The victims had been ordered to lie face down, arms outstretched, all in a row in the front yard of a white bungalow. Two lay next to a parked van, interrupted perhaps in a bid to escape.
Most of the dead wore T-shirts bearing the name of the aid group that employed them: the Paris-based Action Contre La Faim, or Action Against Hunger.
The bungalow was their local office, where they had huddled for at least three days last August, waiting to be rescued as soldiers and rebels battled for control of this town.
PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE
By the time help arrived, their bodies were decomposing. Photographs show crows standing witness on a plastic patio chair.
The massacre of the 17 was among the worst attacks aimed at aid workers in any conflict anywhere in recent years, approaching the toll in the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, in August 2003.
But nearly a year after the massacre, the most basic questions about the killings remain unresolved.
Sri Lanka's government, enmeshed again in a bitter civil war and anxious to keep international human-rights monitors out of the country, is facing rising condemnation from groups here and abroad who say the investigation has been wanting because of the possibility that its security forces were involved.
They point to serious gaps, including inconsistencies in ballistics evidence that could implicate Sri Lankan soldiers.
The International Commission of Jurists, a Geneva-based human-rights group composed of lawyers, released a report in April identifying "a disturbing lack of impartiality, transparency and effectiveness of the investigation."
Predictably, the combatants, the Sinhalese-dominated state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have blamed each other for the massacre, one in a pattern of extrajudicial killings that have become a regular feature of the war. Each side says the aid workers were killed when the other party held Mutur. Exactly when they were killed and who was in charge is the major mystery.
In the latest assault on aid workers, the bodies of two Sri Lankan Red Cross Society staff members were found early this month in a suburb of Colombo. They were picked up for questioning the day before by men who identified themselves as police officers.
The massacre here occurred at a turning point in the war, as government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels clashed for control of the east. By Aug. 1, the battle had reached Mutur, a small town that was a tricky place.
Located across the bay from Trincomalee, it had long been under government control, but was encircled by rebel-held villages.
Its population was mixed, with Tamils and Muslims living with each other alongside hundreds of largely Sinhalese soldiers.
Trickier still for the aid group was the fact that all its workers were Sri Lankan nationals from Trincomalee, an hour away by ferry, and strangers to the town. All were Tamil, except one man, a Muslim.
Foreigners can often shield national staff from harassment and suspicion from the warring parties. But that week, with Mutur already girding for trouble, local staff members were sent out alone.
As the Sinhalese military fought to flush out rebel bases nearby, the Tamil Tigers stormed the town, by their account, around 12:30pm on Tuesday.
That evening, from besieged Mutur, one of the aid workers, Sivapragasam Romila, 25, called a neighbor in Trincomalee; her own family did not have a phone. Her 18-year-old sister, Noilen, ran next door to answer the call. It was only then that she learned that her sister was even in Mutur.
Romila had gone off to work that morning at the aid group's office in Trincomalee and later, unknown to her family, had taken the ferry to Mutur, which she visited frequently in her work as a hygiene promoter for the group.
Noilen said she could hear the shelling on the phone, louder than anything she had heard before.
"Don't tell mother, but I'm afraid," she said Romila had told her.
Noilen waited anxiously for two days for more news. Then Romila called again. She told Noilen that the aid group was trying to get them out. She said they were running out of food.
Action Against Hunger said their instructions to the Mutur group were unequivocal -- remain in the house and wear the agency T-shirts, call in to the Trincomalee radio room every hour. Help would be on the way.
Officials from Action Against Hunger said efforts to retrieve the workers were stymied by soldiers, who blocked the one long road that loops through marsh and jungle from Trincomalee to Mutur. The fighting had prevented the ferry from running.
In interviews, the officials insisted that the decision to instruct their employees to stay inside the bungalow was the right one. They pointed out that a church, where civilians had sought shelter that week, had been shelled, killing more than a dozen people.
"It's easy to say afterwards they should have left," Francois Danel, the group's executive in Paris, said by telephone. "Our decision was for them to stay. It's in our guidelines."
By the morning of Aug. 4, with food and water running out, many of the town's residents had fled.
At 6:15am on Aug. 4, the aid office in Trincomalee received a final radio call. What was said, including whether the group wanted to leave Mutur with the other civilians, remains unclear. The group said the conversation was not recorded on the radio log, though it would not share its records.
An autopsy did not determine the exact time of death. The Sri Lankan court hearing the case concluded that all 17 were killed early the same morning.
When the security forces reclaimed Mutur is disputed. The rebels contend they cleared out shortly after midnight on Aug. 3 after urging the aid workers to be careful, a contention that is impossible to verify. The military has made contradictory statements about when it took control.
Firzan Hashim, the deputy executive director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, an umbrella group based in Colombo, reached Mutur on Aug. 6, Sunday afternoon. By then, no one was on the narrow road.
The bungalow used by the aid group had been ransacked. A rotten stench filled the air. The aid workers had been shot at such close range, he said, that the bullets had burned muscle as they entered.
The first autopsy, last October, showed that nearly all had been shot in the head, two in the neck.
The evidence presented in March to the criminal court indicated that the bullets used were from automatic rifles, 7.62mm, ammunition used by each side in the war.
But that evidence was incomplete. Malcolm Dodd, an Australian forensic pathologist invited by the government to observe the autopsy, recorded seeing something else. From Sivapragasam Romila's skull a "minimally deformed" 5.56mm projectile was retrieved, he wrote in a 64-page report. A 7.62mm bullet was enmeshed in her hair.
The 5.56mm bullet is used in US-made M-16 assault rifles, carried by some members of Sri Lankan security forces, though such a weapon could just as easily have been stolen by the rebels or someone else. It is a mystery why that evidence was only belatedly revealed to the court.
The government, apparently to deflect calls for an international human-rights mission, has appointed a panel to conduct an independent investigation of the massacre and several other prominent human rights crimes.
The inquiry is separate from the criminal case, and it has not satisfied many here or abroad. The Center for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based advocacy group, said the official commission was no substitute for an international mission.
In a statement on June 11, the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons, a government-appointed panel called in to observe the work of the presidential commission, said the measures taken by the commission "do not satisfy international norms and standards."
The uncertainties surrounding the investigations have only compounded the mourning of the victims' families.
The last time that Ganesh Sivaneshwari heard from her daughter, Kavitha, 27, was Thursday night, Aug. 3. Kavitha, also a hygiene promoter, had taken the Tuesday morning ferry to the aid office in Mutur.
Her father, Selaiah Ganesh, 54, a driver for Action Against Hunger, was already there.
It gave Ganesh Sivaneshwari strength that week, knowing that her husband and daughter were together. She trusted her husband's judgment. He was able and well connected, she said, and he would know how to keep everyone safe or get them out.
What is left of father and daughter are pictures on the family altar. On one afternoon, Ganesh sat on the unswept floor and wept.
Her husband's death has deepened her fear. Only reluctantly does she allow her son Gajan to work, so the family can eat. She has sent another son out of the country.
Without Selaiah Ganesh, they no longer know how to keep safe in the madness of this war.
"If my father were here, I wouldn't be afraid," Gajan, 24, said. "I am afraid now."
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