“The term missing signals the absence of a story,
a personal history yet untold…”
(Sarah Wagner, To Know Where He Lies, 2008)
The 20th century was a delight for necrophiliacs: technologies of war made the cavalry obsolete; and mass killings of non-combatants through malice and neglect were so commonplace that the dead were “past counting,” as a witness to the genocide of Armenians noted in 1916.
Last month (September 2013) I attended a conference that brought together specialists engaged, directly or indirectly, in the search for the missing murdered dead. “Our work,” says Luis Fondebrider (Equipo Argentina de Antropologia Forense, Argentina), “involves matching bodies without identities with identities without bodies.”
I’d been invited to discuss my work on the sorrowful history of the unethical excavation in the 19th and early 20th centuries of hundreds of thousands of Native American remains in the name of science, education, and sport. I assumed that I would be in a minority camp, providing a cautionary counter-narrative to the conference’s prevailing enthusiasm for exhuming, identifying, naming, and publicly acknowledging the 20th century victims of mass crimes of genocide and violence. But the participants were not so neatly divided into humanists versus scientists, and our conclusions were much more nuanced and hedged with doubts than I anticipated.
The conference on “Search and Identification of Corpses and Human Remains in Post-Genocide and Mass Violence Contexts,” sponsored by a European Union project (www.corpsesofmassviolence.eu), was convened by Elisabeth Anstett (CNRS, France) and Jean-Marc Dreyfus (University of Manchester, UK); and held in a large, impersonal seminar room at the University of Manchester in northern England. For three days, fifty academics, researchers, and practitioners from thirteen countries discussed how to identify victims of some of the world’s worst atrocities, and how to humanize the grisly statistics: two-thirds of European Jews disappeared by the Nazis; two million, give or take a million, dead at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; maybe as many as a million genocidal victims in Rwanda; not to mention hundreds of thousands of corpses generated by political violence, ethnic cleansing, and state terrorism in the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia, Franco’s Spain, and Latin America’s “dirty wars” and U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaigns. By comparison, as Victor Toom (Northumbria University, UK) put it, the number of people pulverized in New York on 9/11 was “very modest.”
As befitting a university-based conference, the presentations were rational and the discussions civil, except for one brief moment when a forensic anthropologist expressed frustration with his job. “I don’t know if I’m doing any good,” he said, straying from his script. Only the showing of Sabina Subasic’s film, “Earth Promised Sky,” a personal meditation on the aftermath of war in Bosnia, quieted the room as I and others tried to check anguish triggered by visual images of women searching for husbands, parents searching for sons, grandparents searching for children.
Presentations ranged from philosophical insights about the multiple meanings of death and mourning to shovel-by-shovel accounts of the day-to-day work of forensic anthropology. I learned a great deal about the technical, legal, ethical, and religious aspects of specific exhumations (Admir Jugo and Senem Skulj, International Commission on Missing Persons). But what I took away from the gathering was a realization that the world is as divided by how it deals with and imagines its dead as how it deals with and imagines its living; and that matching corpses with identities is primarily a political, social and cultural rather than scientific challenge.
In the same way that wars accelerate advances in medicine, so mass atrocities enable new techniques of forensic anthropology, what Ernesto Schwartz-Marin (University of Manchester, UK) calls “technologies of truth”: DNA testing, sophisticated archival research, satellite imaging (Isaak Baker and Brittany Card, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, USA). In Spain, for example, scientific investigations have become an important part of the historical memory process, helping some relatives of Franco’s victims to name their sons and daughters (Francisco Ferrandiz, CCHS-CSIC, Spain). In New York, painstaking DNA analysis has identified more than eleven hundred human remains (Toom). And in South Africa, exhumation and reburial of victims killed during the Apartheid regime provided closure for some survivors by displaying, in Nicky Rousseau’s (University of Western Cape, South Africa) words, “a mournable body.” For many people around the world, scientific practices have played an important role in the “reconstitution of dignity” (Schwartz-Marin).
For the most part, though, science is irrelevant to the process of recovery and in some cases may make matters worse. There are no remains of the dead and burned victims of the Holocaust. The Nazis, says Gabriel Finder (University of Virginia, USA), turned Poland into a “boundless cemetery,” making individual identification impossible and necessitating “substitute gravestones,” such as memory books.
In Cambodia, there’s little interest in using Western know-how and resources to excavate the 19,000 mass graves and three hundred killing fields that the Khmer Rouge required to exterminate about one-third of the population. Most burial areas, reports Caroline Bennett (University of Kent, UK), are now living sites, functioning as working farms. The genocide, she says, is “old news.” Most Cambodians don’t want to dig up the past.
Similarly, in Rwanda, corpses have been moved so many times that it’s almost impossible now to know where the killings took place or even where the victims were first buried. When exhumations are done for purposes of identification, the work is usually done sloppily and unscientifically. The Rwandan government is committed to centralizing mass graves (in the wake of the destruction and abandonment of local cemeteries) and displaying skeletal remains for political purposes. It has contracted with a British company to help with the process of preserving, not identifying corpses. And even if it wanted to attach personal identities to individual bodies, the cost would be prohibitive (Rémi Korman, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, France).
In other parts of the world, nationalism generally trumps science (Frances Tay, University of Manchester, UK). In Kiev, thousands of Poles and Soviets were murdered and buried in mass pits during Stalin’s 1937-8 purge. While thieves picked over the graves for gold and other valuables, various occupiers of the region (Germany, USSR, and Ukraine) created a hierarchy of victims. By the time that a politically motivated forensic investigation was initiated in 1989, a fraction of the dead had been identified (Karel Berkhoff, NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, The Netherlands). It’s the same story at a burial site in the Voronej region of Russia, reports Vieceslav Bitjutsky (Memorial, Russian Federation), where the local government says “it’s time to stop asking questions” about the identities of people murdered by Stalin. “No point in remembering the bad things.” This attitude is echoed by the current government of Guatemala that, according to Rachel Hatcher (University of Saskatchewan, Canada), has little interest in revisiting the deaths of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people. It prefers, she says, “to contain the violent past in institutionalized cemeteries.”
Even in wealthy countries, such as the United States, scientific analysis is not a panacea. Given the degradation of bodies killed on 9/11, DNA analysis has not identified 40 percent of victims. The debris at the site, observes Victor Toom, has become a “proxy for human materials.” DNA testing, he concludes, can easily become a “technology of despair” because it prolongs the grief process and generates unrealistic hopes. The “CSI effect” popularizes our work, says Francisco Ferrandiz, but gives a false impression of science’s reliability. “And it can make some people distrust us when they don’t get the precise results they want.”
Whenever forensic anthropologists play a successful role in exhuming and identifying victims of mass violence, it is invariably a slow and collaborative process. “Forget about the dualism of expert versus citizen,” says Ernesto Schwartz-Marin. While international organizations play a key role in bringing expertise and resources to forensic investigations, local knowledge and community involvement is essential to the long-term success of a project. In Spain, where funerary rituals have become intertwined with scientific practices, remains are often returned to families with forensic information included. Some laboratories, says Francisco Ferrandiz, have become “temporary pantheons.” In Columbia, mothers of the missing and dead have created a new kind of “biosocial citizenship through a pedagogy of civic forensics.” In Mexico, some families have become self-trained forensic experts who carry out the practical tasks of exhuming their relatives (Schwartz-Marin).
This is not to suggest, however, that local initiatives are without conflict and tensions. In Spain, for example, there are often contentious debates between families, government, and religious organizations about what kind of exhumation and reburial is appropriate. Some families insist on the identification of individual remains, while comrades of the dead do not want to disturb the “community of death” shared in mass pits (Ferrandiz). In Rwanda and Cambodia, collective funerary practices take precedence over individual rituals (Korman; Bennett). These cultural debates over the meanings of death bear out Nicky Rousseau’s observation that the “dead have many possible after-lives.”
If the latest scientific techniques can only occasionally and modestly help us to exhume the past, what else can be done to recover the lives of dead victims of mass atrocities and genocide? What is the role of historical memory, commemoration, reparations, and reconciliation in this process? Topics, perhaps, for next year’s conference?