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Giving a voice to the dead: investigating war crimes

Prague, April 18 (RFE/RL) - A shovel, a tape measure, a paintbrush and a long pole would strike most people as simple tools. But for a forensic pathologist like Robert Kirschner, these tools can serve to piece together a narrative of death.

Kirschner is the director of the Boston-based International Forensics Programs for Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), the leading organization of its kind examining suspected war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. The findings are helping prosecutors to build cases against alleged war criminals indicted by the United Nations' international war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, located in The Hague.

More than 150 graves in the former Yugoslavia reportedly hide the human casualties who were dumped, unidentified, in sites containing from five to 1,500 bodies. United Nations officials say many of these burials were to mask brutual violations of the Geneva conventions and international humanitarian law.

Now, medical scientists like Kirschner enter in, with a craft that has been used only in the past century. As kirschner and his colleagues put it, "bodies can and do speak from beyond the grave."

Kirschner says his investigators can learn any number of things from what their tools unearth, including a suspected murder victim's age, race and sex. Kirschner says most important is that some physical evidence can even describe the actual "circumstances of death." He said investigators begin by approaching every mass grave site like "a crime scene."

PHR senior program associate Barbara Ayott told RFE/RL that the key goal in war crimes investigations is preserving evidence, just as it is in a routine burglarly or murder investigation,

She says investigators first probe a suspected grave site with a long pole, feeling for changes in density that suggest soil has been dug up and then replaced. Investigators also smell for the odor of decomposition, survey the scene for evidence that executions took place there, and map the suspected grave's features.

Ayott says the investigators then will dig a trench and locate the bodies. According to ayott, "their position can tell whether the victims were lined up and shot, or whether they were bulldozed into the grave after being killed." She adds that if all the victims in a gravesite have gunshot wounds to the head, that is not typical of battle, as combat wounds are variable in location and size.

Forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, who is investigating mass graves in croatia, says scientists can also determine the sex of a victim by skeletal height and the width and shape of the pelvic bone and skull. Age, Snow has said, is determined by the length and composition of the remaining bones. He said a typical dig lasts two to three weeks, with expenses totalling well into the thousands of dollars.

Ayott told our correspondent that the biggest hindrance faced by the Balkan war crimes investigators is the presence of landmines.

Beyond the physical evidence, investigators also examine national and regional records to see who was in charge and who might have given the orders for such killings. Both types of evidence serve to bolster witness and survivor testimony. They also give a voice to the dead.

Across the balkans, 57 suspects of all three former warring parties have been indicted. But only a handful are in actual custody. If convicted, the suspects could face life in prison.

Kirschner has said "it is hard to be optimistic about the outcome, unless those charged can be apprehended and brought to trial." Undaunted, Kirschner and his team of examiners arrived in the former Yugoslavia this week to continue their quest to document the tales of the dead.