Archaeology helps in solving atrocities

By Kristen van Schie Time of article published Nov 27, 2013

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Johannesburg - There are bones in the dirt at Wits. In a patch of ground lie the skeletons of 12 people who went missing from a village just after the last elections.

Some witnesses said the bodies were brought here, to a quiet spot just next to the multi-coloured science stadium. Now a team of international experts has been brought in to investigate.

Or at least, that’s the back story to a training exercise in the latest African School of Forensic Sciences and Human Rights, a project run by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team and being hosted in its second year by Wits.

The skeletons are plastic, the bullets are staged, and what should reek of death smells like the mint patch springing up in a corner of dirt that the forensic scientists from around the continent are now excavating.

“We’re teaching them how to do a systematic approach to a crime scene,” explained forensic anthropologist and the co-founder of the Argentinian team, Luis Fondebrider.

Argentina comes from its own painful past. About 10 000 people went missing under military rule in the 1970s and 1980s. Learning to recover bodies from those mass graves made the Argentinian team experts in the field.

They have since worked across the globe – from Angola to Bosnia – and have done instrumental work with our own Missing Persons Task Team in investigating apartheid-era crimes.

But this is no TV show crime solved in an hour of one-liners and perfect-match DNA samples.

Instead, the investigators are taught to use archaeology.

The area is cordoned off, measured and slowly excavated, layer by layer. The dirt is sifted, and any strange objects put aside as potential evidence.

A pair of the participants empty out a load of dirt.

“Wait!” says Wits forensic anthropologist and forensic archaeologist Dr Patrick Randolph-Quinney, watching from the side. “Didn’t you see anything in there?”

He plucks a piece of glass and what looks like a scrap of an old Coke can from the heap.

“If somebody is burying a body, they might transport in objects on their feet, or leave their fingerprints on a Coke can or their DNA on a cigarette butt,” he explains, bagging the evidence. “Or it could be totally unrelated.”

Libyan forensic scientist Hanan Taher Rahuma is on her knees in the dirt when her trowel hits something. “Brush!” she calls. She sweeps the dirt from a white, domed shape: a skull.

Fondebrider and his team stand by with tips: Always include a scale in a photograph; place bones only in paper bags; conduct the excavation in levels; think about how the skeleton is lying underground; and never put something back that’s already been moved.

Randolph-Quinney says it’s about providing common sense skills that can be used quickly.

The hope is that Rahuma and the other participants will take these skills back to their countries and share the knowledge with their colleagues.

“We are going through lots of events in Libya,” says Rahuma.

“Violence, killing, torture, assassination – these are very common now. But we have difficulties in dealing with these cases because we don’t have the skills and experience.

“There are standards and rules and things that have to be done with these grave sites… we lack all of this.”

“Africa has an enormous problem with human rights violations,” says Randolph-Quinney. “If you want to give people closure and bring healing to families and communities, you have to have this capacity across the continent.

“We’re also sending the message: If you commit human rights abuses, you will not get away with it.” - The Star

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