The Graveyards of Sri Lanka's War Zone

By Christoph Koettl, Crisis Prevention and Response Campaigner at Amnesty International USA

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: Large gravesites and evidence of mortars used in and around the so-called civilian save zone.

This evidence 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.

Sri Lanka gravesite

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.


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.

Sri Lanka mortar

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.