Identifying Afghanistan’s war dead

A forensic anthropologist has contributed to a special report which outlines steps Afghanistan can take to help identify the victims of the country’s 35-year conflict.

Gillian Fowler, from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln (UK), has been involved with the Afghan Forensic Science Organisation (AFSO) from its inception in 2010.

Set up as part of Physicians for Human Rights’ (PHR) project Securing Afghanistan’s Past, Gillian was asked to provide training in human osteology (the study of bones).

Gillian had previously spent six years working for the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala. While there she was involved in the exhumation of graves containing the innocent victims of the uprising against the military dictatorship in the 1980s.

She said: “The aims of the PHR/Afghan project were human identification and determining what is needed to build forensic capacity in order to investigate the atrocities that have taken place throughout the various conflicts.”

The report was presented during a conference Truth Seeking and the Role of Forensic Science held in Kabul, Afghanistan this April 2013.

Its overall objective is to provide Afghanistan’s government institutions, civil society organisations and the international donor community with critical information about the scientific and technical capabilities the country needs in order to document past abuses and undertake human identifications.

Since 2009, PHR has helped Afghans develop the local capacity to document and secure mass graves, while preventing the destruction of evidence; introduced forensic concepts of this work to government and civil society; and reported on steps needed to begin developing scientific and technical capabilities to identify the missing.

Stefan Schmitt directs PHR’s International Forensic Program and was the report’s lead author, previously working with Gillian in Guatemala.

He said: “Since 1978, Afghans have continuously lived through protracted cycles of violence that included massive human rights violations and war crimes with virtual impunity for many of the perpetrators. Healing such deep wounds is a complex and lengthy process.  What is needed from both the government of Afghanistan and the international community is a serious commitment to a vision for a better future — and that includes addressing the wrongs of the past.”