophie Bisping

Recently, a feeling of futility has started to creep in as I sit down at my desk. I can’t quite breach the gap between the current political turmoil in Sri Lanka and the legal recommendations I am preparing for how to regulate the discovery, investigation, and commemoration of mass grave sites on the island.

The core part of my work for the International Centre for Ethnic Studies this summer consists in the writing of a report on the history and legal framework of mass grave sites in Sri Lanka. For this purpose, I am interviewing a number of activists and lawyers, many of whom were active in the protests that led to the flight of the former president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The uncertainty of the past few months, and the emotional ups and downs of the protest movement create an exhaustion that I often feel in the background of our discussions. 

More than thirty different sites of mass graves have been identified on the island since the 1990s.[1] To my knowledge, seven investigations were opened and only one led to the prosecution of perpetrators, but not to the full identification of the victims. All other investigations seem to have stalled. Simultaneously, Sri Lanka has the world’s second highest number of cases registered with the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances: it is estimated that between 60,000 to 100,000 people “disappeared” since the 1980s.[2] Families of the disappeared campaign almost every day for answers.

The excavation of mass graves and the exhumation of bodies is important for these families, but these processes are complex and require a lot of resources. For a successful identification of victims, the minimum procedure required includes:

  • A registry of missing persons and associated information
  • DNA reference samples from families of the missing
  • Data on the operation to ensure the protection of the human remains
  • Forensic anthropological examinations of each remain found
  • DNA laboratory processes
  • Building a DNA profile database
  • DNA matching[3]

This is when the discouragement and inertia settle in, with the number of disappeared people and the minutiae of identifying even one person. And these numbers are only a starting point. Beyond these tangible proofs of how vast the problem is, it is important to reflect on what is at stake in the exhumatory act itself. How to reinscribe these victims in the history of a State that continuously attempts to erase them?

One case is particularly revealing of how remains can be instrumentalized to dismiss past violence from governmental security forces. The investigation of two closely related sites found in the Mannar district in 2013 was closed because of contradictory claims on the age of the bodies. The first forensic anthropologist who worked on the site placed the moment of creation of the grave in the 1980s, during which the government brutally repressed a marxist uprising. Yet when samples were sent to a laboratory in the United States, the carbon dating results indicated that the bodies dated from somewhere between the late 15th to the mid-17th century, during the Portuguese colonial rule in Sri Lanka. Accepting the latter results, the government closed the investigation, in spite of activists claiming the evidence had been tampered with.[4]

This decision is symptomatic of a public discourse that refuses to acknowledge past atrocities. By classifying the grave as belonging to the colonial era of Sri Lanka, these bodies become inscribed in a historical register rather than a political and personal one. Depending on the time elapsed since the death of someone, we seem to use different lenses to approach their body: they are of archeological interest when a few thousand years old, historical interest if a few hundred years old, and of political – and personal – significance if they died within lived memory. Yet one register does not need to erase another: in South Africa, victims of Apartheid were reburried along with the bodies of victims dating from colonial times, acknowledging both as part of the nation’s history.[5] In the Atacama desert in Chile, forensic anthropologists studied bodies from the Chinchirro people from around 7,000 BC, and also the remains of political detainees from the Pinochet dictatorship.[6] There are many ways to memorialize mass violence events, but they must be memorialized in a way that centers the needs of the communities affected, and that respects the spiritual, political, and legal significance of these sites: this is a point on which all interviewees agree.

Hearing the various perspectives of Sri Lankans about these sites helps contextualize the report that I’m writing, and counterbalances the cynical reflections on the feasibility of all these recommendations. In legal analysis, voices from the communities affected by regulations are too often cast to the margins – but it is from these margins that I draw the energy for my work. In the evening, when my mind dwells on the things that inform how I look at the world, it is with those voices that my thoughts get moving again. With novels (Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North), documentaries (Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia de la Luz), poems (Hedva Harechavi’s Around You Around Us Around Me).


[1] See Nilantha Ilangamuwa, ‘‘Sri Lanka: The Island of mass graves”, Asian Human Rights Commission (3 June 2014), online: <>

[2] See Meenakshi Ganguly, “Families of Sri Lanka’s Forcibly Disappeared Denied Justice”, Human Rights Watch (25 August 2021), online: <>

[3] M. Klinkner and E. Smith, The Bournemouth Protocol on Mass Grave Protection and Investigation (Bournemouth University, 2020) at 13.

[4] See Kris Thomas, “Sri Lanka mass grave excavation halted”, Asia Times (15 March 2019), online: <

[5] See Nicky Rousseau, “Identification, politics, disciplines: missing persons and colonial skeletons in South Africa” in Élisabeth Anstett & Jean-Marc Dreyfus, eds, Human Remains and Identification: Mass violence, genocide, and the ‘forensic turn’ (Manchester: Manchester Scholarship Online, 2017) 175.

[6] See Patricio Guzmán, “Nostalgia de la Luz”, Documentary (Pyramide International, 2010).