Clyde Snow, with Mercedes Doretti
and Fredy Peccerilli
"When the Bones Speak Out"

November 17, 2000

Rachael Post

A photo shows a beautiful young Argentine woman in her 20s. But it was the late 1970s in Argentina, and the military junta considered her a threat. The next photo shows her skull recovered from a mass grave.

One by one, the slides of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team name "los desaparecidos"-the disappeared.

"Almost as soon as the sun touched them, the bones started telling their stories," said Dr. Clyde Snow, re-known forensic anthropologist and member of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, as he looks at the slide. "Notice the bullet hole in her head. She tells us she was shot."

Clyde Snow at AAA conference
Claudia Bernardi (left) and Mercedes Doretti

Dr. Snow and members of his team spoke in San Francisco on Fri. Nov. 17 at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting. Their presentation, "Uncovering the 'Disappeared': Clyde Snow and Forensic Anthropologists' Work for Justice," was sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley.

"Our work helps in the historic reconstruction that is often hidden by the authorities and the governments that took part in them," said Mercedes Doretti, an original member of the Argentine forensic team. "Even though we talk about bones, they represent faces and histories."

The histories they tell are grim. From 1976 to 1983 Argentina suffered from the Dirty War. Any opposition or criticism of the military junta in power was eradicated by paramilitary death squads, resulting in the disappearance of more than an estimated 20,000 citizens, most of them young men and women.

In 1984, the team started carefully exhuming remains, measuring bones and reconstructing skeletons despite death threats and fears of becoming what they were exposing-the disappeared, Dr. Snow said. In 1985, Dr. Snow presented evidence of homicides uncovered by the team and testified in court in Argentina to convict members of the military junta.

Forensic anthropologists identify remains in four ways: visual identification, matching dental and/or medical records, measuring the bones and skeleton, or matching DNA. The use of DNA is a relatively new and costly method which started in 1990, Dr. Snow said. DNA samples from the bones are compared to blood samples taken from family members.

The team also gathers information from relatives and eyewitnesses about the missing person to help with burial location and identification.

Taking what they learned in Argentina, the team began unearthing massacre victims in Guatemala in 1996. Guatemala has been torn apart by 36 years of civil war that killed more than 200,000. Identification is more difficult in Guatemala, because many of the victims, mostly indigenous Maya, live in remote mountain regions where there are no birth certificates, medical or dental records or other identification.

"First we have to prove that people were alive before we can prove they are dead," said Fredy Peccerelli, who worked with Dr. Snow and is president of the Guatemala Forensic Anthropology Foundation.

Peccerelli has testified in three trials to bring murderers to justice in Guatemala, where 83 percent of the population is indigenous. Even though they are the majority, the Maya have not traditionally been involved in the legal system, he said.

The truth commission in Guatemala estimated that the armed forces participated in 669 scorched-earth massacres.

"We're barely getting started," he said.

Peccerelli's team has found victims buried in churches, villages and fields. He tells the story of the village of San Andrés Sajcabaja in Quiche. In San Andrés people remember hearing screams coming from the church where armed men killed villagers. Survivors recall dogs that would show up with an arm in their mouths in the plaza, Peccerelli said. The soldiers did not bury them very well, he explained.

In another village in the province of Quiche, Peccerelli recalls an older Maya man who would come to the burial site day after day. He kept asking if anyone had found a brass belt buckle. One morning Peccerelli cleared away the dirt and pulled out a buckle. He showed it to the old man, who had a matching one around his waist. The father found what he wanted: his son. He walked away with the belt buckle and the cardboard box that contained the bones of his son.

"This is when you notice how important it is, and how a person's life can be changed by anthropology," said Peccerelli

Doretti, who has been doing this for years, said that all families grieve and have their own religious funeral rites for their dead. "When we identify them there is a big relief and healing comes with that," she said. "But it's also the end of the search and the end of the hope. There is tremendous sorrow."

Even though their work is far from being finished from murders committed in Argentina in the 1970s, Snow and the 12-member team are applying what they have learned in 22 countries worldwide. More recently, they have uncovered human rights abuses in Kosovo, Bosnia, El Salvador, Ethiopia and Iraqi Kurdistan.

"There's a lot of déjà vu in this business," said Dr. Snow, adjunct faculty member of the Unversity of Oklahoma. Human rights abuses are essentially the same across the globe, he said.

"You never get used to it-never," Peccerilli said of unmasking the dead. "It's still somebody who died who shouldn't have been killed."

 

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