The Bone People
By Nick OlleOctober 16, 2012
They identified Australian outlaw Ned Kelly’s remains. But their main work involves unearthing the bones — and the lies — buried in war. Meet the crack team of forensic anthropologists transforming human-rights investigations and closing the circle of uncertainty for bereaved families.
Three hundred and fifty kilometres from Buenos Aires, by a remote stretch of river in the town of Casilda, three men are digging holes. Two others manoeuvre what appears to be a high-tech walking frame through the adjacent field. It’s an incongruous scene in this agricultural pocket of Santa Fe province, most known for being the region’s top honey producer.
These diggers are in fact forensic anthropologists. More specifically, they are members of the celebrated Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (known as EAAF), which has revolutionised how human rights violations are investigated by using forensics and archaeological techniques to identify burial sites, human remains and methods of execution.
In this isolated plot, they are searching for the anonymous graves of people murdered by the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.
Today EAAF works in dozens of countries that have experienced political or ethnic violence, recovering and identifying remains, returning them to relatives, and providing evidence in court proceedings against the perpetrators.
The Bone People
The group was formed by anthropology, medicine and archaeology students after the country’s return to democracy in 1984, with the aim “to put science at the service of the victims’ families”. In Argentina, this is a mammoth undertaking — an estimated 30,000 people were “disappeared” during the last dictatorship.
During its 28 years of existence, the nongovernmental scientific organisation has identified 530 bodies in Argentina and has another 700 exhumed skeletons awaiting identification.
In Santa Fe’s largest city, Rosario — the third most populous in Argentina — there were about 500 victims, a number EAAF describes as “large but relatively manageable”. And according to a report received by EAAF’s Rosario office, some of this number could be lying here, anonymously interred in this far-flung Casilda field, 50km outside the city.
The walking frame, explains Bruno Rossignoli, is in fact a georadar, a state-of-the-art piece of ground imaging technology that uses electromagnetic waves to identify unnatural alterations in the earth’s layers. Rossignoli and his boss Miguel Nieva, who is in charge of the Rosario EAAF team, lead the machine through carefully marked-out parcels of land.
“Alterations in the earth are disturbances in the natural horizontals,” he clarifies. “They can be caused by human activity such as the construction of a well, they can be animal remains, and they can be what we are looking for — burials.”
Encountering a suspicious alteration, Nieva and Rossignoli summon their colleagues, who appear with a metallic, cross-shaped, manual drill. After digging and watering a shallow ditch, two of the men clasp the opposing arms of the cross and walk small circles around the pole, plunging the drill into the ground. The earth sample they extract confirms the alteration picked up by the georadar. In the absence of specific coordinates — which are very uncommon in testimonies and reports dating back three decades — this process is very slow going.
Surveying indeterminate areas like this can take months or even years, and there are no guarantees that eventual excavations will uncover victims.
Whatever the results, the technology doesn’t lie. In the EAAF office in central Rosario, Rossignoli illustrates the point by taking The Global Mail through the printed results of a recent excavation at the Timbúes cemetery, 30km north of Rosario. “Here we superimpose the grid we scanned at the cemetery over the location of the skeletons we found in the excavation,” he explains. “We can see there is a significant correlation between the spots we scanned with the georadar and the skeletons we actually excavated.”
Of course, there are more variables at play in open pastures, such as that in Casilda, than in any cemetery and it is not uncommon for excavations to uncover animal rather than human remains.
The majority of EAAF’s exhumations to date have been carried out in cemeteries. In the early days the organisation exhumed bodies on an almost daily basis, again mostly from cemeteries. After almost 30 years, EAAF has examined — and, where necessary, excavated — almost all of the country’s official graveyards. And some of the discoveries have been extraordinary.
In Rosario, for example, EAAF has been able to verify that one of the most common methods used by the military regime to cover up executions in its “dirty war” was to create an elaborate ruse suggesting the victim died in combat.
Armed rebels — as well as intellectuals and anyone else deemed to oppose the military regime — were rounded up, taken to clandestine detention centres and often tortured and killed.
“Many people who were in detention centres were taken from there to a street corner in the city and executed,” Nieva explains. “This would then be dressed up as if it were a real confrontation, with all the documentation that a genuine confrontation would generate — newspaper articles, judicial files, reports on the corpses, cemetery records.”
The forensic team has disproved this deception by uncovering skeletons exhibiting single-gunshot wounds to the skull. They’ve also found unidentified remains; invariably, these skeletons date back to the last dictatorship and show signs of a violent death.
Another common killing method employed by the military junta, notably in riverside cities like Rosario and Buenos Aires, was to toss live victims from aeroplanes and helicopters into the water below. Incredibly, the team has found 70 of these victims in the nation’s cemeteries.
“In some cases these bodies arrived at the shore and were buried in local cemeteries,” says EAAF director Luis Fondebrider, who is based in the organisation’s Buenos Aires headquarters. “Through analysis of the bones we’ve been able to demonstrate that the kinds of fractures were produced by a fall from a specific altitude, which is totally different from those produced by gunshot wounds.”
So far, EAAF has identified 20 of the victims killed this way. Though, as Fondebrider points out, the vast majority of these bodies never arrived to the shore.
Once remains have been exhumed and cause of death determined, bone samples are sent to EAAF’s DNA laboratory in the province of Córdoba, where geneticists establish a genetic profile of the remains and compare it to a national register of blood samples provided by the families of missing people. Positive identifications lead to EAAF’s two highest profile functions – providing expert evidence in “dirty war” trials and returning victims’ remains to their families. Dirty War trials are a recent phenomenon: for the first 20 years of democracy following the dictatorship, an amnesty protected military leaders from facing trial for human rights abuses. In 2003, then-president Néstor Kirchner overturned the amnesties. But the subsequent trials and convictions would not have been possible without EAAF’s expert testimony.
Indeed, in relation to the last dictatorship, Argentina has an impressive recent human rights record. In Fondebrider’s words: “I would say Argentina is ahead in terms of truth, justice, reparation and memory. When you consider other processes in Central America, Africa and Eastern Europe, Argentina has achieved a lot.
“Here we know what happened during the last dictatorship, more than 500 members of the army and the police are in jail, there are lots of memorials and acts of memory around the country, and the country pays reparation to the families’ victims.”
EAAF was born hot on the heels of the creation, a year earlier in 1983, of CONADEP, the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons. As the American forensics guru Dr Clyde Snow was taking EAAF through its formative paces, CONADEP released its Nunca Más (Never Again) report, which documented 8,961 forced disappearances (while acknowledging that there could have been more).
Snow’s involvement as an EAAF mentor came about because of a joint petition by CONADEP and Argentina’s famous human rights-crusading grandmothers, Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo).
Abuelas was formed seven years earlier in 1977, during the brutal early phase of the military junta’s so-called “National Reorganisation Process”, by a defiant group of grandmothers demanding the location and return of the children — their grandchildren — who, born in captivity, were kidnapped and raised by military families. The organisation estimates that about 500 children were stolen during the dictatorship. Just last week, Abuelas announced it had recuperated — for the 107th time — the identity of one such child. Now a 34-year-old woman, she has since been reunited with her mother. EAAF works closely with Abuelas, to search for the remains of killed members of stolen children’s biological families.
The task EAAF is charged with in Argentina is enormous. Before any of the science takes place, the organisation carries out a thorough investigative phase to develop theories about where bodies could be found. This is time-consuming but critical work that affects the allocation of time and resources in each subsequent phase.
“A big part of the work is investigating the circumstances in which people disappeared, such as the location and the time of year,” Fondebrider says. “We try to produce information from written sources, such as documents produced by the state in those years, cemetery records, mortuary records, as well as testimonies from the media and the perpetrators themselves.”
Combining the information gleaned from this process with oral interviews with witnesses and family members of the victims, the team constructs the hypotheses on which its fieldwork is based.
For the EAAF team members, the identification of victims represents the acme of job satisfaction, a victory tempered only by the ensuing bittersweet duty to inform the victim’s family. “Our primary objective is to achieve identifications,” Nieva says, “So on the one hand, [each identification] is a joy for us, but at the same time we all understand the great obligation we have to the victim’s families.
“Every family receives the news in its own way. Many of them speak of awakened emotions — the closure of knowing the truth of what happened, but also the reality of coming to terms with it.”
Fondebrider, who has been with EAAF throughout its entire history, adds that while the task of notifying victims’ families is difficult, it allows them to “close the circle of years of uncertainty and anguish about what happened to their loved ones”.
And what of the strain this constant exposure to death produces in the EAAF members themselves? Two of the organisation’s 60 members have family members missing since the dictatorship. And in addition to their work in Argentina, Fondebrider and some other team members undertake as many as 10 international missions each year to the most fraught corners of the globe. Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, El Salvador, East Timor… if a country has experienced horror, chances are EAAF has been there.
“All of the cases are special in that the feeling of having someone missing is extraordinarily painful,” Fondebrider says. “The cases involving children are very strong. We worked on two cases in El Salvador and Guatemala where 150 children were killed by the armies in 1981 and 1982. The process of recovering those remains was very difficult, very painful.
“When you work in a mass grave with the skeletons of 100 children it is difficult to think.
“These are the sorts of things we face every day around the world, but we prefer to think that our work is closer to life than death because we have close contact with the families [of victims] and we are involved in the process of bringing about truth and justice.”
SOMETIMES the intensity of the EAAF work varies to investigations less personal, further in time and distance from their own country’s painful past.
Last year the EAAF team solved one of Australia’s greatest mysteries by positively identifying the 130-year-old remains of bushranger Ned Kelly. Given the age of the bones, it was an even more impressive discovery than the organisation’s high profile 1997 identification of the then-30 year-old remains of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. At the request of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM) — with whom they are now investigating ethnic violence in East Timor and the Solomon Islands — EAAF took 40 bone samples from skeletons buried at Victoria’s Pentridge Prison to Argentina for DNA testing.
Mapping the genetic profile of such old remains, Fondebrider says, was an extraordinary achievement, one for which EAAF at first felt underappreciated. “Initially we were not very happy, we were mentioned in the press conference as just another collaborator, but as I said, the DNA analysis was really critical in this process, it was extraordinary to be able to recover DNA in such an old case.
“But we like to say it was a collaborative effort and we are happy to keep collaborating. In fact some of the team has since travelled to Australia to help train the local geneticists in techniques for producing genetic profiles in complex cases.”