El Salvador, 1992: An Argentinian forensic anthropology team worker helps excavate the site of the El Mozote massacre, where a Salvadoran army battalion killed about 800 villagers, almost half of them children.
El Salvador, 1992: An Argentinian forensic anthropology team worker helps excavate the site of the El Mozote massacre, where a Salvadoran army battalion killed about 800 villagers, almost half of them children.
Edenvale exhumation of MK cadres bodies. Head of the missing persons task team, Madeleine Fullard, comforts Joyce Sesoko, mother of Oscar Maleka.
Edenvale exhumation of MK cadres bodies. Head of the missing persons task team, Madeleine Fullard, comforts Joyce Sesoko, mother of Oscar Maleka.

‘How much your death matters reflects on the value of your life,” says Madeleine Fullard, head of the Missing Persons Task Team (MPTT) in the National Prosecuting Authority.

That is the principle that underlies her work, which is to find people who have disappeared as a result of the political conflicts of the apartheid era. Much of that entails the identification of their remains.

The MPTT, which grew out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), has so far identified 72 such people. That enabled the families to bury their relatives and move on with their lives.

Fullard estimates that the MPTT still has another 200 to 250 missing people to find inside SA and about 2 000 if it goes beyond the borders to seek ANC activists and others who disappeared in exile in places like Zambia, Tanzania and Angola.

Fullard herself is an historian who worked as a researcher, investigator and writer on the TRC, before setting up the MPTT in 2004.

She has received considerable help from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (known by its Spanish acronym, EAAF) which was established in 1984 to investigate and identify the 9 000 or more “desaparecidos”, the people who were “disappeared” by the military juntas which ruled Argentina off and on until 1983.

EAAF is now considered the international authority on the use of forensic sciences – mainly forensic anthropology, forensic archaeology and genetics – to investigate human rights violations.

It has since helped about 40 other countries to find and identify missing persons.

Since 2007, EAAF has helped the MPTT exhume 55 SA victims of the apartheid conflicts and to identify most of them.

They include Sipho Hashe, Qaqawuli Godolozi and Champion Galela – the community activists known as the “Pebco 3” who disappeared in 1985, in the vicinity of Cradock in the Eastern Cape.

EAAF also helped the MPTT identify the remains of student activists Siphiwo Mthimkulu and Tobekile Topsya Madaka, of the Congress of South African Students – known as the Cosas Two who disappeared in 1982, also in the vicinity of Cradock.

Security police had confessed to the TRC that all five had been shot and their bodies burned at the Post Chalmers police station near Cradock and then thrown into the Fish River.

The MPTT and EAAF found and identified some burned bones buried near the now-disused police station and were able to return them to their families for burial and closure.

Now SA and Argentina are joining forces to help other African countries use forensic science to investigate human rights abuses.

Recently the MPTT, EAAF, SA’s Human Rights Foundation and the Argentinian embassy in Pretoria brought together forensic scientists and human rights NGOs from Latin America, Denmark, the US and Asia with some from Angola, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Uganda, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria and SA to learn from one another.

This was the inspiration of Argentina’s ambassador to SA, Carlos Sersale, who saw it as a good example of south-to-south co-operation.

Experts such as Luis Fondebrider and Mercedes Doretti, co-founders of EAAF, taught the Africans the techniques of applying forensic science – including DNA analysis – to human rights crimes. And how to provide psycho-social support for the families and other survivors or victims of atrocities.

“We also shared with them our experience, not only in Argentina, but in almost 40 countries,” said Fondebrider.

The Argentinian described how his country, after almost 29 years of democracy, had been “able to achieve truth, justice, reparation and memory”.

He said both Argentina and SA had lots to share with African countries because both had suffered grave violations of human rights, but both had also had several years of democracy in which to investigate those abuses.

This had been the first meeting of African human rights organisations and forensic specialists to establish a dialogue about what forensic science could do for the families of missing persons.

The conference revealed the lack of infrastructure and human resources in many of the countries – “where very few forensic pathologists have to deal with hundreds of different kinds of cases every year”, Fondebrider said.

Most lacked specific training in the forensic pathology of human rights violations.

Yet, there had been “massive” human rights abuses in many African countries which cried out for investigation.

“There is still a lot to do in identifying bodies, exhuming them. Torture is also a big problem,” Fondebrider said.

One of the main problems which African human rights activists face in trying to uncover the truth about human rights violations is that most forensic scientists work for their governments, mainly the police, which potentially compromised their work.

They really ought to be working for independent bodies like EAAF, Fondebrider said.

Doretti said because African forensic pathologists usually worked for the state, their relationships with human rights NGOs were often very sensitive.

That was why the conference had been so worthwhile. Apart from bringing together people from different countries, the conference had also been the first meeting of many forensic pathologists and human rights defenders from the same countries.

Good relations between forensic scientists and human rights activists were vital, Doretti said.

Forensic scientists like herself needed information which often could only be provided by human rights NGOs, such as where to look for the mass graves of atrocity victims, before they could apply their skills.

The forensic scientists at the conference also learned from the human rights NGOs about the lack of access to justice by the families of those killed in human rights violations in many African countries, Fondebrider said.

Many had no access even to reports about the fate of their missing relatives.

The forensic scientists also learnt from the African NGOs that bodies of victims often remained unidentified in mass graves and how traumatic and stressful that was for families.

And they heard about the lack of political willingness to investigate and prosecute those responsible for abuses.

“Not to prosecute them and investigate them properly is the main guarantee to keep impunity,” said Fondebrider.

To address some of the problems identified in African countries, the conference decided to establish in SA an introductory course on how to apply forensic science in human rights investigations. The course would be open to forensic scientists from all over Africa.

Fondebrider said the course would probably be offered at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, initially for 15 students. The EAAF and African forensic scientists would teach the course.

Argentina had also agreed to host a small number of African forensic pathologists for internships in its laboratories.

The conference also decided to establish a network of human rights NGOs and forensic scientists to continue their collaboration.

“It’s really historic,” said Fullard. “I think this is going to be remembered as a moment when we embarked on something really important for the continent.

“It’s about so many things, it’s about ending impunity, it’s about reparations, it’s about truth, it’s about justice… all of the key principles of transitional justice.

“The question is bodies in Africa, human life in Africa should matter as much as anywhere else. Yet, we see every fragment of the 9/11 victims qualifies for DNA testing. That is the value that is placed on those bodily fragments, on those citizens.

“In Africa we have piles of skulls, mass graves and no identification of the names. How we treat the dead reflects on a highly-racialised global citizenship.

“We saw mass excavations of mass graves in Bosnia, of Europeans… how much your death matters reflects on the value of your life. So for us, it’s also a project of non-racialism. It’s not just about the recovery of remains.

“It’s also about issues of race and equality.

“Of course, it’s also very powerfully about ending impunity, because people kill people and never expect there to be any consequences. Bones disappear and that’s the end of it. The emergence of that person is a powerful statement that their life and death do matter, and of accountability.”