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On the trail of solving a mass murder

Science used in unravelling atrocities

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Civilians thrown from airplanes into the sea by soldiers, pregnant women killed after giving birth to babies adopted by police, 143 children gunned down by government troops, corpses burned then buried in a mass grave then dug up and reburied to hide the evidence.

These were just nightmares until investigative scientists like Luis Fondebrider proved they really happened.

"We're providing hard evidence," the forensic anthropologist from Argentina told staff and students at the University of Manitoba Wednesday. His trip to Winnipeg was sponsored by the U of M and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Fondebrider began his work in 1983 when Argentina was coming to terms with the thousands who disappeared under military rule. He founded the Argentine Team of Forensic Anthropology and pioneered the application of forensic science for the recovery and identification of the remains. In Argentina, bodies thrown from planes washed up on the beach and DNA linked adopted children to missing pregnant women.

In El Salvador, kids were shot en masse and hundreds of villagers' bodies were burned and buried, then dug up and buried elsewhere to hide the remains.

Fondebrider's team has since worked in more than 50 countries around the world and he's testified as an expert witness.

Most of the countries where the atrocities have taken place are poor, and most often it's the women left behind asking questions and refusing to be silent who spur the investigations, Fondebrider said. A government may deny the atrocities occurred, hide the evidence or make up a story that paints the victims as the perpetrators but science can set the record straight, said the forensic anthropologist.

He recalled Rufina Amaya, a survivor of a 1981 massacre in El Salvador that killed more than 800 people including 143 children and wiped out several villages.

"For years she was saying 'People were killed here, people were killed here.' " Nobody believed her until his team investigated and discovered a mass grave.

Unlike CSI crime dramas, Fondebrider said they rarely rely on costly genetic testing to identify human remains.

When a single bone fragment costs $400 to analyze, the bill for DNA testing for a mass grave would be huge, he said. The popular TV show has left a false impression that genetic testing is a quick, sure fix to solve crimes -- even crimes against humanity, he said. "The first thing the prosecution asks for is DNA analysis."

The first thing his team gathers is information from relatives of the missing and whatever police, government and media records might be available. Then they get down to the business of carefully digging for skeletal remains and other evidence. In places where the population has been traumatized and some of the perpetrators might be living next door to survivors, it is delicate work, said Fondebrider.

"If I approach someone from the village they'll be asked 'Why are you talking to this foreigner?' " said Fondebrider. "We prefer not to have another grave and another victim."

Fondebrider said the team of about 60 with headquarters in Buenos Aires gets its work from the United Nations, non-government organizations, truth and reconciliation commissions, the International Criminal Court and other groups. They're usually called in when a government's own investigation results aren't trusted and an independent probe is needed to get to the truth, he said.

Scientists from many disciplines play a role in their investigations, said Fondebrider -- from anthropologists to physicists to computer programmers.

Their work should inspire U of M students about the possibilities of their applying scientific knowledge to fields that advance human rights, said U of M Prof. Jorge Nállim. He witnessed Argentina's military dictatorship and said it led him to study history. He wanted to find out how and why up to 30,000 people in his country were killed and disappeared. Fondebrider's visit may get students thinking, too, he said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2014 B5


Updated on Thursday, February 13, 2014 at 9:22 AM CST: Corrects typo

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