Anthropological evidence in war crimes

Through the identification of individuals lost in war, stories on the ground can be corroborated
16 May 2022

Interview with 

Sue Black, Lancaster University


Identifying individuals is also crucial in events like natural disasters or instances of war. And as Nick mentioned, this could also be important for implicating crime. Sue Black, forensic anthropologist at Lancaster University, has worked on some of these tragic cases and explained to Julia Ravey how forensics is used in these circumstances...

Sue - So if we take the tsunami, for example, so the boxing day tsunami that happened in 2004. We knew that in Thailand, there were at least five and a half thousand, if not more, bodies that were recovered and taken to the centre where we were going to do the examinations. All the countries around the world would say, we've had a missing person report. You will take all of the antimortem information. So you'll have a DNA sample from parents or children. You might have fingerprints of the individual. If you think about where your fingerprints are in your house; they're all over your screen, they're all over your phone. Your DNA we'll find in your bedroom, we'll find it in your laundry. Is there any information in your medical records that might be important? You might have broken your arm six weeks ago or six months ago or 10 years ago. And so we create this huge picture of the missing person, the antimortem missing person. And then we go to the postmortem and we collect as much information as we can. DNA samples, fingerprints, how tall were they? How heavy were they? Did they have tatoos? And then we bring them together in a matching centre and you'll get a match that says it's most likely.

Julia - And science is obviously at the heart of this process, but it seems to be really quite an emotional job. So have there been any particular moments during your career which have been emotionally very challenging?

Sue - We try not to be involved in the emotion because as a scientist, your job is to be unbiased. But we're not cold, but we know that we have to have that level of detachment. Sometimes it's almost impossible to have that. And I think back to one case in Kosovo in particular, which was a gentleman whose entire family was caught in a rocket propel grenade. And he said to us, "I'm concerned that they're all buried in this one hole together," and that his God could not find them unless they all had their own grave with their own name. And so we laid out the number of sheets of individuals that we believed were present in the mortuary and a spare one, because we knew we wouldn't separate all of the bits. And as we went through each part, we were able to say, that's a baby, that's a child of about four, that's an adult, but it's an elderly adult. And so we were able to then put a little bit on each sheet. We have that moral pressure on us. And it is that tension sometimes that is really challenging, but we still try not to get involved in the emotion.

Julia - A really tragic instance of a loss of a lot of life is war. Have these findings been used in implicating war crimes in the past?

Sue - Oh, absolutely. So, I mean, you just need to go back to Kosovo. So Miloservic, Mladic, Karadzic, forensic anthropology was at the core of a lot of the evidence against them. Because what you have in a war crime situation is you have somebody who says they saw something, you bring the forensic teams into that scene, but you don't tell them all the information because they need to recover what they find, they need their independent opinion. And if the evidence and the opinion of the experts matches with what the witnesses are saying happened, and there's no prior knowledge crossed between the two teams, then you have a really strong set of evidence to take into the courtroom.

Julia - And we're seeing a really tough situation at the minute in Ukraine with this information. And I've seen that teams of anthropologists and archeologists are going over. Is that the aim of this? Is it for identification purposes and then down the line to try and corroborate others' stories about what's actually been going on on the ground?

Sue - So the identification and the evidence of crime go hand in hand. It's much more appropriate when you can say, this is Joe Blogs, who was 33 when he died. Because then you can look into the history of that individual. Did they have any paramilitary connections or not? Because it'll be the definition of was this a legitimate combat death, or was this death of a civilian? If the individual is a five year old child, then that answer is very obvious. The evidence is saying, who was killed here? Are they all men of a fighting age? No there's wome, and there's elderly, and there's children. This is a war crime is the conclusion that you may come to based on the evidence, but the identity of the people is inextricably linked to the charge that you're going to place on that particular site.

Julia - Identity is at the heart of understanding who a person was. And when placed within the context of the scene in which they were found, what happened to them. This is important in reuniting loved ones with those they have lost, but also in the wider implications of understanding the circumstances of their death and trying to ensure these events are never repeated. The claims of war crimes in Ukraine are ever growing as the conflict continues on and through using archeology and anthropology, hopefully one day, those claims can be brought to justice


Add a comment