Counting The Dead – Has Sri Lanka Risen To The Occasion?

A last goodbye.

Dr. Prasanna Cooray

Russian dictator Joseph Stalin’s “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic” is usually met with ill-feeling and sarcasm by the civilized society.  How bitter as the undertone may be, this hyperbole will continue to hold water as long as human lives are lost in large numbers in gruesome and startling ways.

It is unimaginable how calamities strike people in a split second, making them just sitting ducks, helpless and hapless. This phenomenon continues despite all the advances in science and technology, putting man as much as S & T in a sorry state. Individual tragedies in mass disasters are seldom heard, as horror of the bigger event overarches the grief of each single event that goes on to make the bigger one. And this goes without saying for both natural and manmade disasters.

Since the first JVP insurrection of April 1971, post independence Sri Lanka has been compelled to come to terms with mass killings, coupled with extreme violence. The Black July 1983, the shame of the nation, saw scores of innocent Tamil citizens of the country killed in cold blood.  Subsequently, further thousands of lives were lost in the three decade long civil conflict between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE, and there again the innocent civilians bore the brunt of the conflict. The second insurrection of the JVP between 1987 and 89 also resulted in the loss of thousands of lives, while the screams of the innocent remained unheard.

The country has also experienced natural disasters time and again with 2004 Boxing Day tsunami being the worst; about 30,957 persons were confirmed dead and 5,637 missing in the final countdown. Floods and landslides, too, have wreaked havoc with ill-conceived mega development projects being responsible for most of them. The Meeriyabedda landslide (in Koslanda) in close proximity to the Uma Oya tunnel caused the loss of 42 lives on 29 October 2014. The Meethotamulla garbage avalanche, which snuffed out 32 lives or even more on the Sinhala and Tamil New Year morning of 2017 was another abject case of mass death and destruction due to irresponsibility, inaction, mismanagement and corruption on the part of the authorities concerned.

The April 21 (Easter Sunday) bombings that occurred in various places in the capital as well as in Negombo, Batticaloa and Dehiwala add to the long list of gruesome occurrences Sri Lanka has yet again come to live with. In such situations, the health sector invariably surges upfront into the scene. While the curative sector will be battling their way to the very end to save lives of the casualties, there is another segment of the same sector which works round the clock, but without attracting media attention. This is the forensic sector, which deals with the unfortunate dead.

Acid test for the forensic team

The forensic team in Colombo has been on their toes since the recent Easter Sunday morning. Dr. Ajith Tennakoon, a forensic specialist and the chief Judicial Medical Officer, Colombo, led the team.

Dr. Ajith Tennakoon.
Dr. Ajith Tennakoon.

He spoke to “Counterpoint”

“Still we have a total of 15 bodies to be identified scientifically by forensic means. These include seven missing persons, five suicide bombers and the woman who blew herself up with her two children in Dematagoda ”.

Dr. Tennakoon’s portfolio includes all the dead from the bombings within the Colombo city limits, i. e. St. Anthony’s church Kochchikade, the three hotels – Shangri-la, Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury and from the incident that occurred in the housing complex in Dematagoda.

He elaborated on the role of his forensic team. “Following a bomb explosion you get a massive pile up of bodies. There are the identifiable bodies as well as the body parts. The first important thing here is to identify the dead. Facial features, special features like scars, tattoos, deformities, evidence of stigmata, and personal belongings, all are useful in identifying the dead”.

Stepwise role of the forensic team

Dr. Tennakoon enumerated the activities of the process as they happened. “As soon as we received the dead bodies we registered them, gave them a tag number, photographed the face and other identifiable features, and then we put them into the body bags. After that we locked them with whatever valuables in their possession, and put them in the freezer.

“Around 2 pm the same day we managed to put up a hut outside the premises and started displaying the photos of the identifiable dead. First identification was provisional where the relatives identified their loved ones by viewing the photographs. Then we took them into the body viewing area, where we allowed only the family members to view the dead bodies, and that too was after cleaning the face of the blood stains, soot, dirt etc. and covering the injured parts”.

After the bodies were identified by the relatives, autopsies were performed. As this was an extremely shocking situation a special team was deployed to provide psychological support to the relatives of the victims.

Making an identity out of the body parts

For the more difficult part of the identification process, “Fragmented dead bodies and body parts will not be visually identifiable. So, you will have to go for more advanced methods like fingerprints, dental examination tallying with available dental records and DNA studies. However, here you need antemortem data of the suspected persons to compare these with”.

“Although antemortem [occurring or performed before death] records are a rarity in Sri Lanka, this time they were used quite extensively in identification of foreign nationals who were killed.

“We used antemortem data to identify the foreign nationals quite extensively. In most of these cases the dead were represented by the embassy officials. We got down the antemortum data through the embassies”.

Only memories will remain.
Only memories will remain.

Identification of missing persons

The next daunting task ahead of the forensic team was to identify the body parts and address the issue of missing persons.

Among the 169 dead bodies that came under the purview of  the Colombo JMO, were 115 identifiable ones, the rest were merely the body parts that came in body bags. “Here again, we went for some kind of identifiable feature like personal belonging or jewellery, if those were available. We also took DNA samples, not from all flesh, but from anatomically identifiable parts like feet, hands, thighs, fingers, ears etc”.

“We took DNA samples from those body parts and cross-matched them with the missing person’s immediate relatives, especially the mother if she was available or siblings. Then, we created a data base. We went for examination of the body parts to identify the missing persons”.

While 15 dead persons are yet to be identified, Dr. Tennakoon is hopeful that all of them will be identified.

The identification of the dead in a disaster situation is solely the responsibility of forensic people and that is best left to them. Not complying with this basic principle will cause confusion; that’s what happened when the police department jumped the gun, placing the number of deaths at 359, which was later announced as 253, on 25 April.

Management of dead persons in disasters

Dr. Tennakoon stresses the importance of managing the dead with respect and dignity. Now, as managing the dead in disasters is an accepted worldwide norm, there are a number of international guidelines including WHO protocols that stipulate dos and don’ts with regard to this practice.

Referring to the bad old days of LTTE suicide bombers Dr. Tennakoon said, “Then the dead bodies and body parts were just brought in and dumped on the floor where people were just stepping over them. That’s inhuman, and there is a world of improvement in this field since those times. This time around we did it in a proper way by following proper international standards”.

As a final note of gratitude, Dr. Tennakoon mentioned the role played by the ICRC, which supplied the JMO office with body bags and sampling collection material, and the teams of JMOs from the medical faculties, Anuradhapura and Gampaha, who helped the Colombo team in their hour of need.

(Dr. Cooray is a social health consultant who is qualified in public health, sociology and economics. He is a former health manager and university lecturer. A journalist for over 20 years in-country and internationally, he was adjudged the Best Investigative Journalist in 2008 and Best Environmental Journalist in 2017)
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