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The science behind Ratko Mladic's trial

The science behind Ratko Mladic's trial

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How the surprisingly low-tech science of forensic anthropology may help convict former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic of alleged war crimes committed 16 years ago.

NEW YORK -- Ratko Mladic appeared yesterday before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for crimes allegedly committed 16 years ago. Convicting someone of a war crime is similar to convicting a person in a domestic court case: establish that a crime has been committed. But in a war crimes case, forensic anthropologists and pathologists have a slightly different charge: to prove that the killings were unlawful and not part of regular combat.

Forensic anthropologist Clea Koff worked for the United Nations Criminal Tribunal, helping establish that genocide and crimes against humanity occurred in Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. She wrote about her experience in The Bone Woman (2004) and has a forthcoming mystery novel, Freezing, that draws on her professional background. Currently chief executive of the Missing Persons Identification Resource Center in Los Angeles, she spoke with me by phone about the science behind establishing war crimes.

What does a forensic anthropologist do for a war crimes case?
In the context of war, there’s killing of legitimate targets, but killing outside of combat is unlawful. It is clear in the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law that murder in a time of war is still murder.

When I worked on the forensic teams that were called in by the ICTY, we were asked to locate clandestine mass graves based on witness testimony, uncover them, exhume the bodies inside and analyze them and the evidence associated with them. We would then establish whether or not murder had been committed.

First, we would determine the demographics of the bodies in the grave – what their age, sex, stature and ancestry were. We would then establish the cause and manner of death through autopsies and anthropological exams.

In some of the graves around Srebrenica, we also discovered wires had been used to bind wrists on many of the bodies and cloths had been used to gag or blindfold people who had also been shot to death. This kind of evidence can corroborate witness testimony by survivors.

We recovered bullets from the bodies, and bullets and shell casings around the gravesites because ballistics analyses can help establish which forces were doing the shooting and where the shooters were standing at the time.

We determine what positions those who were killed were in at the time they were shot. We can do this by reconstructing skulls and other skeletalized body parts blown apart by gunshots. This helps us establish whether people had been shot in the back, say, or in the back of the head.

What conclusions can you draw from these analyses?

We are always trying to understand the relationship between the bodies to the shooters: was the person who was shot facing the shooter, was the person made to get in a grave before they were shot, and so on. We collect this evidence to establish whether the people were combatants or civilians, whether they were prisoners of war who had surrendered, or if they were wounded when they were killed.

If investigators find bodies of people with hands tied behind their backs or shot in the back or shot multiple times, these suggest that a war crime has taken place. If evidence shows that people were in a bunker position holding a weapon or had a weapon near the body or the gunfire comes from the front of their body, not close-range or at the head, then they might have been a combatant.

The tribunal will also be looking at whether there is evidence for a large-scale commission of crimes and a coordinated set of criminal activity that is related to a policy of killing outside of combat. So if there are multiple sites containing similar evidence of massacres, that becomes important as well.

How do you re-create what happened from the skeletal remains?

We work with forensic pathologists to examine the entire skeleton for perimortem trauma, which is trauma that was experienced by someone at or around the time of death.

The human bone responds differently depending on what is hitting it. In the case of an entrance wound from a gunshot, say, there will be an initial examination as to whether the hole created by the bullet is circular or ovoid or keyhole shaped, which would tell us what angle the bullet entered the skull, if the shot came from close range or if it entered the head after hitting other body parts or other objects.

If there is an exit wound, we can use a narrow rod and put it through a skull from the entry to the exit wound to explore possible trajectories. We're looking to answer questions about what position the body was in when it was hit by the bullet – was the shooter standing above the body, for example, and is this consistent with a combat position or not?

And that’s just dealing with gunshots to the head. We can also find such wounds on other parts of the body.

Each of these answers helps us re-create those last moments. Most forensic evidence cannot be used in a vacuum; it is just one piece of the puzzle in order to establish whether or not the laws of war were violated.

It’s surprisingly low-tech.
Yes, not a lot of people get that. The best thing about it being low-tech is that you can go into a post-conflict zone where there is no electricity, no water, no computers other than the ones you brought, and you can establish the actual identity of the people and discern something about their last moments and the people who left them there.

There is a lot of high-tech stuff that will never help you figure out who somebody is, but the anthropologist can tell you, especially if you’ve got survivors out there to describe their missing relatives.

Being low-tech may be the survival of the science. If one doesn’t have access to technology, it does not leave you bereft to interpret what the bones tell you.

[Photos: 1. Budak mass grave near Srebrenica.

2. An ICMP forensic anthropologists uses anthropological techniques and DNA analysis to make matches among "commingled" bones which were mixed together when bones were moved to secondary graves.

3. Another ICMP forensic anthropologist analyzes commingled bones. (Courtesy of International Commission on Missing Persons)]

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure