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Forensic Anthropology Helps to Clarify the Fate of Missing Persons

Friday, August 7
The families of missing persons suffer greatly owing to the uncertain fate and whereabouts of their family members who are missing as a result of armed conflicts or internal violence. For more than 20 years now the different fields of the forensic sciences have been put to the task of directly contributing to clarify the fate and whereabouts of people who disappeared. Over the past decade the expertise and influence by the forensic team members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has grown considerably. The ICRC is the only organization in the world offering forensic assistance exclusively for humanitarian purposes. Governments and agencies around the world are increasingly turning to the ICRC to support the dignified management of the dead resulted from armed conflicts or natural disasters. ICRC also plays an important role supporting the authorities in their efforts to clarify the fate of missing persons applying the latest technological advances in forensic sciences. The ICRCís forensic services are also active in training and building local capacity, and the promotion of forensic best practices and innovative action around the world.

Ana Maria Boza is an ICRC forensic anthropologist, currently coordinating the ICRC forensic activities for the identification process in Georgia. She is a PhD graduate from the University of Pittsburgh and has been working with the ICRC since 2013. Coming from the discipline of Physical Anthropology she established her forensic expert credentials during a six year tenure in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. She followed her work in the office of the British Columbia Coroner Services, Canada.

In this article Dr. Boza describes the role of forensic expertise in clarifying the fate and whereabouts of persons missing as a result of the 1992-93 and 2008 armed conflicts in Georgia.

1. How would you describe the specificity of use of forensic science in the context of humanitarian identification?

The procedures in forensic sciences are based on a wide range of disciplines, methods and techniques. The process of identification of an individual implies a multidisciplinary approach where many scientific fields as well as the physical and historical context of the disappearance of the individual and his possible death is essential. However, these procedures are more complex in cases of war victims given the large scale of the problem. Along with the need for a favorable political and social environment, the use of forensic science in the context of humanitarian identification calls for patient and specific forensic methodologies applied on a case by case fashion to address the missing personsí issue. This implies the use of forensic archaeology, forensic pathology, forensic anthropology, as well as forensic genetics applied to large scale identifications, among other forensic fields.

The resolution of these cases, as is the Georgia context, requires a strong political will from the government or entities concerned, and can greatly gain from a popular involvement.

In sum, the process of identification of war victims is as much a political and social endeavor as it is the patient and specific forensic methodologies applied on a case-by-case fashion to address the issue on the missing.

2. We know that the ICRC has been engaged in the clarification of the fate and whereabouts of missing persons as a result of armed conflicts in Georgia. The media has reported on some dozens of cases of identification of human remains of those missing since 1992-93 conflict in Abkhazia. Please provide us with the recent update on this work?

Yes. The media have been very attentive to the periodic handing over to the families, of the human remains recovered and identified in this context. This is very positive since it shows, as I mentioned above, a popular concern to the fate of the more than 2000 missing from the conflicts of 90-ies and 2008. This media support informs the public and hopefully motivates concerned individuals in the community to get involved by donating their reference samples, providing ante mortem data, and/or approaching the authorities or the ICRC with any information that might be useful in the process of clarifying the fate of missing people.

In the last four years we have been, jointly with the local authorities, applying a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to the recovery and identification of human remains. We have been systematically collecting ante mortem data and biological reference samples from the missing personís biologically close relatives for each of the reported missing person. We have also been gathering information about the location of possible gravesites. In 2014 we begun the systematic and scientific exhumations of known grave sites. Given the complexity of the sites, it has taken a year to re-associate the remains and reconcile the information resulting from the analysis of the remains with the information and genetic samples provided by the families. In fact we are still in the process of analysis of the results of the most challenging cases. Up until now 122 human remains have been exhumed in various locations with the ICRC support. 58 individuals have been identified.

This year, we have exhumed nearly 50 bodies, which are in the process of analysis. The process is planned to last many more years, and in fact we are working towards the planning of the exhumations for the year 2016. The work is not over.

3. The methodology that the ICRC applies for identification is least known to the public. Could you please describe the cycle of humanitarian forensic action. What are its main steps/phases?

The ICRC supports internationally approved best practice and standards for the identification of human remains. This entails an all-inclusive collection of information that, once is gathered together and reconciled, should support each other in order to produce an identification with the highest degree of certainty. In 2012 the ICRC, on behalf of the authorities begun the systematic collection of ante mortem data (AMD). This collection entails a very detailed description of the missing person, his or her biological profile and physical characteristics; his or her pathological conditions or trauma suffered when he or she was alive; it describes the circumstances and location in which the missing person disappeared or was last seen. This information is collected from the missing personís families who have been patiently collaborating with the project. Once we have gathered all the AMD and crossed checked for their accuracy and completeness, it is then entered and centralized in a complex database that permits us to efficiently retrieve the information in order to compare it with the data we gather after the analysis of the human remains.

In parallel we are calling families to systematically collect an average of 4 biological reference samples from the closest biological relatives of the missing person. This is done by a very simple process that requires swabbing cells from the cheek of the mouth of the donor. It is an easy, painless and efficient way of collecting DNA. The analysis of these samples reaches the DNA genetic laboratory of the University of Zagreb in Croatia. It is there where the biological reference samples and the samples from the human remains are compared for kinship analysis.

Of course an integral part of this process is the exhumation of human remains. For the last two years we have been excavating and scientifically exhuming human remains from the different known graves sites. Once the remains are retrieved from the graves they go through a very detailed analysis that generates an accurate biological profile which includes the assessment of sex, age, stature, dental characteristics etc. The final step of the analysis is the sampling of the remains. These samples are then sent to the genetic laboratory in Zagreb to be compared to the reference samples provided by the families. Once a match is produced an array of forensic experts reviews all the data gathered for the missing person, including the DNA match, and looks for possible inconsistencies or inexplicable discrepancies in the match between the human remains and the AMD. In this way each piece of information regarding the case has to support each other, producing an identification with the uppermost degree of confidence. Once the remains have been positively identified, the authorities contact the families in order to inform them of the findings.

It is important to mention that throughout the identification process, the ICRC has accompanied the families each step of the way. It is the ICRCís belief that the psychological wellbeing of the families have to be considered during this process. A series of meetings were organized where the families were informed of each of the steps of the identification process. These meeting also help the families to share their experiences and fears.

4. What are the challenges faced during the identification process here in Georgia, and what are the limitations of the forensic sciences applied to the identification of missing persons in general?

There are many challenges to overcome in this process. One concern we have now is finding all the biological samples necessary to reach the statistical needs for an accepted genetic match. In many cases we have not been able to locate those families of missing persons that will help to increase the power of the DNA analysis. The way to overcome this challenge is by kindly asking the families to donate their samples so that they can be used in the process and more remains could be identified and buried with dignity.

A second related issue is finding interviewees that can provide accurate and precise AMD. These are two key elements used in a successful identification process.

Another big challenge we are having is the accurate location of gravesites. It is imperative for the process to find accurate and precise information given by firsthand sources who know the whereabouts of these sites. We are in the process of collecting this information but we still need the help of the community and especially of those who have this information, either because they saw or participated in the burial of remains. To those people who have this information I would ask their help in sharing it. This action is purely humanitarian and will allow not only the positive identification of remains, but also the dignified treatment of all exhumed bodies.

Another aspect related to the process is linked to the visual identification of remains performed in the 90s. In those years the identification were performed by visual means only therefore the potential for misidentifications during this period is high. When a misidentification occurs it is important to remember that two families are involved: the family with the wrong body, and the right family who should have received the body in the first place This generates a situation when a certain amount of exhumed remains will never be identified and certain families will never clarify the whereabouts of their missing family member. This is a very painful and difficult issue to deal with, both technically and psychologically. A way to begin solving this issue is for those families who have doubts of the identity of the person visually identified can register with the ICRC and begin the process of giving AMD and reference samples; in this way their information will be in the system in case a possible match arises. It is a simple step that can benefit not only their case, but also the case of another family who is also desperately looking for its own missing relative.

There are some limitations inherent to each of the forensic fields used in the process. The passing of time affect in many ways. For instance, the most idoneous biological donors, father and mother, might have already passed away (though it is possible, and indeed completely acceptable to use other close relatives to the missing person). The memories of those providing information related to the missing person or to the location of the graves is fading and becoming less accurate and precise, while this information is key for a positive identification. There is also the situation of the preservation of the remains in the ground.

Many of the graves exhumed in the recent past were complex due to the circumstance of death that seriously affected the condition of the bodies; as well as by the fact that the remains were initially exhumed without the input of knowledge developed in the last years. These characteristics presented challenges that have been mostly overcome after various months of hard work by many specialists. In some cases we are still working to overcome them.

We also need to keep in mind that this process requires financing since the technological advances, as well as the large amount of expertise required is costly.

5. It seems the process that you described is time consuming. Hundreds of families of missing persons in Georgia have been expecting news about their loved ones for decades. What would be your message to these families?

I would ask them to be patient. It is understandable that they are tired and desperate for news about the fate and whereabouts of their family member (s) however this is a lengthy process that accepts no mistakes or shortcuts in the procedures. I would recommend that all individuals in the community participate and collaborate with the authorities and the ICRC providing information about the possible location of gravesites. The span of time passed can fade memories or change the environments in a way that can make finding these graves impossible. There is also the issue of reaching those donors who have yet to donate their samples to do so; or those who have not provided AM information related to their MP.

This project has to be driven and supported primarily by the community and the families of the missing persons, without their help it will not be possible to succeed in clarifying the fate and whereabouts of the missing and in giving a dignified resting place to all of them.

6. How does ICRC cooperate with local forensic structures/specialists in Georgia?

The work would not be possible without the immense support of the local forensic professionals. Most of them have great experience and many years in forensic work. However the humanitarian large scale identification of individuals present a different problematic that might have been unfamiliar to some of them. ICRC is working shoulder to shoulder with the local forensic specialists so that they acquire all the necessary expertise needed for the successful identification of the exhumed remains.

7. What is ahead?

The work will continue mostly on the same road, however we are always assessing and learning from past experience to improve and accelerate the identification process without jeopardizing the quality of the identifications.