Skeleton staff

November 10, 1995

Tim Cornwell reports on how anthropologists in the United States are helping to solve crimes and investigate human rights abuses.

It was a snapshot of Haiti's dark legacy, a vivid memory of terror in the Caribbean, a story told by Mercedes Doretti, a 36-year-old Argentinian scientist now living in New York. In the Haitian coastal city of Gonaives, on April 22 1994, several days of rising tension ended in a scene of brutal killings. Police operating under the military junta searched the port neighbourhood for a political activist, a man linked to deposed President Jean-Baptiste Aristide, ransacking and beating as they went.

Normally Aristide sympathisers would take refuge on the beach, even setting out to sea in their boats. This time, the police henchmen and the Fraph, the paramilitaries then licensed to terrorise Haiti's civilian population with machetes and guns, were waiting for them. Perhaps a dozen people were killed. Some bodies disappeared into the ocean. Others were washed back to the shore. These were later dragged out with a rope and hidden in shallow graves on the beach.

Fast forward to September 1995. An American armada has come and gone, swept the military from power and put Aristide, first elected with an overwhelming majority of the popular vote, back in power. Haiti's history of state terror is, for the moment, receding and some kind of accounting is in order. The Haitian Commission for Truth and Justice is investigating the estimated 3,000-4,000 political killings in the three years of Aristide's exile. And Doretti is digging up the beach.

She is part of an international team, all practitioners of a small but burgeoning subdiscipline known as forensic anthropology. They are on a mission sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at the request of the Truth and Justice commission. They find what they are looking for, or at least part of it: three bodies with ropes around their heads, consistent with witness statements. Doretti declines to say more because the case is sub judice, with a Haitian captain and two others facing trial. In Haiti - as in a score of other places - her work is far more than an academic exercise.

Doretti was studying anthropology at the University of Buenos Aires in 1984, when her home country, like Haiti, was emerging from years of repression. Then an American called Clyde Snow came to the city with a delegation from the AAAS. He taught how anthropology, a science usually associated with the study of ancient tribes, could take a page from forensic science and produce a potent tool for the investigation of human rights abuses. Snow is widely regarded as the modern father of forensic anthropology and Doretti trained under him.

In Haiti Doretti was working alongside Karen Burns, an adjunct professor at the University of Georgia, who explains the science this way. An investigation of a recent death is typically divided in two: first a forensic pathologist with medical training examines the corpse, seeking to establish the time and manner of death. Then the crime scene investigator searches the site for clues. Where a body is centuries instead of days old, the pattern is the same, but the site is in the hands of an archaeologist, and the person handling the remains is a physical anthropologist, expert in the human skeleton and physical evolution of man. Time, dirt and decomposition distinguish homicide from history, and "you've got to have somebody to fill in the space," says Burns.

Forensic anthropologists are increasingly active in that middle ground. As a rule of thumb, they deal in bones rather than flesh. "A body might be too fresh for me but not too old," says Burns, whose work has ranged as far back as Phoenician remains more than 2,000 years old in Tunisia.

Burns, Doretti, Snow and others are now working the world over to pick up the human pieces from war crimes and political terror. "Initially, it was very straightforward, the possibility of getting justice done," says Doretti, whose past work with exhumations in Argentina led directly to the jailings of senior army officers. But now as she travels repeatedly to other nations there is a new fascination, for when countries are busy digging up old corpses, they are usually at a historical crossroads. "When they call us," she says, "the worst has happened already. But there is a transitional moment, when they are trying to decide what to do in the future, what to do with the past. You are able to be there, able to contribute a little bit."

With about a thousand skeletons or parts of skeletons found in North America every year, police officers and coroners began turning to university anthropology departments to help them identify remains.

It has fed a recent United States fascination with historical conspiracies. The body of Jesse James, bank robber, was reburied this month after being disinterred to establish that it was in fact his. But it was Argentina that became the home of human rights investigations.

With a doctorate of anthropology from the University of Arizona, Snow spent most of his professional life in Oklahoma, analysing passenger injuries from aircraft accidents for the US government. But he built a national reputation in criminal investigations, examining the victims of notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy, and later the remains of Nazi scientist Joseph Mengele in Brazil. In the early 1970s he and a colleague prevailed upon the American Academy of Forensic Scientists to establish a forensic anthropology section. Nearly 50 people are now working the field.

Burns started out as a zoologist and discovered anthropology as a graduate student at the University of Florida. Now she teaches human osteology, forensic anthropology and a course called the archaeology of death to students at Georgia, and the arts of skeletal recovery and analysis to police investigators.

"I've found in my human rights work that I am extremely grateful for cultural studies," she says, "the amazing differences in the way people think and do things." In the US, she explains, if when digging a sewer line one came across a body, lying on its side with no evidence of clothing, it would immediately suggest foul play, "because that's not the way we bury people", she says. "If we came upon a body lying on its back, some evidence of its clothing, arms at its side or folded across its chest, a few nails around it, you would say 'Good Heavens, we have stumbled into an unmarked cemetery'."

In a Muslim country the findings are reversed, she says. There, a body lying on its back with clothing becomes instantly suspicious. No family would bury a loved one that way; bodies are laid on their side, facing Mecca, in a simple shroud.

Burns went to Northern Iraq after the Gulf War to investigate alleged atrocities. Her team was asked to excavate a man's body, found on his side facing towards Mecca, on a military base where there had been many executions. Though there was no clothing intact, the team realised there were two threads running along the sides of both legs. The clothing had been made from a natural fibre that had deteriorated, but it was sewn with a cotton polyester thread that survived. "Just those two threads at each side of the leg just shouted that his family didn't bury him," she says, "however the position he was in said that a Muslim did bury him." Examination of his skeleton showed two gunshot wounds in the top of his head, and there is one Russian pistol that tends to fire twice, she says.

Finding a victim's body is always shocking, says Doretti, but for the scientists it brings a sense of mission accomplished, and for the relatives a kind of relief. Working in Ethiopia in 1993 and 1994, in the wake of the Menghistu regime, Doretti remembers one grieving woman in particular. "We identified the remains of her husband. She said, 'This is the best and worst day of my life because I have been waiting ten years to know this and now I am finally free'."

In Haiti, the bodies of the dead were themselves an instrument of state terror, and that poses unique problems for the forensic investigators. Typically the victims were left on the surface, in the street or at known dumping grounds. They became fodder for roving dogs and pigs, with limbs broken up and scattered. For relatives, even going near them was an invitation to be shot or beaten. If they were buried, it was in shallow graves.

One notorious dump site for trash and corpses, Ti Tanyen, lies outside the capital Port au Prince on the national highway to the north. Both military prisons and hospitals dumped their dead there. In a desperately poor country, estimates for the portion of the population with Aids run as high as 40 per cent. Many of the dead who ended in Ti Tanyen were street children. One night as Karen Burns worked at the hospital, a child's body was left under her car.

"There was so much that was incomplete," she says. She recalls dealing with only eight complete skeletons, but dozens of partial remains. "There was a lot that was simply left in the field. You could bring in piles of bones but what were you going to accomplish?" The scientists did dig up bodies from one cemetery in Gonaives. They were looking for gunshot injuries consistent with witness reports of a massacre, the physical evidence, to corroborate verbal testimony. They wanted to examine the body of France Moise, for example, a man shown in contemporary photographs lying in the street bleeding from under his arm, and of Jean-Pierre and Elysian Dazeme, two cousins shot down on their motorcycle. The remains appeared to confirm what is known about the killings; some apparently showed victims shot from behind as they ran. There was one whose skull was totally shattered, and Burns looked for evidence of the kind of cranial explosion that signifies a wound from a high-velocity weapon.

Haitian officials made contacts with the AAAS while Aristide was still in exile, says Michael Levy, who works for the president's international liaison office. There is potentially a huge amount of work to do. The organisation's involvement, Levy says, lends scientific credibility, and is a signal of a sincere interest in getting to the truth. There is "an ever-present risk of history forgetting or misstating what actually took place," he says. "Shedding light on what happened is a necessary step in moving on."

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