KIOS-FM

In Rwandan Mass Graves, There Are Few Ways To Identify The Dead. Clothing Is One

May 2, 2018
Originally published on May 3, 2018 12:32 pm

Four mass graves were found last week outside Kigali province, the capital of Rwanda, 24 years after the country's genocide. A long process has begun to identify the remains.

An Associated Press photo tells the story of many family members: France Mukantagazwa lifts her glasses to wipe tears from her face. Behind her are dirty, wrinkled clothes belonging to the bodies exhumed from one of the mass graves.

Mukantagazwa lost her father and other relatives in 1994 and thinks their bodies could be in one of the graves.

Forensic anthropologist Melissa Connor worked in Rwanda in the two years after the genocide, which left more than 800,000 people dead. She says the identification process relies on items people carried with them, which makes it particularly challenging.

"The bodies will be more decayed," Connor says. "The clothing should be more decayed as well, and the identification cards may not be in a shape to be read — if they exist at all anymore."


Interview Highlights

On how victims are identified in mass graves

Generally, what we consider confirmatory identification consists of DNA, dental records or fingerprints. We start, though, with presumptive identification, which can include visual identification, clothing or identification cards. In cases like Rwanda, where there aren't pre-mortem samples of DNA, dental or fingerprints, you may end up having to work only with what we would consider a presumptive ID. ...

Often relatives know the clothing that their other relatives had. In places like Rwanda, often mothers or wives sewed those clothes, or had a hand in making them, so that they will recognize their own handiwork. And of course it can also misidentify, because the number of people in some kind of T-shirt, bluejeans and sandals is going to be a lot.

On the importance of identifying those buried in mass graves

It's bringing closure to the family; it's letting them know exactly what happened to their relatives. Because there's always the question of, "Are they in the grave? Did they escape?" There [were] people fleeing from Rwanda into the Congo — the refugee camps there were huge. Some of those people have come back; there will always be people who weren't able to come back, or who died in the refugee camps. So knowing what happened exactly to your relative is a way for — to help families close the book on that chapter in their lives.

Linah Mohammad and Renita Jablonski produced and edited the audio story. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There is an Associated Press photo that tells the story of a difficult discovery in Rwanda. A woman is lifting her glasses off her nose to wipe tears from her face. Behind her are wrinkled and dirty clothes hanging over thick, wooden posts - pants, blue jeans and T-shirts - clothes from the bodies exhumed from a mass grave outside of the capital, Kigali, one of four discovered last month, 24 years after Rwanda's genocide. The woman in the photo lost her father and relatives in 1994. She thinks their remains could be in one of those graves. A long process has begun to identify these victims.

Forensic anthropologist Melissa Connor worked in Rwanda in the two years after the genocide. She joins us now. Welcome to the program.

MELISSA CONNOR: Thank you.

CORNISH: First help us understand how people are able to identify victims in a mass grave. We described clothing in the photo. Are there other elements that you look for?

CONNOR: Generally what we consider confirmatory identification consists of DNA, dental records or fingerprints. We start, though, with presumptive identification, which can include visual identification, clothing or identification cards. In cases like Rwanda where there aren't pre-mortem samples of DNA, dental or fingerprints, you may end up having to work only with what we would consider a presumptive ID.

CORNISH: How does clothing help? I mean, if you think of this being a war-torn moment - right? - a moment of crisis, how does that help you do your work?

CONNOR: Often relatives know the clothing that their other relatives had in places like Rwanda. Often mothers or wives sewed those clothes or had a hand in making them so that they will recognize their own handiwork. And of course it can also misidentify because the number of people in some kind of T-shirt, blue jeans and sandals is going to be a lot.

CORNISH: You were working on this not long after the murders in 1994, right? But here we are two decades later. What will be some of the limitations in this project?

CONNOR: The bodies will be more decayed. The clothing should be more decayed as well. And the identification cards may not be in a shape to be read if they exist at all anymore.

CORNISH: Talk about those identification cards. I gather this is specific to Rwanda.

CONNOR: Yes. Individuals carried cards that identified themselves as Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. And that was checked on the card.

CORNISH: Rwanda has prided itself on reconciliation over these last two decades, but I know people are very upset, that essentially they say, look; there are people who know where these graves are and aren't saying anything. To your mind, what is the importance of these kinds of reclamation projects - right? - of bringing closure to these families?

CONNOR: Well, that is the importance. It's bringing closure to the family. It's letting them know exactly what happened to their relatives because there is always the question of, are they in the grave? Did they escape? There were people fleeing from Rwanda into the Congo. The refugee camps there were huge. Some of those people have come back. There will always be people who weren't able to come back or who died in the refugee camps. So knowing what happened exactly to your relative is a way for - to help families close the book on that chapter in their lives.

CORNISH: Melissa Connor is the director of the Forensic Investigation Research Station at Colorado Mesa University. Thank you for speaking with us.

CONNOR: You're welcome. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.