Several definitions of mass graves have been offered. From a scientific perspective, a mass grave contains two or more bodies that are in contact with each other. More legally precise is the definition offered by one United Nations (UN) special rapporteur, who interpreted a mass grave as a location where three or more bodies are buried, victims of extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, not having died in combat or armed confrontations (ICTY, 1996). Mass graves are an expedient method of disposing of large numbers of human remains. However, not all mass graves result from criminal actions; some contain legally buried combatants or victims of natural disasters.
Mass graves are investigated to collect and document physical evidence for accountability purposes and/or to identify the dead for return to their families. Forensic exhumations provide evidence to establish accountability and bring those responsible to justice. The process of investigation and documentation creates a historical record. From a humanitarian perspective, families may finally know the fate of their loved ones and be able to give them a proper burial. Finally, forensic exhumations reconfirm the dignity of the victims and of human life (Haglund, 2002; Stover and Ryan, 2001).
It is important to note that for the purpose of successful prosecution of crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity, personal identification of victims may not be required. Identification at the categorical level of national, religious, ethnic, or racial group may suffice. This said, in the course of examinations, experts are ethically bound to collect information that may further the personal identification process.
Investigation of mass graves requires a multidisciplinary effort, and for large ones completion may involve days, weeks, or even months. Prominent among experts involved are forensic archeologists, anthropologists, pathologists, and evidence technicians. First, a detailed documentation of surface features and potential evidence is conducted. Once the grave boundaries have been defined, the overburden (deposits of soil or other materials that cover the remains) is removed. This too is inspected for evidence. As excavation progresses, graves yield evidence bearing on circumstances of burial, as indicated by marks from tools or machines that may have been used to dig them. Sometimes, it is possible to ascertain whether or not victims were killed at the site or somewhere else. Once human remains are reached, each individual remains are carefully exposed and recovered. Postmortem examinations of the victims reveal information concerning cause of death, as well as information supportive of their identification, such as sex, age, stature, and trauma during life. Throughout the exhumation process written narratives, maps, and photographs document the findings and observations.
Forensic investigations of mass graves date to World War II. In 1943 forensic specialists of the Axis powers carried out the exhumation and study of victims from graves in the Katyn Forest, located in the modern-day region of Russia named Smolensk. When the Nazis took over the area, rumors circulated that previously occupying Soviet forces had systematically executed and buried approximately 11,000 Polish prisoners of war in 1940. The Germans, on occupying the Katyn, immediately organized investigations, prompted by the anticipation of accusations of Nazi culpability for the deaths. Findings based on the examination of 4,143 victims appeared in an April 1943 report. The majority had been shot in the head, and 5 percent were found with their hands tied behind their backs with ropes. On the basis of recovered personal artifacts and documents, 2,914 bodies were identified (Fitzgibbon, 1977). The report went on to comment that the absence of insects, as well as the presence of documents, correspondence, diaries, and newspapers, in the grave indicated that the deaths occurred from March through May of 1940.
A footnote on the Katyn mass massacres occurred during the Nuremberg trials. At the insistence of the Soviets and over the reluctance of the French, British, and American prosecutors, the Soviets successfully advocated that allegations of the massacres be included in count three of the indictment against the Nazis. Although the falsehood of these allegations was strongly suspected, they were allowed to stand, but were not mentioned in the tribunal's final verdict (Davidson, 1997; Taylor, 1992).
Other World War II–era mass grave exhumations were carried out after the war, notably in Saipan (Russell and Flemming, 1991) and Ukraine (Bevan, 1994). The Australians conducted the Ukraine investigation, with the cooperation of the Soviets, into the case of Nazi Officer Ivan Polyukhovich, who was indicted for his involvement in a massacre of Polish Jews outside the town of Serniki in the fall of 1942. Limited examinations of 533 selected crania confirmed that 410 of the men, women, and children exhumed had been shot in the head. Polyukhovich died before the prosecution was completed.
In May 2001 an aborted attempt was made to investigate the 1941 execution and burial site of an alleged 1,600 Polish Jews on the outskirts of the hamlet of Jadwabne, Poland. Addressing Jadwabne was an effort on the part of the Polish government to set the record straight on whether the killers had been occupying Nazis or fellow Polish neighbors of the victims. Strict Jewish orthodox interpretation of religious objections to the disturbance of graves was successful in closing down the exhumation efforts (Gross, 2001; Polak, 2001).
Except for the investigation of World War II graves, a four-decade hiatus passed before the momentum for a second and continuing era of mass grave investigations gathered. In 1984, prompted by a request from newly elected Argentine President Raúl Alfonsín, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility assembled a group of forensic experts. They were asked to investigate the fate of the thousands of disappeared, those who went missing, during Argentina's military rule from 1976 to 1983. This historic plea led to the development of Latin American forensic teams and exhumations throughout Central and South America, with major mass burial sites investigated in Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, and Peru.
A virtual explosion in the export of forensic experts to investigate mass graves occurred in 1996. The ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR) provided the impetus. Throughout 1996 multidisciplinary teams staffed by forensic experts made available by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) exhumed and examined the remains of nearly 1,200 individuals in Rwanda, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The first exhumation was of 496 victims at the Kibuye Roman Catholic Church. Seventy percent of the victims were women and children, 74 percent died of blunt and/or sharp force trauma, and 25 percent were children 10 years of age or younger. These findings were presented in the trial of Clement Kiashima, a pediatrician and former Prefect of Kibuye, who was convicted of crimes against humanity.
The 1996 exhumations continued in the former Yugoslavia. The initial focus was on graves believed to contain the seven thousand men and boys who had disappeared in July 1995, immediately after the fall of Srebrenica. In relation to these deaths, Radislav Krstic became the first person to be convicted by the ICTY of genocide and was sentenced to forty-six years of imprisonment (ICTY, 2001). As presented in the Krstic trial, these and other graves exhumed in subsequent seasons showed that many graves had been robbed in an attempt to destroy evidence. Deaths resulted primarily from gunshot wounds, with many of the victims blindfolded or bound.
The fieldwork in 1996 concluded with exhumation of the Ovcara grave in eastern Croatia. This grave held the remains of patients and staff taken from the Vukovar hospital after the fall of that city in September 1991. Although the grave had been discovered that same year, occupying Serb military prevented the first exhumation attempt in 1993. Fifty-five percent of the victims, whose ages ranged from 17 to 66 years old, demonstrated evidence of medical attention or recent hospitalization. Of the two hundred victims, the majority died of gunshot wounds. DNA identifications have confirmed the identity of over 90 percent of the victims. It is the unfortunate fate of many families that the graves containing their relatives may never be found. For example, of the estimated 28,500 people missing from Bosnia during the Yugoslav conflict, as of 2004 the remains of nearly 16,500 have been found and of those about 11,500 identified.
Initial hurdles to mass grave exhumations are lack of will or authority to investigate. Until regimes change or international will forces the issue, atrocities hidden in mass graves are not addressed. In order for investigations to proceed and accountability to take place, a forum such as a tribunal, special court, or truth commission needs to be established. Even when these criteria have been met, access to sites may be blocked for lack of security.
Once authority is granted and security insured, the focus shifts to support of the project: its funding, resources, staffing, and logistics. Limitations of time, funding, and support may impact the approach to the examinations. If not considered beforehand, religious, cultural, or other community concerns may prove to be impediments to the investigation. For all mass graves, there are deep concerns revolving around what will be the fate of remains in relation to their identity and return to families. In the end, accountability is ever at the mercy of societal will and a legitimate judicial forum.
As a phenomenon, mass graves are, unfortunately, all-too-common features in the landscape of genocide and crimes against humanity. Alarm at the atrocities of World War II was, in small part, hastened by evidence of mass graves. The mass grave investigations of the ICTR and ICTY have, in large part, triggered expectations for similar exhumations from far-flung regions of the globe. In the early twenty-first century requests for the investigation of mass graves came from a host of countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Congo, East Timor, Indonesia, Iraq, Nepal, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka. Even when forensic investigations of mass graves are undertaken, accountability and punishment of perpetrators may not follow.
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William D. Haglund