Human rights forensic anthropology in Bosnia-Hercegovina

By Tal Simmons '84, A.B. '83

In 1997, when I started stage-managing Shakespeare productions at local theaters, the director told me that theater was crazy. I told her it was the calmest, sanest thing I'd done that year.

That was the year that I sat the exam for certification by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. (I passed, one of only 55 people to have done so as of that time.) It was also the year I found myself in the bitter cold of Monroe, Michigan, helping local law enforcement officials recover and identify the bodies of 29 people who had died in the crash of a Comair commuter plane. And it was also the year that I took a sabbatical that dramatically changed my life, personally and professionally, by involving me in human rights forensic anthropology.

I have worked in forensic anthropology since graduate school and had assisted local law enforcement officials and medical examiners prior to 1997. Ordinarily, however, I spend my days teaching a wide variety of subjects that fall under the rubric of biological anthropology. An associate professor at Western Michigan University, I work primarily in the field of paleo-anthropology: specifically the origin of Homo sapiens. I also do things like identifying (to skeletal part and species) the 850 bird bones recovered from a 19,400 year-old archaeological site in Israel and researching what they reveal about past environmental conditions and human subsistence strategies.

Thus it was not surprising that I spent a semester of my 1997-8 sabbatical teaching primate behavior and ecology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and working as a volunteer in the clinic and quarantine section of the Biblical Zoo. I cleaned cages full of brown lemurs and macaws, and hand-raised an addax (fondly nick-named "the goat"). I also co-authored an article on preventing flu in chimpanzees.

The unique part of my sabbatical was the six months that I spent as the director of a forensic anthropology project for Physicians for Human Rights in Bosnia-Hercegovina. I began this work thinking, "When again will I ever be able to take this much time out of my life to do something this worthwhile?" Three years later, an increasing amount of my time is committed to similar projects around the world. The work is more worthwhile and rewarding than I had ever imagined. It is also, in equal measure, frustrating, depressing, devastating, and faith-defying.

There are memories from these missions that refuse to fade with time:

· Amidst the remains of nine men and boys, on a mountain top near Srebrenica, a 12-14-year-old boy's skeletal hand, still clasping—some two and half years after he had been killed by a blow to the head—the spoon with which he'd been eating his last meal;
· The toothless elderly couple on a hillside farm near Gorazde, buried side by side, by their neighbors—who had found them shot in the head by other neighbors of a different ethnicity;
· The young male amputee, killed on the bridge in Foca, whose body floated downstream and was found with a glass bottle bearing a scrawled note stating his name and birth date;
· The sound of my feet breaking the ribs of a heap of decomposed bodies thrown down an 80-meter deep vertical cave shaft near Bihac. (There was nowhere else to step but on the remains themselves.)

The organizations with which I work are neutral and deal with all sides in a conflict. Like any forensic scientist, I seek to establish evidence that reveals the truth; I am not retained by a plaintiff or defendant. Thus in Bosnia in 1997-8, I worked on exhumations and forensic examinations with Muslim, Serb, and Croat professionals.

My neutrality did not, however, preclude officials of particular parties from attempting to draw me into making statements for their side. A Bosnian Muslim court official earnestly entreated me to understand that "this is the worst thing that has ever happened to any people in the history of human-kind. Compared to this, Hitler ... Hitler was a nice guy. He at least had the courtesy to use gas!" I said nothing. What could I say? He knew not that he spoke to an Israeli Jew.

Much of my work in Bosnia, and more recently in Cyprus (1999), Sri Lanka (1999), and Kosovo (2000), has involved forensic investigations, both in the field and in the laboratory, on victims of war, war crimes and human rights abuses. These investigations document the trauma that contributed to the deaths, so that there will be sufficient evidence for trial, by an international court of law, of those accused. The examinations also reveal clues to the identity of individuals, so that their families can know their fate.

In Kosovo, I helped develop standards and systems for identifying of victims of ethnic cleansing in a country where medical and dental records are non-existent or not accessible. In Bosnia, my colleagues and I worked closely with families of the missing on education programs to let the community know the efforts being made towards resolution.

Overwhelming professional and ethical dilemmas are involved in dealing with the desperate families of the missing. How does one tell a grieving woman who insists that a particular body is that of her son that it is not him? How does one tell a grieving man that the body he refuses to accept is, in fact, his son's?

One of the most heart-rending experiences I had was working with a Serb family whose son's body had been identified by the local forensic pathologist. The father refused to accept that it was his son. He insisted that the international organizations focus their attentions on discovering the place of a hidden underground mine where his son was being held prisoner. (This was a prevailing belief among families from all sides in the conflict.) The mother was not so sure. She waited until her husband was out of the country, then contacted us about having a DNA test done.

We spoke with her at length. This was her only child. As we prepared to draw a blood sample from her arm, she said that she knew we used teeth for DNA. I confirmed that indeed I would be extracting a few molars from the body preliminarily identified as her son's to match with the DNA from her blood. She hesitated a moment, then brought out a small, silver box from which she removed a tissue wrapped packet. It contained her son's baby teeth. She had saved them all those years. She would let us have them if it would be better to match her son's childhood DNA to her son's adult DNA.

It was all I could do not to cry, but I thanked her quietly and said that it was a very good idea and that I would only take two of the teeth. I didn't want to deprive her of what she held on to all these years. The lab found that the baby teeth no longer held DNA; the mother's blood proved that the body was that of her son.

While dealing with the families is the most difficult part of my work in human rights forensic anthropology, it is also the most inspiring. These families have been through so much, fleeing from their homes, living as refugees, often seeing their loved ones taken away or murdered before their eyes. The news we bring to families is painful, but most of them would rather hear the fate of their loved ones rather than continue to live with uncertainty.

The worst situation is thus the one where I can provide no answers. In the best of all possible situations in my profession, I can only tell the truth. It is never good news.

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