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The Archaeology of Contemporary Mass Graves

Melissa Conner


map of Rwanda Archaeologists and forensic investigators overlap in their need to reconstruct past events from the material culture and physical remains at a site, or "scene." The Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a Boston-based nonprofit group, conducts forensic investigations for the United Nations and occasionally requests the assistance of professional archaeologists in its investigations. The National Park Service's Midwest Archeological Center has been privileged to assist PHR in its investigations for the United Nations in Croatia, El Salvador, and most recently Rwanda.

The violence in Rwanda began when President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda was killed in an airplane crash on April 6, 1994. Within four months, an estimated half a million people were dead. By September 1994 the United Nations established the International Tribunal for Rwanda (ITR) to investigate the claims that these killings were genocide, rather than the result of civil war as maintained by the former government. The UN's ITR is actively investigating these accusations at the Kibuye Catholic Church and the Home St. Jean, located in central eastern Rwanda. The Home St. Jean is a complex adjacent to the church that includes a priest's house, a small hostel, workshops, and classrooms. It is estimated that 4,000-6,000 people were killed at the church and the Home St. Jean in April 1994.

The Midwest Archeological Center sent a team of three archaeologists, Douglas Scott, Ralph Hartley, and Melissa Connor, to assist in investigations at the massacre site, joining a larger team put together by PHR and ITR. The team was headed by William Hagland (ITR), a forensic anthropologist, and Robert Kirshner (PHR), a forensic pathologist. Hagland had divided the mission into three phases, all of which incorporated archaeological techniques to varying degrees: (1) mapping and initial documentation of the site, (2) recovery and analysis of the skeletal remains on the surface of the site, and (3) excavation and testing of the mass graves at the site.

Phase 1: Initial Mapping and Documentation

The archaeologists from the Midwest Archeological Center arrived in Rwanda in mid-December 1995 to begin mapping and initial site documentation. At this point, they were the only team members on site. The area of the Kibuye Catholic Church and the Home St. Jean was mapped using a coordinate system based on the 1,000-m Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) grid, World Geodetic System 1984 Ellipsoid (WGS84). The UTM points for the initial datum were derived from the Belgium GS3 GEO 1:50,000 topographic map of Kibuye. This was checked using a Magellan Trailblazer GPS. The site was mapped using a Sokkia Set 4B total station. Mapping data were collected in an SDR33 data collector that electronically captured the horizontal angle, vertical angle, slope distance, and elevation for each reading. It also converted the raw data into coordinate data, which would be the approximate UTM of the point. These data were downloaded into a computerized mapping program (Sokkia Map and Design V.6). Initial plotting, feature code processing, and contour computation were completed in this program, and the data were then transferred to AutoCAD Light for final editing and processing.

Ralph Hartley acted as team photographer and photographed the exteriors of all 23 buildings on the site area. In addition, he photographed any potential evidence remaining in the interiors of the buildings.

Phase 2: Recovery of Surface Skeletons

In early January 1996 six forensic physical anthropologists arrived. In an earlier trip to the site, William Haglund had identified the location of a number of surface skeletons and conducted an initial analysis of the material. The archaeologists had also walked transects around the site to determine site boundaries. In the course of this and the mapping of the site, they had flagged all skeletons encountered on the surface of the site. With the arrival of the forensic anthropologists, the skeletons were assigned a number, mapped, photographed in place, and carefully removed. The physical anthropologists set up a field laboratory and analyzed the skeletal remains for gender, age, race, and trauma.

Phase 3: Excavation of Mass Grave 1

The site area contained a minimum of six potential mass graves. The largest had been tested in October 1995 by Haglund and the ITR's senior scientific consultant, Andrew Thomsen. They had used local labor to hand-excavate two perpendicular trenches across the grave area and were able to estimate the size of the grave and the depth of the bodies. In mid-January 1996 the team began to open the grave. A mechanical excavator with a backhoe attachment was used to remove as much of the overburden as possible. When remains were encountered, shovels and entrenching tools were used to remove further overburden. Final delineation of the remains were accomplished using trowels and whisk brooms, and using hands to separate the interface between adjacent remains.

When a body was ready for removal, it was assigned a case number from a master list, which included a brief description of the remains, associated evidence, and possible commingling. Remains were frequently too commingled to be easily separated in the field. When this occurred, the remains were bagged together, case number(s) assigned, and a notation to this effect made in the master log. Photographs were taken according to the condition of the remains, and notes made on how much of the body was in its original position when it was possible to remove it. Crania were mapped as often as possible. Initially, all body outlines were mapped; as time became constrained, however, this was done for a lower percentage of the bodies to show generally how they lay in a specific area.

Four forensic pathologists and two autopsy technicians arrived in late January. All remains removed from the grave received a postmortem examination conducted by a team consisting of a forensic pathologist and a physical anthropologist. Remains were examined to determine sex, age, patterns of trauma, and cause of death.

The results of the examinations were entered into a database that is still under analysis. The conclusions of the excavations and examinations cannot be shared due to the ongoing medicolegal investigation. However, several hundred individuals were removed from the grave, making this one of the largest exhumations ever conducted for human rights investigations.

In December 1995 the International Tribunal for Rwanda issued indictments for eight people accused of genocide at four sites, including the Kibuye Catholic Church and Home St. Jean. Further indictments are pending. In late January relatives and friends of potential victims were allowed to view select personal items from the excavations, in the hope they might recognize something that could lead to the identification of a body. DNA testing is planned to match the victims with potential relatives. The Catholic Church is no longer used as a church and the prefecture of Kibuye is planning a memorial there to recognize those who died at the Kibuye Catholic Church and the Home St. Jean.

Meanwhile, teams of lawyers and investigators from the Tribunal continue working throughout Rwanda. Additional excavations are planned, and again, a professional archaeologist will be part of the team. The use of archaeological techniques and technology to meticulously document the collection of forensic data is an important addition to forensic investigations. The tendency of mainstream archaeology to interpret the findings in terms of cultural behavior is set aside in these cases in favor of the more circumspect medicolegal statement required for legal actions. Sound archaeological documentation adds materially in making a strong case both in the court of the ITR and the court of public opinion.

Melissa Connor is at the Midwest Archeological Center, National Park Service.

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