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.

The 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. This is a unifying fact for Afghans. The best testimony to this was the enthusiasm with which the students engaged in the training, during 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.

Students excavate a single burial which was located in 2009 at the Ministry of Interior, which requested an exhumation.

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 which included a carrying bag, trowel, brushes, measuring tape, compass, Leatherman multi-tool, flashlight, and so on.

Students learn to use the GPS unit

The course was taught at the Afghan National Police Academy over the course of six weeks; it was interrupted for a week due to 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.)

Students get to know the human skeleton.

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.

AIHRC Investigator receives his certificate from PHR at the Afghan National Police Academy.

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.