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SCIENCE: Getting to the Bottom of Mass Graves

Sanjay Suri

LONDON, Apr 28 2003 (IPS) - In a macabre comment on the times, a university in Britain is offering a master’s degree in mass graves.

It is not called quite that, of course. Bournemouth University officially calls it an M.Sc in Forensic Archaeology, being offered since last year. But the university sees a greater need for training people in the science of uncovering mass graves.

Prof Margaret Cox who heads the department at Bournemouth has now gone on to launch the independent Inforce (International Forensic Centre of Excellence for the Investigation of Genocide) Foundation, which will take on forensic investigations of genocide separately from the university.

Inforce should have enough to do. "The 20th century saw the unlawful killing of 203 million civilians by governments and unlawful regimes," Cox told IPS. "The start to this century has hardly been promising. This is an issue that is not going to go away."

And if it does not, the forensic archaeologist will have a crucial role to play "in bringing the guilty to justice and to allow the families of the victims to have closure," Cox said. "More and more, national or international courts and tribunals will want strong evidence of genocide that is open to examination by the defence."

It is a business that takes some nerve just to comprehend. The discovery of bodies in a mass grave is just that: the discovery of bodies, Cox said. "It does not by itself prove genocide. It often takes lengthy and painstaking examination to establish genocide."

Extensive examination is needed first to discover a mass grave, Cox said. "Investigators have learnt to look for tell-tale signs, because everything that happens leaves signs," she said.

In Kosovo one area of about 10 square metres was uncovered because the look of the soil had changed and the area was attracting flies. It turned out to be a mass grave, with the remains of 50 women and children.

Investigators look for unusual vegetation, and undertake an analysis of soil samples in suspect areas. One mass grave in the Balkans was detected due to the presence of a rare blue butterfly, Cox said.

The forensic archaeologist is often up against efforts at concealment because "the remains are often disposed of on an industrial scale." That means the perpetrators often do not leave individual footprints.

Mass graves can take different forms. "You can have surface disposal, shallow graves, wells, cisterns, mine shafts, cemeteries, even potholes," Cox said. "The perpetrators are intelligent people who often change their plans," she said. "After the first mass graves were detected by satellite in Kosovo, people began to bury victims in cemeteries."

Investigators often come up against booby-trapped graves, with landmines and grenades planted at the scene to deter investigators. "We have found grenades planted above the ground, mines placed inside the clothes of the victims, razor blades inside body cavities," Cox said. "Metal rubbish is dumped on the site so that mine-detecting equipment cannot work, false paperwork has been found placed in pockets.people do all sorts of things."

Excavation is always a challenge, depending on how long the victims have been buried. Forensic scientists are more likely to find tell-tale soft tissue if the deaths are recent. Soft tissue has been known to survive as long as ten years in areas that remain waterlogged.

In one grave in Guatemala the clothes were found to have survived more than 10 years while the human remains had not. "That makes no scientific sense, but these things happen," Cox said.

"Once detected, the usual approach is to deconstruct a mass grave from one side, not top down, or you’ll be walking all over the bodies," Cox said. "By applying rigorous archaeological procedures it is possible to tell from which side the bodies were put in." And such patterns can uncover signs that can prove telling.

It is not the job just of a few forensic scientists. "It takes a multi-disciplinary approach," Cox said. "There is work to be done by way of drainage, pumping, digging, storing of remains, provision of a mortuary, refrigeration of remains, and provision of security."

DNA analysis helps identify the victims, but it is not always done, Cox said. At times there has seemed no point in doing it. "In one massacre in Rwanda, only four people survived in a massacre of 45,000 Tutsis," she said. "DNA analysis was not attempted because there was no one really left to identify the remains or to match samples."

The toughest challenge in this laborious process is not just to "individuate remains but to establish the cause of death," Cox said. "No genocide is spontaneous. One of the biggest genocides that took place in Rwanda was carefully planned; 1.2 million people were killed in 100 days," she said. "Even the Nazis did not do anything like that."

Looking for evidence in mass graves is a painstaking process. At one mass grave in Rwanda the time of death was determined by an automatic Seiko watch which usually stops 24 hours after movement ceases. The date read Saturday 14. But four Saturdays in a year fall on the 14th of a month, and the grave was found to have been dug July 14 because of the nature of the vegetation. "Also, the fingerprints of machines can become supporting evidence," she said.

The forensic scientist has to find evidence of coercion and unlawful killing if there is to be any hope of an indictment. A frequent telling sign has been the discovery of bodies where the hands were tied behind the back, Cox said.

Little surprise that the staff that engage in this work often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, Cox said. Normal life can be thrown off course. "Believe me, after this you can’t use cling film in your kitchen," Cox said.

The science has had to become more sophisticated because in past trials of genocide the accused hardly had a chance to present their case, Cox said. "As the process of justice and trial becomes more sophisticated, so must the nature of evidence," she said.

Cox has been involved in several investigations in her capacity as a specialist. Now Inforce hopes to train government officials and agencies in other countries in tracing mass graves and then digging up the evidence they may contain.

There are at present few specialists in this area, Cox said. The more become trained in such investigation, the more likely it is to deter genocide.

Cox is also preparing to set up a rapid response unit that can "go anywhere, any time" to investigate cases of genocide, and collect evidence for the purpose of "whatever judicial framework is in place."

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