After seven months of digging around the old Sathosa Building in Mannar, a city some 250 kilometers north of Colombo in Sri Lanka, the remains of some 266 people have been pulled from the clinging earth.

While these bodies remain unidentified – and, in some cases, likely unidentifiable – few doubt that they are witnessing the exhumation of the first of 16,000 to 20,000 people who disappeared here during more than four decades of civil war.

The mass grave is one of several sites uncovered around Sri Lanka in recent years, including another one in Mannar. Further sites have been discovered around the east coast town of Batticaloa, and another in the central town of Matale.

How many disappeared?

However, Saliya Pieris, chairman of the independent Office on Missing Persons (OMP), said: “We just don’t know how many mass graves there are out there.

“We also don’t know exactly how many disappeared. The International Red Cross says 17,000, the Ministry of National Reconciliation says 16,000, while some NGOs say the number is 20,000. Part of our job is to arrive at an accurate figure and try and bring closure for their loved ones.”

Yet now, the fear among many relatives of the missing is that with little progress having been made in finding not only closure, but also justice, things may soon come to a halt, as a result of Sri Lanka’s current political crisis.

“If the political situation prevails, I fear these efforts to find an answer, too, might perish,” Samdya Ekneligoda, whose journalist husband went missing back in 2010, told Asia Times. “When I heard what happened on October 26, I felt fear – both for finding the truth and for my life as well.”

Controversial pasts

October 26 saw the political crisis in Sri Lanka deepen when the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) — one of the parties that made up the National Unity Government — decided to leave the ruling coalition.

President Maithripala Sirasena then appointed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister after ousting the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe by issuing a decree known as Extraordinary Gazette no 2094/43.

Sri Lanka's former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, speaks with President Maithripala Sirisena at a rally in Colombo on November 5, 2018. Photo: AFP
Sri Lanka’s former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, speaks with President Maithripala Sirisena at a rally in Colombo on November 5, 2018. Photo: AFP

While Rajapaksa’s supporters welcomed the move, seeing him as the man who brought decades of war to an end back in 2009, for others, the news was alarming.

“It brought everything back,” Amalini De Sayrah, from the Centre for Policy Alternatives think-tank in Colombo, said. “The terrible end of the war, violence, corruption, a crackdown on free speech, the murder of journalists – in a lot of the areas affected by the war, it had a completely chilling effect.”

Rajapaksa was president during the final, bitter years of the conflict and in its immediate aftermath.

He has denied any involvement in disappearances, but his period of office was also the time when many of the disappearances were reported.

Ekneligoda’s husband, Prageeth, had been a strong critic of Rajapaksa in his newspaper columns and a supporter of a rival candidate for president, back in 2010. “And then, the day before the 2010 presidential election, he was abducted. We haven’t seen him since,” she said.

An investigation into his disappearance did not fully get underway until 2015, when Rajapaksa was ejected from office and replaced by Sirasena.

Some 11 military intelligence officers were subsequently named by the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department (CID) as suspects, the case is still ongoing.

Yet, in the courtroom itself, October 26 has already had an impact.

“At the last hearing, in November, the lawyer appearing on behalf of the intelligence officers openly said in court that his clients shouldn’t worry because everything was going to change, now that Rajapaksa was back,” Ekneligoda says.

Frozen truth

The political crisis has also led to a paralysis of government business – freezing some other key steps underway to help the country address the darker aspects of its recent past.

“There was going to be a Truth Commission set up,” says Pieris, “as well as an office for reparations, along the South African model. We’d also got somewhere with financial support for the families of the disappeared people along with the suspension of police and soldiers accused of involvement in crimes while their cases were being heard. But then the crisis came. We have no idea what will happen to these proposals now.”

The Office of Missing Persons, and other steps towards transitional justice have always been controversial, with the fear that the crisis may now give an opportunity for backsliding.

“We think the issue of the missing persons cuts across party political and ethnic lines,” says Pieris, pointing out that some 5,100 serving Sri Lankan soldiers are also among the disappeared.

But he adds: “Some people do see the investigation of this as a betrayal.” Some see the OMP’s work as an attempt to undermine the security forces and their achievements. For many of the relatives though, it is more about ending an anguish that may have lasted for
decades.”

While the OMP has no cut-off date, most of those who are missing, disappeared after 1971, when armed conflict first engulfed the south of the island. This was followed in 1987-89 by a southern-based leftist insurrection, while from 1983 to 2009, the Sri Lankan army fought the
separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) in the north and east.

“We had a lady come in here recently,” Pieris recalls at his office in Colombo. “She was a 76-year-old Tamil, from the central part of Sri Lanka, and she’d been in Colombo with her husband just as the July 1983 riots broke out. They got separated when the temple they were at was attacked and she never saw her husband again. She never remarried and still had a red dot on her forehead – the symbol of being married– since then.

She just said: “Before I die, I just want to know what happened. I don’t think he can be alive, but I just want to know.”