Laying their dead to rest

March 5, 1999

As forensics provides clues about the victims of genocide, Thomas Laqueur considers the motives of those involved and asks whether dissecting a body is compatible with the relatives' need to mourn

My father was a pathologist who worked both as a coroner and as a physician to miners in a union hospital in West Virginia. He was involved in a long medico-political campaign to make a disease called black-lung pneumoconiosis compensable in federal law, as it has been for a long time in Britain.

The critical issue was whether the breathing impairment of workers at the coal face was because of their exposure to coal dust - as one might assume - or something else. As the law then had it, if X-rays revealed hard opaque lesions in the lungs, then the miners' work-related exposure was judged to be the cause of their suffering. But if miners who could not walk up three stairs without wheezing did not manifest these shadows, then their impairment was taken to be part of the general order of things. They had smoked or they had simply died from emphysema, just as anyone might.

My father showed by doing autopsies on miners that their lungs had microscopic lesions absent from the lungs of the general population. Indeed they were absent in the lungs of Welsh miners who worked in pits where dust levels had been reduced.

Industrial health is a domain in which the truth about work is found in the body. It is not a truth that speaks for itself but it does create limits to interpretation. A "substantial fact" will not go away.

The unearthing of these "substantial facts" and their identification has become a central aspect of international human rights work. Since 1985 the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina have conducted a successful campaign to name some of the skeletal remains of the disappeared "No Names".

A policeman of a South African apartheid-era hit squad confesses to an array of murders - but this is not truth enough for the authorities or the families of the victims. He leads a team of investigators to an abandoned farm and there forensic pathologists unearth the body of a woman buried in a crouching position, a neat hole where a bullet entered her skull, a ragged break in her jaw bone where it exited. At a morgue the parents make an identification - the high cheekbones are the telltale sign.

But why has the human body assumed this prominence in how we think of human rights violations and does this attention to the particular, corporeal fact that a crime has been committed make any difference?

A person does not just disappear. Their Polish countrymen were not satisfied with the Soviet's explanation in 1941 that 15,000 men were missing because by some miracle they had marched through a war zone and across Asia to Manchuria; nor were the Argentine mothers content to believe that their missing children were on holiday in Europe, as that regime once claimed.

Even, as in the former Yugoslavia, where there was little attempt to hide the crime, recently unearthed bodies reveal a truth not evident from satellite photographs. This man is gone; he is dead; his body reveals he did not die from natural causes; there is a bullet in the head. Someone caused it to be there. And, we forensic experts and lawyers can from this body write a narrative with political, judicial and more intimate (memorial, therapeutic) consequences.

This may seem obvious, but the body-by-body, name-by-name, standard of truth is absent in older reports of what we would today call human rights abuses. Thucydides's account of how the Syracusans starved 7,000 prisoners of war goes by in a paragraph: "They were," we are told, "crowded in a narrow hole, without any roof to cover, the heat of the sun and the stifling closeness of the air tormented them during the day - each man during eight months having only half a pint of water and a pint of corn given him daily."

Technically, the corpus only became a corpus delicti, an articulate witness to a crime in the context of human rights for example, when crimes against humanity or genocide became crimes: December 10 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And in contemporary human rights there are two related uses of the truth of the corpus delicti: truth in the interest of prosecution, of justice; and truth in the interests of memory, of healing. The first depends on the fact that the body is indeed the body of a crime and not simply a dead body. The dirt is stripped away and the circumstances of death established in enough detail to point to a perpetrator. Identification is not necessary.

The second depends on naming. A person is brought back from the grave's anonymity and returned to his or her community.

Ironically, the first forensic inquiry to establish human-rights abuse was undertaken by the Nazis in an effort to demonstrate that the Soviet Union had carried out egregious violations of the "laws of war" against the soldiers of its ally Poland. The purpose of this inquiry was glaringly political. The Germans wanted to embarrass the Soviets and sow disunity among the allies; the Soviets immediately sought to discredit the report.

In 1939, 180,000 Polish troops were taken captive by the Soviets. In July 1941, when inquiries became possible, it appeared that some 15,000 of these had disappeared without trace. For about two years Polish authorities demanded some sort of accounting. The men had escaped, Stalin told General Sikorski in December 1941. Where to? To Manchuria. Yes, across Asia to Manchuria.

Soon they would be found. Early in February 1943, a soldier of a German army unit bivouaked on the site of a former Soviet secret police villa at Katyn, near Smolensk, dug a latrine trench and came upon a mass grave. The bodies were those of Polish officers; the bullets with which they were murdered were of German manufacture - but this was one atrocity that the German Ministry of Information soon confirmed its forces had not committed.

On February 13, the German Nationalist propagandist, Joseph Goebbels announced that the disappeared Polish officers had been found, dead at the hands not of the Poles' enemies but of their ally, the Soviet Union. He organised the largest human rights inquiry ever. International experts were summoned, bodies exhumed, the narrative of death built up, detail by detail. And at the end of the day, there was the corpus delicta, or rather some 4,300 corpora delicti. (About 11,700 prisoners were never accounted for.) Much of the Katyn investigation would seem painfully familiar to the forensic pathologists and anthropologists who have worked in Argentina, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Guatemala. The question was whether the men exhumed were murdered in the late summer or autumn of 1941, when the Germans captured the area, or earlier at the hands of the Soviets.

And so Ferenc Orsos, professor of judicial medicine at Budapest University, reported that the brain pulp was so calcified as to prove that the corpses had been dead for at least three years. Edward Lucas Miloslavich presented evidence that the muscles of the exhumed bodies showed a degree of saponification incompatible with burial of less than two years. And so on, pushing back the date of death well into 1940 when the area was unquestionably under Soviet control.

The medical expertise that made this - and modern human rights investigations - possible, grew out of the late 19th-century state's interest in having every citizen accounted for and, more specifically, every death duly registered and classified.

Again ironically, it is because even the criminal generals who governed the Argentine could not abandon this prescription that the substance of their crimes could be discovered. Some bodies were thrown out of airplanes during the dirty war, but most went to the morgue where they were duly registered - sex, age, often cause of death, place of burial, time of burial.

On the basis of this record generated by the state it could be shown that the percentage of nameless people dying from gunshot wounds increased from 5 per cent before the 1976 coup to 50 per cent two years later. It was this information that allowed teams of American and Argentine forensic pathologists and anthropologists to identify the bodies of hundreds of "the disappeared".

In a way then, the Argentine project - or the more recent Rwandan forensic investigation - is not so different from the German project: the young Argentinians were not in Europe; the heaps of Tutsi bodies did not belong to victims of an unfortunate civil war but had been hacked to death at close range by machettes; the Polish prisoners were not shot by the Nazis. Likewise, the exhumations in Vukovar and Srebrenica provided substantive facts of the crime, and the scientists working on them were motivated at least in part by a desire for justice - they were seeking the truth for juridical purpose.

But there was another issue. The copora delicti had another function. A passion to remember, a need to mourn and to heal a psychic trauma seem to demand that each body be accounted for by name.

"Without bodies and funerals," Eric Stover writes, many of the Muslim women of Bosnia "could not visualise the death of their husbands and sons and thus accept it as real." In the absence of a body, there was the hope that maybe the men were alive. Finding and naming the body seemed the only emotionally possible beginning for a survivor's new life.

Physicians for Human Rights and other forensic teams produced definitive death histories in the former Yugoslavia. Tomislav Levic for example was a pharmacist who left Zagreb for Vukovar to work as a medic. He was wounded and taken to a hospital there. The hospital was taken by Serbian forces, the patients were taken to a nearby farm and murdered. When their mass grave was identified, one of the first bodies exhumed bore evidence of an old arm fracture. Through Tomislav's wife, the investigating team located medical records, including an X-ray of an old arm fracture and a positive identification was made. Mrs Levic lit a candle in memory of her husband; her son stood proud at the funeral. The corpus delecti became the dead body of a specific, named man. Justice, at best, waits in the wings.

Likewise, Serge Klarsfeld compiled a master list of 75,721 names: all deportees from France. This he winnowed to a list of 11,400 boys and girls to which he added the addresses from which the children were taken and the places to which they went. A name can be placed in a fixed set of coordinates in France and then traced to the gas chambers. Daniel Brunschwig, shown in two pictures, aged three or four standing next to his mum and dad, was taken from 28 rue du Titien, Cannes, to an assembly point in Nice, then to Drancy and from there to Auschwitz on Convoy 61.

Week by week, place by place this happened. We know where the bodies started. And 2,502 photographs - all that he and a team could find of the 11,400 children - work like the exhumed bodies of Bosnia or Buenos Aires. They too were people.

There is a bridge between the two functions of the dead body - how each body became a corpus delecti leading to prosecution and how each body becomes the site of mourning. And that link of course is that these are not the bodies of beasts; they did not "die like dogs" outside of law and culture. Or rather, they did "die like dogs" despite being human, which is why it is essential to determine their identities.

But that said, there is also a tension between truth as individual communal therapy and medico-juridical truth. The rhetoric of memory is manifestly different from the rhetoric of justice; the question is whether the one might serve as an excuse for not pursuing the other.

I am not claiming that there has been a disingenuous trade-off on the part of the West in the recent human rights inquiries. Those who help identify bodies are not those who refused to help when something might have been done to prevent their murder. But there is a deeper tension. The will to prosecute may be blunted by the peace remembering brings. Putting the bodies of the dead to rest may - though one hopes, need not - mean putting much else to rest as well.

Thomas Laqueur is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. This is an editorial extract from his 1999 Darwin lecture, delivered last month at the University of Cambridge.

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