Trust Tinseltown to glamorise a vocation that’s hardly glitzy. Forensic scientists, given the nature of their job, are forced to deal with witnessing some of the most gruesome and gory death sites imaginable. And they don’t simply strut into a night club or bar after knocking off work to let their hair down, either. That’s CSI!

“It is often wrongly thought that forensic professionals are immune to emotions when having to deal with the dead, but this is far from the truth. We are greatly affected by our work and need strong support mechanisms to deal with these complex and traumatic issues, and to ensure that we can undertake our work in the most professional manner possible,” reveals Oran Finegan, Deputy Head, Forensic Services, Assistance Division, during the ICRC ASIA Regional Forensic Meeting at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kuala Lumpur in March, which had a group of forensic experts descending upon Malaysia.

Finegan considers himself fortunate for not only having found support, in terms of dealing with victims, but also for the (often forgotten) forensic staff themselves. Dealing with the range of emotions at a disaster site requires numerous people skills. Above all, though, Finegan insists that professionalism comes first.

“One must approach the truth with respect for the emotions of the families, giving them the time they need to absorb what is often extremely difficult news that can invoke a broad spectrum of emotions,” he says.

And obviously, no two families will digest news the same way, so, sensitivity is of the utmost importance.

Forensic anthropologists reconstituting the remains of a body found in a mass grave in Saklawyia, Anbar Province, Iraq. Photo: Getty Images/ICRC

Forensic anthropologists reconstituting the remains of a body found in a mass grave in Saklawyia, Anbar Province, Iraq. Photo: Getty Images/ICRC

Treating the dead respectfully

These specialists regularly face the kind of daunting situations most of us wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies, but for them, it is a task driven by humanitarian sentiments. The Nepal earthquake last year, was perhaps the most recent large-scale tragedy the team had faced, and dealing with death and destruction didn’t come easy, regardless of prior experience.

Nearly 9,000 people lost their lives in the double earthquake (the April 25 shock measuring at 7.8 and the May 12 one hitting 7.3 on the Richter scale). Handling the dead is a very delicate job which requires a multitude of considerations.

“Bodies and mortal remains of victims should be managed properly and respectfully, not only because it is on the mandate of the International Humanitarian Law, but also respecting traditions and beliefs of families and communities,” Andres Patino Umana, Regional Forensic Advisor, Asia-Pacific, chips in. According to him, the mismanagement or mistreatment of remains could be shocking to the families and communities, and can bring unpleasant consequences for the forensic operation. It could also negatively affect the authorities and agencies involved.

ICRC Regional Forensic Coordinator Shuala Drawdy (right) conducting training for local practitioners in South Caucasus.

ICRC Regional Forensic Coordinator Shuala Drawdy (right) conducting training for local practitioners in South Caucasus.

Shuala Drawdy, Regional Forensic Coordinator, concurs, saying that the professional management of the dead is essential in safeguarding the dignity of deceased victims, contributing to restoring their identities, returning them to their families and ensuring respectful disposition of their remains. It also adds to decreasing the number of missing persons. These actions help reduce the suffering of communities traumatised by disasters.

“The dignified management of the dead requires a comprehensive system, with a robust legal framework, clearly outlined and agreed procedures for all concerned as well as the technical capacity in the relevant fields of expertise,” she elaborates.

Learning from the best

Given the tight constraints and deep considerations, most forensic scientists are still up to the task. Drawdy chose the job, even though it’s not one of those occupations often listed under “ambition” in the school year book.

During her first year as an anthropology major, she had the privilege of meeting renowned and respected forensic anthropologist Dr William Maples, who turned up as a guest speaker in one of her classes. Maples only spoke for 50 minutes, but that was all it took to reel Drawdy in, hook, line and sinker, and thoughts of law school immediately flew out the window.

A woman showing a photo of her son, who disappeared in 2002 during riots in their village. She said her sons were taken out of their home and beaten. After the riots, her son said he was afraid of being killed during future riots so he fled to Grozny in search of a place to live. She hasn’t heard from him since.

A woman showing a photo of her son, who disappeared in 2002 during riots in their village. She said her sons were taken out of their home and beaten. After the riots, her son said he was afraid of being killed during future riots so he fled to Grozny in search of a place to live. She hasn’t heard from him since.

She made an appointment to speak with him at his laboratory, the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory at the University of Florida, where her request to serve as an undergraduate volunteer at his lab was met with approval. “The duties of the undergraduate volunteer mainly consisted of sweeping, cleaning and other less savoury chores,” she laments.

Her work not only allowed her to be near the forensic anthropology casework, but provided her the opportunity to mingle with graduate students, who were kind and generous enough to share their time with her, explaining the cases they were working on and teaching her the basics of forensic anthropology. “Two years after completing my Bachelor’s, Dr Maples accepted my application to study with him as a graduate student.”

An automatic winding watch stopped the day after its owner was killed. It was recovered with human remains at the gravesite in Rudnica, Raska, Southern Serbia.

An automatic winding watch stopped the day after its owner was killed. It was recovered with human remains at the gravesite in Rudnica, Raska, Southern Serbia.

A shirt and a scarf recovered with human remains exhumed at the gravesite in Rudnica, Raska, Southern Serbia and photographed at the Department of Forensic Medicine in Pristina.

A shirt and a scarf recovered with human remains exhumed at the gravesite in Rudnica, Raska, Southern Serbia and photographed at the Department of Forensic Medicine in Pristina.

Ground zero

Serving the ICRC saw her right smack in Nepal after the first earthquake, and she was at ground zero when the second struck, with the ICRC delegation, in the office she shared with two other people.

“The building started to shake, and the booming sounds reverberated so loudly, it seemed like the building would collapse around us. A colleague and I made eye contact, and the look we exchanged confirmed our individual suspicions – this was a big one,” she said, recalling the harrowing experience. They managed to run out into the safe zone as the ground continued to sway. The tremor lasted a mere 90 seconds, but to her, it felt like an eternity.

Natural disasters are not the only tragedies she’s experienced – perhaps more heart-wrenching are the man-made ones.

As part of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) forensic team working in the Balkans (Bosnia and Kosovo) over several field seasons from 1996 to 2000, she, as a forensic scientist, had the privilege of speaking for the dead, helping to tell their stories of what happened to them, and, where possible, help return their names to them.

“The tens of thousands of victims from the Balkans died horrible deaths, many of them in massacres. We pulled out over 30 bullets from some bodies. Then there were those from whom we pulled out bullets that had travelled through someone else first. We also found in their pockets the evidence of their lives – family photographs, small trinkets that may have belonged to their children … personal mementos. I remember one man from whose pocket we pulled a Red Cross message. It was intended for his wife. He knew he wasn’t going to make it,” she related.

Red Cross messages are brief personal letters containing family news to separated family members. It is a humanitarian service provided by the worldwide network of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

Not all of us are cut out to work in these situations, and Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers boast the pick of the bunch. So, as long as help, humanitarian or forensic in nature, is required, the network is never far off, no matter how grim the situation.