Monday, March 23, 2009

Skeleton Key

Bone detective Prof Sue Black is raising the standards in forensic anthropology. From the killing fields in Kosovo and beyond, she has witnessed firsthand the extremes of human suffering and human depravity, yet remains inspired by the enduring strength of the human spirit. She tells Scope that her goal is simple: to give the deceased back their identity.

“What are you doing Friday?” was the seemingly innocuous enquiry.
Up to this point, when Scottish forensic anthropologist Sue Black picked up her phone, it had been an uneventful Wednesday at Glasgow University where she was working as a consultant, but the call from friend and forensic pathologist Prof Peter Vanezis precipitated one of the most important and challenging assignments of her career to date.
“The Foreign Office has got tickets for you. You’re needed in Kosovo,” said Vanezis.
By that weekend, Sue was leading the British forensic team in Kosovo for the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, just four days after the Serbs had moved out in 1999.
The team's first site was a community in Velika Krusha, where 44 men had been herded into an outhouse, shot and the building torched. One man escaped – a vital witness for the war crime indictment.
“Peter Vanezis, who was the pathologist in Glasgow, went out initially as part of the British team to Kosovo. They got to the first scene – the outhouse - about six months after the terrible event. What they found were many bodies huddled in a corner, all very badly decomposed, all partly burnt, buried under asbestos tiles because the roof had collapsed on them, and the dogs had gone in as it was a food source for them, so the bodies were mixed.
“And Peter, God bless him, walked in and said ‘I can’t do this, but I know who can’, and that’s when I got his call to come to Kosovo,” Sue recounts as she sits in her office at the University of Dundee, where she is Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology.
Her team were in Kosovo in 1999 and 2000, and again in 2002, excavating the mass graves of Kosovan Albanians, butchered by Serbian police and paramilitaries. For her untiring efforts in helping to identify approximately 1,000 bodies in Kosovo, Sue was awarded an OBE for her services to forensic anthropology.
“Normally when we’re involved in a forensic case we have no involvement with family because we work very much in clinical isolation, but Kosovo was different. We were unearthing the remains with family members along side you, it’s really quite traumatic. These people have lived through horrors that we will never know - hopefully.
“We had a particularly tough situation where a family had left their village and had gone to live in the hills to try and get away from the Serb soldiers. They had been coming down into the town to get food, travelling on a tractor and trailer. Dad was driving the tractor and on the trailer there was his sister, his mother, his wife and their eight children when a rocket-propelled grenade took the entirety of the trailer out and killed everybody on it. He was shot in the leg but managed to escape.
“He lost everyone; his children - a six-month baby, a two-year-old, a four-year-old, a five-year-old, a six-year-old, a twelve-year-old and two 14-year-old twin boys - as well as his wife, mother and sister. And under cover of darkness he returned to the scene and managed to bring together as many body part as he could, God Bless him, and buried them because if he didn’t the animals would use them as a food source.
“So then our team come along, many months later, and for indictment purposes we need to dig up the remains. I think if it had been me I would have told us where to go, but this farmer was absolutely relieved, he was so grateful, because his big fear was that God didn’t know where to find them. He needed desperately to put each and every one in a named grave, and this had caused him so much trauma.
“We dug up what he had buried, there was barely enough to fill two body bags, and took it back to the mortuary. I had written books on Developmental Juvenile Osteology, my area of expertise is identification of juvenile remains, so I felt I was in the right place at the right time to solve that problem. From the fragments present I could guarantee when he came back two days later that I could hand him back, named and guaranteed, a part of each member of his family.
“When we handed him back these body bags he was just so enormously grateful. To my mind it was almost in some way the culmination of where I wanted to be. If I ever needed a justification for forensic anthropology, this was it. I had taken those years and learned my job on the ground, I’d written the textbooks, and now I was in a position where I was probably one of the best people to help him, to give a man back the entirety of his family so that he could move on. But how you live with that enormous loss I simply don’t know.”
Her words are spoken with gentle empathy and her compassion for both victims and their families is palpable as she describes some of the dreadful tragedies her work has led her to, but one would be mistaken to imagine that this sentiment follows her into the field. At work, Sue is the zenith of professional detachment.
“You can’t afford to break down, you’ve got to be there to support your team, because they are looking to you to be able to get through these horrors. We try to deal with it as absolutely clinically as we possibly can, and it’s not easy, especially when it’s children - I have three of my own - but you just don’t go there in your head; if you went there in your head you’d be a basket case.
“And I’ve had a long, long time to get use to it, is the honest truth. I started in a butcher shop (part-time work from age 11) and I went through a dissecting room in University and then in the field. You get a mature head on your shoulders that tells you ‘I didn’t do this, I didn’t cause this, I’m not responsible for it, but I can help put the bastards away that did it’.”
The world of bones, skulls, cadavers and human remains is second nature to Sue Black. One of only eight registered forensic anthropologists in the UK, Sue is frequently called upon to identify bodies when all other means of identification have been exhausted.
Besides her well-documented humanitarian trip to Kosovo, she has assisted police with murder enquiries in the UK and abroad, worked in Grenada assisting the FBI, risked her life to recover skeletons in Sierra Leone, has twice been dispatched to Iraq on Ministry of Defence missions, and spent a month helping to identify hundreds of human remains in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster.
In spite of the gruesome nature of her job, her immutable humour throughout the interview is infections and frequently self-deprecating. Sue jokes that her father, during his recent 80th birthday celebrations, asked her what she was going to do when she left school?
“I’ve never really left school, I’m still here!” she laughs. “And to be honest with you I’ve never really chosen to do this. I’m so inherently lazy, I’ve just fallen into it, although there is no other job I’d rather have.”
She says it all started with a “dustman strike” one summer when she was eight years old. She and her father encountered a rat among the accumulating trash at the back of the hotel her parents ran near Loch Carron on the west coast of Scotland.
“He asked me to hand him a brush, and I watched my father beat this rat to death. Now he says this never happened but I know it did. I remember it so well; I remember its long tail, I remember it growling at him. And from that point onwards I have an absolutely morbid and pathological fear of rodents, whether it’s mice, hamsters, gerbils or rats, I’m just a gibbering wreck.”
While studying at Aberdeen University, Sue excelled in her anatomy classes but embarking on her fourth year research project, she hit a wall, or more accurately, a rodent.
“All the research projects were like ‘lead level in rat brain’, or ‘carcinoma in hamster pituitary’, and I just knew I couldn’t do that. There was no way that I could kill a rodent and no way I could lift a dead one out of a bucket, just no way on earth. So I went to the only member of staff in the Department who could offer me something different, she suggested that I could do a research project on looking at bone identification. Fantastic, I thought, I don’t care what it is as long as it doesn’t have a long tail and pointy ears. So that was how I chose to do my research project, and now look at me!”
After her degree, as a scholarship student, Sue continued her research interests in human bone identification to obtain a PhD from Aberdeen University in 1987.
Soon after, she took up a lecturing post in anatomy at St Thomas's Hospital Medical School in London, where she helped establish an intercollated year for medical students to study forensic anthropology – the first university course devoted to forensic anthropology in the UK.
Her ingression into the field of forensic investigation began with a telephone call to the anatomy department. Dr Ian West, the Forensic Pathologist at the time, explained to Sue, who had taken his call, that the police had brought in some bones from a rubbish tip. They were looking for a missing person, was there anyone up in anatomy that can tell the difference between animal and human bones?
“So I went down and it was pretty obvious it was a sheep. It was a sort of classical situation: The police Sergeant was a miserable chap, he looked me up and down and you could see him thinking ‘what the hell does this young slip of a girl know’. So I put the bones into a plastic bag and left them on the radiator, and then after a few minutes I opened the bag and stuck it under his nose and asked him what he smelled. ‘Smells like roast lamb,’ he said. ‘Exactly,’ I said, ‘it’s a sheep’.
“From then on, every bit of bone he came in with, he’d ask to have that girl down from anatomy, and I found myself doing more and more work like this around London, and then the Foreign Office finds out about you and before long I end up doing work oversees as well.”
She recalls several high profile assignments that have required her novel expertise over the past two decades, such as a serial murder case in Italy during which she used facial superimposition between photographs and skulls to help identify the seven bodies of prostitutes unearthed around the farmhouse of a man, who had taken a variety of unsavoury photographs of his victims before killing them.
In another instance, while on a mission to investigate a potential war crime case in the depths of Sierra Leon, Sue was constantly surrounded by armed guards whose sole aim was to prevent the rebels from capturing her as a hostage.
While she rattles off a number of other precarious episodes, Sue adds mysteriously: “These are some I can talk about but, because of the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Defence, you’ll have to assume there are others I literally can’t speak to you about.”
Over the past ten to fifteen years, forensic anthropologists are more frequently being asked to assist the international community in the investigation of war crimes, abuses of human rights and humanitarian repatriation.
As expert witnesses, Sue maintains that their testimony in court carries considerable weight and therefore their training must be intensive and lengthy.
Heading up the Department of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology at the University of Dundee, she runs a full career progression programme in forensic anthropology, which takes the student through eight years of study. The undergraduate spends four years being trained as an anatomists – “because you can’t understand the anthropology without knowing the anatomy” - then four years post-graduate training during which time they will be taken on active case work with Sue and other forensic experts deployed by the UK’s Centre for International Forensic Assistance.
She is particularly proud of her Department’s recent achievement in securing the tender to train the UK National Disaster Victim Identification (UK DVI) team.
“Every single officer that deploys on behalf of the UK to a mass fatality event either at home or overseas is trained in Dundee,” she remarks. “We’ve just finished the final groupings of DVI training, which has been a huge commitment for the last 18 months. Five hundred students, with officers from every single police department around the UK.”
She adds that it has been “tremendously rewarding” for her, personally, to bring anatomy, forensic anthropology and the DVI together in one place: “This is the first ever-graduate certificate in DVI anywhere in the world. It’s all about raising the standards so that we can help identify victims of mass fatalities anywhere in the world; to give a name to a body, to give them back their identity, that’s how we can help the deceased, and that this information might in some way help their loved ones to move on. That’s what it’s all about.”

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