13 November 2015
Haaretz Weekly Magazine
Ayelet Shani I’m Having a Conversation
Professor Morris Tidball-Binz, 58 years old, a physician and expert in forensic medicine, director of the humanitarian forensic identification unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Resides in Geneva. Where: The ICRC offices, Tel Aviv. When: Monday, 4 PM
Please explain what exactly you do?
I work in the ICRC’s forensic services. The unit is responsible for all matters related to care for the dead. The purpose of my unit is to ensure, insofar as possible, that the victims of violent conflicts and natural disasters throughout the world are given dignified and proper care after their death. If possible, we also take measures to identify them and return them to their families.
We are accustomed to associating forensic science with criminal identification. What’s the connection between humanitarian aid and forensic science? On the face of it, it doesn’t sound like a natural match.
That’s a good point. When I began working at the Red Cross in 2004, many of my colleagues told me, “We work for the living, not the dead.” That’s true, but the dead are also part of our family and our history, and it’s important to understand the clear duty towards them, which is even grounded in international law.
International law places the responsibility for caring for victims of conflict on the parties in combat. I imagine that this law is something of a dead letter. Does anyone at all abide by it?
The Israeli army, for instance, does a great deal to fulfill these duties – for cultural and religious reasons, as well. Of course that is not the case everywhere in the world. Part of our role as an apolitical, neutral and independent organization is to remind parties in conflict to respect this law.
How does it actually work? Do you make contact and offer help or do they contact you?
It depends. Sometimes we contact the parties in conflict in order to remind them of their obligation and offer help, and sometimes they contact us. The Argentinian government, for example, asked us to help identify the bodies of unknown soldiers from the Falkland War. Sometimes the situation is more complex – when there are no functioning authorities. In August 2011, we were summonsed to Libya in the midst of the conflict. The government had collapsed and there was no organization that could deal with the victims. The community of the Barbary area, south of Tripoli, requested our help in identifying and bringing back 32 missing persons who had been kidnapped and murdered. The members of the community believed they knew where the victims were buried. This was in the midst of a war. No one else could do it and for pure humanitarian reasons we agreed.
Did you go there yourself?
Yes. It was an emergency mission in the middle of a war. I had just one week to coordinate with all the parties, find the burial location, recover the remains and try to identify each and every one of the dead based on information collected from the families and the community. There was a very broad range of ages – from small children to elderly. In the end, we managed to identify 30 of them, based on a basic profile and the information the families provided. In one case, for example, we identified a body when we found keys on it that fit the door of the family home.
I understand that the work in the field is divided among pathologists, anthropologists and even archeologists with expertise in forensics.
At the moment over 30 forensic experts work with the Red Cross worldwide. Over half of them are forensic anthropologists. They specialize in finding and restoring skeletal remains to enable their identification. We need anthropologists because we are often called to intervene in regions where the conflicts ended years, or even decades ago, and in such cases, skeletal remains are all that is left. Sometimes archeological restoration is required. We also have pathologists – I myself am a forensic physician who works in pathology – forensic dentists, forensic criminologists and even retired coroners, who offer their skills for this purpose.
And how does one overcome the technical obstacles of identification in third-world countries? How, for example, could you identify tsunami victims in Thailand, most of whom had no orderly medical files, dental imprints and so forth?
You’re right. We could use medical files to identify the tourists, but not the local population. At present over 50% of the refugees who perish on journeys across the Mediterranean, assuming their bodies are found, remain unidentified. We have no ante-mortem information, as we call the database with which we compare findings, about them. In the absence of such information, when families turn to our representatives, we can even work with descriptions. How tall was the missing person? Did he have tattoos? Was he wearing any special items of jewelry? This is definitely a challenge, and when there isn’t sufficient information that might help us, we have to look for it ourselves, employing many different methods and techniques. The use of DNA, for instance, is our main tool nowadays.
It also involves quite a bit of detective work.
Naturally, this is definitely a major and significant component of this work – finding clues that will help with identification; the physical characteristics of the person, personal history, even where he was at a given time.
While preparing for this interview, I read about Fredy Peccerelli, a forensic pathologist from Guatemala, who is trying to identify victims of the conflict that ended there 36 years ago. In Guatemala there are tens of thousands of victims in mass graves. He spoke about their work – such as crosschecking a military journal of the dates and locations of executions with findings in the field.
This is also part of the job, depending on the context. Sometimes the Red Cross only accompanies the local teams in charge in disaster areas and helps them manage these projects. Other times, when the parties are in the midst of war, they agree to allow the Red Cross to come in and do the work, because nobody else can. We had such a case in Colombia.
There has been a civil war in Colombia for several decades between the government and various guerilla groups and militias.
This is the most prolonged non-international violent conflict in history. We were asked to help in a case in which 11 politicians were kidnapped by the large FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerilla organization, held in captivity and met their death under unknown circumstances. FARC claimed that the imprisoned politicians were killed during a rescue operation of the Colombian government; the government blamed FARC. The families were desperate. They wanted the remains of their loved ones. Negotiations were held, and eventually the guerilla organization declared it was willing to give the remains to the Red Cross, on two conditions: first, it would disclose the location of the bodies only right before handing them over, and second, there had to be a ceasefire during the entire project.
This breakthrough in the negotiations was achieved on a Friday and on Monday I was already aboard the plane. I didn’t know what would happen or where I was actually flying to – only that I had to recover 11 bodies from some location in the jungle. I didn’t even know what we were talking about – graves? Bodies in a sack? We were given a four-day ceasefire and we knew that after that the air attacks would continue.
Very. A helicopter dropped us down in the middle of nowhere, in an abandoned coca field in the middle of the jungle. In fact, the helicopter couldn’t even land – this is one of the most humid places in the world. It was all mud and there was no solid surface to stand on. We began walking in the jungle in search of the location, based on the coordinates the guerrilla group gave us. The location was precise, but because of the topography, density of foliage and stormy weather conditions, the bodies were not there. At one point, we discovered to our great frustration that all three of our GPS devices were pointing to different places, even though we were all standing in the same place at the same time. In addition, in the heart of the jungle, the visibility is terrible. It’s really dark because of the trees. For four days, we walked around looking for the place, with no results. Our people in Bogota managed to get two more days of ceasefire. Eventually, we fenced in an area of about 500 x 500 meters and began scanning it for the bodies, based on forensic archeology techniques.
What, for instance?
Different assessments of the soil quality and condition and looking for patterns that indicate attempts to dig. In tropical sites like this, the foliage grows wild and fast – so actually we were looking for differences in the foliage itself. We checked the soil using a special device that measures its density. Eventually we found the burial site, and managed to uncover human remains that fit what we were looking from in terms of age. We now faced another difficulty – how to get 11 bodies on a helicopter that would take them to the Colombian authorities. Of course, it was impossible to carry them back to the coca field were we had landed a few days earlier. In the end, we had to deforest the area with our own hands and make a landing pad for the helicopter. This is an example of an emergency project, where you really have to use every set of forensic skills you have, on site.
We’re talking about a very broad spectrum of cases – some occurred several decades ago and in many, you work in the field in real time. What criteria are applied in deciding where to go and when?
When we get a request or a call, we answer in one way or another, either by means of a delegation of our own or by recruiting local experts. We have a network of expert forensic scientists who support such projects. Of course, there are priorities. We have long-term projects in the Caucasus where we are looking for missing persons. This is mainly archeological work. If we get a request to uncover another mass grave there, and at the same time we receive a call from a “hot” area, like Libya, where an urgent response is needed, we give priority to the hot area.
It sounds logical to respond first to urgent requests when there is a family looking for a missing person in real time. But it also gives rise to the question – what really happens regarding missing persons or casualties from such longstanding conflicts? Is anyone still looking for them?
They definitely are. The best example I can give you is that of Spain, where they are still searching for casualties from the Civil War, which took place there three generations ago, in the 1930s. And when I say “searching,” I’m using the word in the most active sense – not as a hobby, and not a historical search. Many families still keep an empty seat next to the table or an empty bed for a person who could now be a grandmother or grandfather. There’s a very clear line between life and death. But there is another group that is neither dead nor alive, and they live in the hearts of their loved ones. This is called ambiguous loss, because the family is simply incapable of coming to terms with the status of missing. If you stop looking, you “kill” the loved one you are looking for, so to speak. On the other hand, if you invest too much hope in the search, you kill yourself. In my experience, only a tiny minority of these tortured families can suffice with closing the circle symbolically. The majority simply continue to wait and wait. Like the mothers of missing persons in Argentina, my country.
You were born in Argentina and grew up there during the time of the junta. Is there a connection between this dark period in the history of Argentina and your choice to work in forensic medicine?
There is. I was a human rights activist, and when I completed my medical studies I planned to work in emergency medicine. I was close to many people who lost loved ones, and many of them simply came to me with a request: “I believe that my son or daughter is buried in this or that cemetery. Could you help us get them back?” They came to me, of course, because of their distrust in the establishment. The regime in Argentina at the time was somewhat similar to the Nazi regime – one of institutionalized terrorism, a tremendous bureaucracy that covered up the disappearances and executions. In effect, many doctors in Argentina – and it’s a great disgrace to the profession – cooperated, signing false death certificates and birth certificates. After the regime change, when the people who had turned to me secretly could openly look for their loved ones, the grandmothers who were looking for their missing grandchildren joined, as well.
The grandchildren born to their daughters who were pregnant when they disappeared.
Yes. We all united in a request for international help and indeed, a delegation came from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, whose members included world experts in forensics. I fell in love with those people. I understood that with the knowledge I had and a bit of appropriate training, I could help solve these mysteries. In the early years, I worked on this in my free time. I reached the point where I had to choose whether to devote myself to this cause or give it up. I decided not to give up. I worked with the grandmothers and they were a tremendous source of inspiration. They had an amazing vision. Their story is inconceivable – older women who decided that they would find their grandchildren, who were born in prisons and detention facilities to mothers who were executed or disappeared. The children were given up for false adoption, without the knowledge of the families, for ideological reasons. The government wanted to reeducate them, far from the ideology of their parents.
The grandmothers had to find them and also to prove they were related to them.
We’re talking about a period in which identification using DNA didn’t exist. The grandmothers thought in the direction of forensic genetics. They had a revolutionary idea, which required a great deal of imagination. They set up a data bank with blood samples of all the grandparents and hoped to collect samples from as many of the children as possible, in order to compare them. And it worked. They simply invented the whole thing.
An idea that came from women with no background in medicine.
Yes, this was totally their idea. It’s unbelievable. I think that if I hadn’t worked with these grandmothers, I wouldn’t be here today. It was so difficult to do this work. It was dangerous; we were constantly threatened and I also had a family I had to feed. In many ways I was on the brink of giving up, but the grandmothers didn’t give up and pushed forward all the time. They explained to us how important it was and it actually worked. They are also the ones who brought DNA testing to Argentina, as soon as it was technologically possible. Amazing. Again, this is not a group of scientists. We’re talking about grandmothers.
And this really raises the question of feasibility. After all, it’s impossible to get to and identify every casualty all over the world. How does one live with the knowledge that what you do will always be a drop in the ocean?
Of course it’s impossible to get to everyone. Many bodies are never found, or are found in a condition that is beyond identification, but for the families there is no end to the search. Take, for instance, what happened in Chile – there, too, the regime made people disappear. They were murdered and their bodies were never found. But even during the dictatorial regime, mass graves were found and a great scandal broke out. The military regime carried out a campaign of unbelievable scope – they went back to all the burial sites, collected their contents and threw them into the ocean. When the regime was replaced, and it was possible to investigate these cases, the search and restoration of those sites where they thought the bodies were ended with nothing, because it had all been taken. Here and there, a very few remains were left. With the technology available at the time, nothing could be done.
And it ended in that?
The families didn’t give up; they waited. In the meantime technologies of using DNA developed and were used to analyze those remains. Some of those who were killed were identified. Hundreds of cases still remain unsolved. The families haven’t given up. Some even came to the Red Cross to submit DNA samples of the whole family for the archives in Geneva. Perhaps it will be possible to use them in the future. The remains were also preserved. They are waiting for the next leap forward in technology. And to return to your question – can we ever get to all the casualties in southern Sudan? In the Central African Republic?
Of course not. There are masses of victims.
Yes. It’s impossible and we understand and acknowledge that, and nevertheless we will make every effort. Everything possible. That’s what people expect of us and need. And what we learn everyday in this job is that the dead are much more important to people than what we ever thought.
Do you see this work as a calling?
I – and my colleagues, too – are very passionate about this work. There is great satisfaction in it – not from a small piece of bone, but from the understanding that it’s a person, who has a story and dignity, and this person has a family that’s waiting for him, that is and always will be there.
You are exposed to a wide range of terrifying and brutal human behavior, to extreme evil. How does this affect your belief in humanity?
Many historians claim that this century is the least violent, based on the numbers of victims relative to the total population. I connect less to this relative kind of thinking, which leads to the conclusion that we are in good shape. The fact is – it’s pretty ugly out there. But in work where you see the worst aspects of humanity and humanness, you also see the marvelous, moving sides. Like the grandmothers in Argentina. Or the dedicated families that are willing to fight for such a long time in order to give their loved ones final respect. The last time I was here I met representatives of the military rabbinate. I was so pleased to meet them, because in a way we share the same view about sanctity of the dead. Not in a religious sense, but in terms of the dignity one deserves. For me and for my colleagues, this is a glimmer of hope.
And how has your perspective on life and death changed over the years?
This work brought a totally new dimension to my understanding of the meaning of death to humanity, perspectives that we are not necessarily aware of – respect for the dead, the value of the dead person to his family, to his nation, to history. Naturally, enrichment of this perspective on death also enriches one’s perspective on life. It is so sad that we, as people, are incapable of taking the opportunity of the small and good life that could have here.