The Graveyards of Sri Lanka's War Zone

Expansion of a gravesite in Sri Lankan “Civilian Safe Zone”: On April 19 (left) roads are present, but the area is mostly deserted. By May 24 (right), a large graveyard with an estimated 342 graves has emerged. Analysis provided by AAAS.

Expansion of a gravesite in Sri Lankan “Civilian Safe Zone”: On April 19 (left) roads are present, but the area is mostly deserted. By May 24 (right), a large graveyard with an estimated 342 graves has emerged. Analysis provided by AAAS.

A final analysis of satellite images – requested by Amnesty International USA’s Science for Human Rights project – was released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science today. It provides rare evidence of a conflict zone still inaccessible to independent observers. In addition to evidence of impact craters in close proximity to Internally-Displaced Person (IDP) shelters, the final analysis reveals two new alarming features: The new analysis shows large gravesites and evidence of mortars used in and around the so-called civilian save zone, which raises further questions about the military tactics deployed by the Sri Lankan Army and the use of human shields by the Tamil Tigers. The fact that we are forced to rely on satellite technology to collect information about the conduct of hostilities is a pressing reminder of the urgent need for an independent investigation with unimpeded access to the area. The Sri Lankan government has severely restricted access to areas where grave human rights violation may have occurred.

Graveyards
The analysis identified three different graveyards, counting a total of 1,346 likely graves. The satellite images can neither reveal if these graves contain civilians or Tamil Tiger fighters, nor reveal in themselves much about the scope of civilian suffering as a result of targeted or indiscriminate attacks. This uncertainty, together with the highly disputed civilian casualty figures, requires an independent investigation with full and unfettered access to the former war zone and IDP camps. Additionally, the UN must immediately disclose its reports about civilian casualty figures, which – according to media reports – are as high as 20,000.

Probable mortar positions
The identification of potential Sri Lankan Army mortar positions in the proximity of the so-called Civilian Safe Zone (CSZ) are an alarming piece of evidence. Mortars are indirect fire weapons. When used against the Tamil Tigers who set up its defensive positions among tens of thousands IDPS – as confirmed by aerial photographs obtained and analyzed by AIUSA’s Science for Human Rights project – the use of such weapons in that context may constitute a serious breach of international humanitarian law. The satellite images reveal several possible mortar craters in close proximity to IDP shelters.

Numerous possible mortar emplacements are located throughout the area of the CSZ. One such emplacement (left), is arrayed similarly to the ‘Lazy W’ formation detailed in a US Army Field Manual (right; FM 7-90 Tactical Employment of Mortars). Analysis provided by AAAS

Numerous possible mortar emplacements are located throughout the area of the CSZ. One such emplacement (left), is arrayed similarly to the ‘Lazy W’ formation detailed in a US Army Field Manual (right; FM 7-90 Tactical Employment of Mortars). Analysis provided by AAAS

An estimated 17 possible mortar positions were identified on May 10 in the area surrounding the CSZ. One location is arranged in a “Six Star” formation while the other can be categorized as a “Lazy W” by a US Army Field Manual. Most of the sites are simply in a parallel or single line formation, and are oriented both towards the CSZ and surrounding roads. Conclusive evidence is still lacking, as no mortar tubes are visible in the image. There is no indication of heavy artillery pieces, which are generally discernable in imagery unless camouflaged. It has to be noted that the Sri Lankan Army uses various artillery pieces that range beyond the area of analysis (approximately nine kilometers around the CSZ). Although the imagery cannot be fully conclusive, the mortar positions are persuasive enough to require further investigations with full access to the former conflict and civilian zones.

Sri Lanka: 52 Civilians Killed

Disheartening isn’t the word for it; it’s worse than that. It had been bad enough to hear of 9 civilians being killed and 20 injured last Sunday and Monday by shelling in the war zone in northern Sri Lanka. This morning, over my coffee, I learned from the UN that 52 civilians were killed by shelling in just one day yesterday. The UN said it didn’t know who was responsible for the shelling. According to the UN tonight, the hospital in the war zone that had been bombed repeatedly over last weekend is now empty; all the staff and patients have fled. According to the Red Cross, the patients have been moved to a community center in an area that lacks clean drinking water.

Yesterday’s shelling included a cluster bomb attack. Cluster bombs scatter dozens of bomblets over a wide area, some of which usually fail to explode, posing a lasting threat to civilians. Cluster bombs have been banned by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, since they’re indiscriminate weapons (Sri Lanka, though, hasn’t signed the Convention).  Amnesty International said today that the use of cluster bombs in yesterday’s shelling was “despicable.” The Sri Lankan government has said that it wasn’t responsible for yesterday’s shelling and that it doesn’t have cluster bombs.

The world is taking greater notice of the civilians at risk in Sri Lanka’s war zone. On Feb. 3, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband issued a joint statement calling on both the Sri Lankan government and the rebel Tamil Tigers to allow civilians to leave the conflict area and to grant access for humanitarian agencies. That same day, Norway, Japan, the US and the EU issued a joint statement asking both sides to declare a temporary ceasefire to allow evacuation of the wounded and aid to the civilians remaining in the area. Today, Pope Benedict XVI publicly appealed for an end to the fighting.

The forces targeting the civilians or engaging in indiscrimate attacks should remember that they’re committing war crimes, for which they may one day be held accountable. Before that day, let’s hope that both sides heed the statements from the international community and immediately take steps to protect the civilians at risk.