El País (Madrid), 16-04-06 (ENGLISH TRANSLATION BY MICHAEL MULLAN)
SOUTH AFRICA SEARCHES FOR ITS DISAPPEARED
Argentinean forensic scientists work to locate and identify apartheid’s victims
By Lali Cambra
Kidnapped, tortured and burned. Or blown to bits by explosives tied to their bodies. Their scant remains buried in unmarked pits. These graves are thought to hold the remains of more than a thousand people killed in the repression of South Africa’s black population by the apartheid government between 1960 and 1994. The Argentinean Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, EAAF) is the organisation invited two years ago by the South African public prosecutor’s office to help retrieve and identify those who disappeared for political reasons. The Argentinean dictatorship, under which something like 30,000 people were killed or disappeared, made these the experts in the field.
“Argentina’s repression was marked by its systematic character”, according to Claudia Bisso and Anahi Ginarte of EAAF. “In South Africa, there was heavy repression, but it was carried out within a legal framework; there wasn’t a premeditated plan to hide the bodies, so fewer people went missing.” The EAAF was set up in 1984 to identify the remains and causes of death of people who disappeared under Argentina’s military dictatorship. Their special skills regarding victims of political repression were brought to bear in other countries and they have already been deployed in more than 30 (among them Bosnia, Kosovo, Congo, Chile, Croatia and Peru).
Madeleine Fullard, head of the South African public prosecutor’s team investigating the disappeared, says the Argentinean involvement is not to cover a shortage of staff but “because our people had no experience in looking into human rights violations”. The aims of their shared work include training students to form a team “that can serve the whole region and the continent”.
Fullard’s work began with the Truth Commission, set up in democratic South Africa in 1995, where both killers and survivors gave evidence. The former were seeking amnesty; the latter, seeking the truth. Relatives of the disappeared wanted to find out what had happened. The Commission looked into 500 disappearance cases, of which 150 “yielded enough evidence to open inquiries”, says Fullard, who suggests “there may be as many as 2,000 disappeared, since not all cases were formally reported”.
During 2005, the organisation exhumed the remains of 25 people. Their labours involved the study of written sources (archives, death certificates, autopsy reports) and word of mouth (from family members, witnesses, gravediggers). Five bodies have been handed over to their families for proper burial. Bisso says they work very closely with the families. These are the people who can provide the data on the disappeared to enable their identification – such as whether they had any illness that might have left traces in the bone, had sustained accidental injuries or had dental X-rays taken – and who can provide DNA samples.
The Argentinean women find it rather different working in Africa, because of how “the concept of extended family goes beyond the immediate nucleus to take in cousins, uncles, second cousins, all of them equally committed to the search for the missing person.” Exhumation is carried out with all the solemnity expected in African funerary culture, with South African anthropologists collaborating in the process and explaining it all, step by step. Bisso says the families are always torn between conflicting emotions, “the sadness of confirming their loss and the peace of mind that comes from having their questions answered.” This collaboration will carry on for as long as Pullard’s team finds it helpful. At present, they are still working on the identification of remains, expecting to return more of them to the families.
Nonhlanhla Dlamini, a South African volunteer who is an anthropologist and archaeologist, explains her role: “In scientific work, the fruits of your labours are often a bit distant, but here it’s quite the opposite. We’re working with families who have waited 20 years for the truth and we can witness the actual outcome.” She adds: “Giving them back the bodies is an important thing for my country: these people died for my freedom.”
Dlamini attended the exhumation of five graves in the cluster known as Mamelodi 10, so called because the missing people were 10 young men aged from 15 to 22, from the Mamelodi suburb of Pretoria. In 1986, having been infiltrated by a secret police spy who coaxed them to join the anti-apartheid guerrilla struggle, they were kidnapped, drugged and locked into a lorry packed with explosives. All that was left of them was a few bones. “Their family members were pleased and grateful, they kept shaking our hands. Those lads were thinking of a better South Africa, thinking of the future”, says Nohlanhla.
The project may extend its work to Namibia, where mass graves bear witness to the war between the South African army and SWAPO’s freedom fighters. Democratic South Africa has offered the neighbouring country its assistance because, as Fullard puts it, “we have a moral, political and practical responsibility”. The work will also cover the 120 prisoners sentenced to death under the apartheid regime, the whereabouts of whose remains is unknown. As victims of capital punishment, they became state property. The past, here, has a lot of explaining to do.