Archaeologists for Human Rights, a group formed in Muenster, Germany, last year, is bringing a team of forensic anthropologists to Iraq to excavate 14 mass graves.
Since September of last year, co-founders Ursula Janssen and Sinje Stoyke have been in Erbil, where they have been working to arrange the exhumations in concert with Dr. Muhammed Ihsan, Minister of Human Rights in the Kurdish Regional Government. The 14 initial sites were identified on September 14 at the first Iraqi human rights congress in Dohuk. These sites were identified as “particularly vital to eventual criminal proceedings.”
The group was formed in response to uncontrolled digging begun by aggrieved relatives of missing Iraqi citizens in the wake of the U.S. invasion and the slowness of allied governments to provide help.
The initial excavation/exhumation project is slated to last six months, from March to September. In addition to forensic anthropologists, the project will also include archaeologists and physical anthropologists. All the information found will be added to a database currently being developed in Iraq under the “Genocide in Iraq, Missing Persons and Mass Graves Campaign.”
As well as excavating the sites, exhuming and hopefully identifying the bodies and documenting their efforts, the organization will be training Iraqis to continue the work of professionally excavating such sites. There are a great many for them to work on over the next few years. A total of over 260 mass graves were identified in a provisional survey by the Kurdish Ministry of Human Rights. Amnesty International has evidence of 17,000 disappearances in the last 20 years. The actual number may be as high as 300,000, according to Sandy Hodgkinson, director of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s human rights office. Other groups put it as high as 1.3 million.
Among the specific activities of the group are the matching of bones, so that complete skeletons may be put together; identifying the bodies through physical features, clothing, tattoos, scars and dental records; tallying the number of bodies in a site; identifying causes of death; excavation of physical evidence such as bullets, jewelry, written materials and clothing; and dating the sites.
These activities will hopefully lead to identifying the missing and providing bodies for funerals and providing evidence for criminal charges. Courts may be able to assign responsibility for some of the deaths using the findings of the group. For instance, if a missing civilian, known to have been detained by a certain army unit, was found in a mass grave near the unit headquarters and was determined to have been killed at a time consistent with the time of his arrest, and can be shown to have been killed with the kind of bullet used by the army, it may provide evidence for charges against that unit’s commander.
The group’s activities are not being embraced by leaders in the field, however. Dr. William Haglund, the director of the International Forensics Program of the non-governmental organization, Physicians for Human Rights, is a forensic scientist who has been present at every major exhumation since modern post-conflict forensics began on a large scale in Argentina in 1984. He fears the group may not possess the experience or the patience to lay proper groundwork for exhumation.
“(Exhumation) requires a systematic approach, the post-mortem examination of bodies, the collection of ante-mortem data and blood samples from families,” said Haglund. “If you say ‘we’re just going to exhume and identify the bodies’ well, no you’re not.” In order to undertake that process, Haglund said, you first need to establish a central repository for bodies, secure funding and undertake the centralization of looted documents that can help to identify the corpses. “These things take time, it has to done under a uniform protocol. New groups entering the field may not have answered these question.”
Eric Stover, the director of the Berkeley-based Human Rights Center, a co-founder of Physicians for Human Rights and the man responsible for bringing Haglund into the organization, agrees.
“When you have a crime this massive, with so many victims, so many perpetrators,” he said, “you have to have a comprehensive approach to exhuming graves because you don’t want a piecemeal approach, which is what I’m concerned is happening here.”
In addition to the relative inexperience of groups like Archaeologists for Human Rights, Haglund and Stover are also worried about the rush to judgment that may hurry the process excessively.
The original plan was for the American military, and the Coalition Provisional Authority, to remain in Iraq for at least a year, providing the forensics and human rights specialists with a single governmental body.
“Now, given the Americans want out by June 30, there may be a push to have trials sooner rather than later,” leading the prosecuting authorities to bear down on the scientists for results, or to go to trial without physical evidence. This could compromise effective prosecution of responsible parties, and taint the process in the eyes of the Iraqis. It could also rush the identification of bodies, which can be incomplete in the best of circumstances.
It took forensic scientists five years in Bosnia, Haglund said, to ID the majority of one mass grave containing 7,000 people. That grave contained only about one quarter of the 30,000 Bosnian missing, as compared to possibly 300,000 or more in Iraq.
The reason for what may look like an extraordinary amount of time for this process is the care that must be taken. Exhuming a single body from a grave is one thing, to disinter a mass grave, while retaining the information necessary for identification and for possible prosecution, is quite another.
“A ‘mass’ grave involves remains in contact with each other,” Haglund and co-author Marcella Sorg wrote in a paper on the topic. “When exposed, such a body mass presents a jolting, chaotic vision that assaults all sensibilities… There is the danger that weakened articulations, especially the knee joint, ankles, wrists or fingers, may separate, leaving the disarticulated body portion trapped beneath other remains.”
In such a situation, Haglund said, it is easy to mix up parts in such a way that bodies are misidentified, as the Greek military did in Cyprus 30 years ago, handing out the wrong bodies, or bodies made up of several persons, to families with missing members.
When a mass grave is opened, a documentation team must photograph and map the grave, sometimes using digital mapping equipment, sometimes a tape-measure and string-grid and sometimes a combination. Each body is itself photographed and mapped and a case number is assigned to it. Full-body shots are supplemented with close-ups that might include “tattoos, obvious trauma, or unusual clothing.” Then the body may be removed. This is planned in advance, like a puzzle, removing each body in the order least likely to cause further trauma to it and others. The case number and date of removal are written on the body bag at each end.
According to Haglund’s paper, “The bag is unzipped, opened, and moved adjacent to the body. If the body is face up the arms are moved close to the body and placed on the chest. The legs are lifted together. One excavator is positioned at the head, one in the middle of the body, and one at the legs. As these people lift, an additional person holds open the body bag and helps to slide it beneath the body. Once the body is inside, the bag is placed to the side while the team examines the soil underneath the body to ensure that no body parts or associated evidence is left behind. Any loose disassociated portions of the remains are separately bagged and included in the body bag.”
Because of the complexity of the process, it is important that the disinterments occur carefully and systematically and that the bodies and body parts are stored coherently so that they may be regarded in terms of the ante-mortem data.
This ante-mortem data can consist of medical records, x-rays, dental charts, employment and military records and personal interviews and blood samples from family members for DNA matching. It must be as extensive as possible and accessible later by investigators. Therefore, it must be stably housed.
Once the process of identification begins – and this may be long after the bodies are removed to a morgue – the forensic scientists and other investigators evaluate the evidence using a variety of competencies and tools. After determining that the remains are human and not animal, sex, height, age and other elements are determined by observation. Remains are checked for wounds, broken bones, teeth and medical conditions that leave lasting effects, like polio. These may be matched against the ante-mortem data to establish identification. Otherwise, the ability to pronounce that a certain number of men, of a certain age, likely of a certain ethnic group died in a certain place at a certain time, may provide evidence in judicial proceedings.
Additionally, there must be adequate staff, from forensic scientists and other investigators to laborers, administrators and security guards. All of these things take funding, and the cooperation of the supervising government. Any rush to judgment, any rush into returning the bodies, most of which are unlikely to be identified anyway, may compromise the very reason for hurrying in the first place.