The skeletons in all our cupboards: Google Earth’s importance in recent Sri Lankan history

Cross-posted from my personal blog.

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To remember is a choice, a hard one. To remember is to hold in check those who wish to return to the horrors of the past. To not revisit policies that led to past horrors is to give Sri Lanka a greater chance of healing, and reconciliation. And yet, remembering is never easy, defined or settled. Why for example should a populist government, such as we have today in Sri Lanka, seek to remember dead already forgotten by most of its core constituency? Electoral benefits accrue from openly and frequently memorialising victory and victors. There is nothing perceivably gained for a vainglorious government from extending this careful recording to the inconvenient dead – infants, children, women and men killed in cross or direct fire, as well as former militants, insurgents and terrorists.

This is fact in not about just the murder of Tamils civilians in Sri Lanka towards the end of the war in 2009. MCM Iqbal, Secretary to two of Sri Lanka’s Truth Commissions and Presidential Inquiry Panels puts the number of Sinhalese youth who disappeared during the late 80s at a staggering 60,000. An article penned by him two years ago, based on evidence presented to a Commission of Inquiry into Disappearances of Persons in the early 90s places mass graves in Sri Lanka in Essella, Vavulkelle, Sooriyakanda, Hokandara, Dikwella, Angkumbura, Essella, Wavulkelle, Walpita Farm, Ankumbura, Kotawakella, Yakkalumulla, Deniyaya, Kokkaddicholai, Chemmani and Akuressa. We are, quite literally, surrounded by tens of thousands of skeletons. From the JVP insurgency to retaliatory attacks on Tamil villages resulting in mass extermination of inhabitants, Sri Lanka’s recent history is bloody and revolting, with those who out of fear, seeking favour or just out of manic fervour killed thousands never brought to justice.

The true war without witness in Sri Lanka was in the late 80s. There is, save for evidence given to the Commissions and secondary media sources, no primary forensic, eyewitness or third party recording of mass murder in the South. Most of those living in and around the areas identified by Mr. Iqbal as sites of mass graves would today not even know about this macabre history. There is however one significant difference with this brutality and what happened in and surrounding Nandikadal in 2009. What’s increasingly clear today is that both the LTTE and the Government simply forgot to factor in satellite over-flights, recording, and in great detail, Sri Lanka’s entire landmass, including the hellish sliver of land that was the final theatre of war. This allows new ways of seeing the ugliness of war, through for example, the simple juxtaposition and superimposition of images from March and May 2009, and looking at how much had changed on the ground. Your columnist did just this recently. The resulting article had no precedent, using freely available imagery via Google Earth to understand the sheer extent of human displacement and the conditions inside the areas IDPs were concentrated in during the final weeks of war.

The focus was on remembering, not blame. What is currently on Google Earth is one of the best references today for the research and study of the end of war in Sri Lanka. Imagery accessible via Google’s servers simply isn’t available through other sources or archived elsewhere in the public domain. This raises a fundamental point – if one of the best visual records of Sri Lanka’s contemporary history resides only within Google, how can the Sri Lankan government ensure its retention for posterity and how can Google, which may purge old data periodically, ensure they are accessible in the decades to come?

This is especially pertinent in remembering mass graves around Nandikadal. Image analysis conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science a few years ago flags a number of locations where thousands lie buried. Significantly, imagery from late 2011 on Google Earth clearly shows that every single mass grave in this area is already overrun by grass, shrub and bracken, making above ground visual distinction of these sites from the surrounding wastelands impossible. Even on the ground, it is possible to walk over these graves today with no knowledge at all of what really lies beneath one’s feet.

But do we really give a damn? Dotted across Sri Lanka are human remains. Tens of thousands of skeletons. It isn’t a pleasant thought and, psychologically, perhaps something so horrible that society and polity writ large simply cannot embrace and seek always to discount, discredit and disavow. Yet technology today affords powerful new ways to remember. The choice to do so remains however, as it always was, a courageous and personal one.

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Published in The Nation, 23 September 2012.

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