Helping African forensic specialists to read the bones

It could have been a conflict that killed an entire village; a building collapse that suffocated hundreds of lives in falling concrete; or a multi-car pile up. Authorities rush to help the living and save those who can be saved, but the dead are often forgotten.

Each of these events requires a standard procedure or disaster response plan. Unfortunately, in many countries – and a number of African countries – disaster management plans are for the living, not the dead.

“Dealing with the dead is a complicated process. [Countries and institutions] often struggle with the dead for weeks, months, years afterwards,” International Committee Red Cross (ICRC) forensic co-ordinator for Africa Stephen Fonseca said in Pretoria on Friday. “Families don’t forget their loved ones.”

This week, ICRC, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, and the University of Pretoria launched the African School of Humanitarian Forensic Action, an annual two-and-a-half week course to upskill African forensic scientists, policemen and disaster response personnel, among others.

While Forseca spoke, participants from around the continent exhumed fake skeletons from the lawn of Pretoria Central Mortuary. In biohazard suits and face masks, professionals from Eritrea to Tanzania dug with trowels and brushed plastic bones that lay about a metre under what was once grassy lawn.

This exhumation is the third practical exercise that the participants had undertaken, said Luis Fondebrider, director of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. The first was a mass disaster, the second a crime scene.

“The course aims to train local specialists in the management of dead bodies and victim identification,” Fondebrider said. “Science can contribute to humanitarian action and criminal cases…. The family wants to know that their loved one was treated with dignity.”

However, the reality is that many African countries lack the laboratories, skills and infrastructure to adequately manage bodies and identify victims. Some African countries, for example, only had one forensic scientist, Fondebrier said.

“But not everything is related to having money,” Fondebrier said. “There are a lot of basic steps that can be taken.”

Once a disaster – man-made or natural – takes place, authorities rush to act and to be seen to be acting. This leads to mistakes and the loss of vital information about the victims.

The main point that Fondebrier and Fonseca emphasised was not to rush. First, document everything with pictures, draw diagrams, put it into a map, Fondebrier said. From there, recover every body and body part, fill in the chain of custody form and transport them to the mortuary. “It sounds simple – in theory.”

Fondebrier, who was grew up during Argentina’s “Dirty War” which was characterised by mass executions and disappearance, specialises in exhumation and identifying bodies buried in mass graves.

University of Pretoria’s Neil Morris noted that mortuary management would also be included in the course curriculum.

In the case of a large number of deaths, “people often think that the most dignified way to deal with [the bodies] is to bury them, but it is important to get as much information from the bodies as possible. Make sure that the burial place is mapped and marked,” Forseca said.

The course is very hands-on, including “basic management of the dead”. “We teach participants how to put a body in a body bag, and how to conserve energy when putting 10 bodies into body bags,” Fonseca said.

Dr Ahmed Makata, who says he is his country’s only histo-pathologist, consults to Tanzania’s police forensics unit. Based in Dar-Es-Salam, Makata says he cannot quantify the number of cases sitting on his desk right now. “I have many, many cases, all over Tanzania.”

Asked whether other people from his country would be interested in such a course, he said: “If they’re exposed to such practical demonstrations, it would be fantastic.”

The course was not just for forensic scientists, though. “We want to involve as many professional along the chain as possible. Usually the police arrive on the scene first, or a judge or prosecutor is directing the process,” Forseca said.

He said that the initiative had received a “very positive” response from governments. “Police, governments, they’re eager to know how to approach this [area] with more accuracy, more technical understanding.”

South Africa, unlike many other African countries, has a well-populated and rigorous forensic system. “We see South Africa as a forensic science hub,” he said. “It has facilities, resources and excellent academic expertise. We want to bring people from other African countries here [for training]. South Africa has so many experts, it’s crazy not to tap into that….

“The aim is that these professionals will go back and disseminate good practice.”

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