I’m writing from Kabul, where I’m working with local partners to host a conference on truth seeking and the role of forensic science. Against a news cycle dominated with charges of corruption and threats of instability, I want to share news of a different sort from Afghanistan.
In the early summer of 2010, PHR’s International Forensic Program conducted a five-week training course in Afghanistan at the Afghan National Police Academy. The course, set in an environment characterized by a lack of rule of law, an ongoing armed conflict, and the lack of a dialog on Afghanistan’s past, is the result of several years of bringing together actors from civil society, government, and international stakeholders in Afghanistan. Without the support from varying human rights groups, the Afghan National Police (ANP), and their Academy’s mentors, the German Police Project Team (GPPT) it would not have been possible to host such an in-depth and relatively long course.
Our immediate goal was to teach Afghans the technical skills they needed to document mass graves as part of an effort to secure these sites from being destroyed, either by improper excavations for memorials or being willfully obliterated as evidence of past crimes. All victims of the Afghan conflict suffer from the violence of the past, and their only hope is that one day their plight will be acknowledged and the stories of those killed and missing will be told.
But most of all, it was a chance to get the police, government, and civil society to work as a team. In my 18 years working with PHR as a forensic anthropologist addressing mass graves world wide, I’ve learned that the enduring impact of this work is bringing together people who have endured human rights violations and empowering them to document and secure evidence in the quest for justice. What unifies Afghans is the fact that they are all victims. The best testimony to this was the enthusiasm with which the students engaged in the four weeks of theoretical training and the following week of ‘hands-on’ exhumation and analysis of skeletal remains which had been located in 2009 at the Ministry of Interior compound.
The 18 Afghans who completed the course came from governmental as well as civil society organizations and included representatives from the Afghan National Police (ANP), the Criminal Investigation Department at the Ministry of Interior, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), the Afghan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO), and the Civil Society and Human Rights Network (CSHRN). They were joined by a forensic pathologist of the Ministry of Public Health, and two archaeologists from the Ministry of Culture and Information’s Archaeology Department.
Participants received the tools of our trade: a professional Nikon D300 camera kit, measuring equipment (photo markers, GPS unit, 100m measuring tape), Forensic Anthropology Training Manual, by Karen Burns (significant portions of which were translated to Dari), and an archaeological digging kit (a carrying bag, trowel, brushes, measuring tape, compass, Leatherman multi-tool, flashlight, etc.).
The course was taught at the Afghan National Police Academy and was interrupted for a week due to the security restrictions imposed by the Peace Jirga, taking place in a tent set up nearby. Students were first taught how to document mass graves though photography, sketching, measuring, and the use of GPS technology. The following weeks they studied basic human osteology, learning to identify and name human bones. In the final weeks they put all their skills together and assisted in the actual exhumation of a set of human skeletal remains that had been located at the Ministry of Interior compound in 2009. (You can take our online course in international forensics and learn about some of these procedures.)
By the end of the course, students had a well-founded awareness of the methods and considerations that are important in securing evidence from mass graves containing human skeletal remains. Equally important, the police, government officials, and members of civil society established good working relationships. In short, they’ve built a group of qualified people who, given the correct circumstances and strategic planning, might form the basis for the first Afghan Forensic Mass Grave team. The team currently is continuing their engagement in developing a strategic vision on what can be done to secure mass graves and the past in Afghanistan.
At the graduation ceremony on June 17, high-level officials at the Ministry of Interior, as well as the GPPT, and the ANPA pledged continued support for activities involving the securing and documentation of mass graves in Afghanistan. General Yarmand of the Ministry of Interior emphasized in his speech to students that documenting and securing mass graves is only the first step, but that it must lead to the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators. Another concrete suggestion was to include a mass grave training segment in the curriculum of the ANP Staff College, which currently is being developed with the help of the GPPT.
Hope in Afghanistan is deeply rooted in acknowledging Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous quote: “Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence.” In Afghanistan, I feel everyone agrees on this, even though there is still a long way before we figure out how to break this vicious cycle. Forensic science is just one step in this.