Mass violence, genocide, and the ‘forensic turn’

Human remains and identification presents a pioneering investigation into the practices and methodologies used in the search for and exhumation of dead bodies resulting from mass violence. Previously absent from forensic debate, social scientists and historians here confront historical and contemporary exhumations with the application of social context to create an innovative and interdisciplinary dialogue, enlightening the political, social and legal aspects of mass crime and its aftermaths. Through a ground-breaking selection of international case studies, Human remains and identification argues that the emergence of new technologies to facilitate the identification of dead bodies has led to a “forensic turn”, normalising exhumations as a method of dealing with human remains en masse. However, are these exhumations always made for legitimate reasons? Multidisciplinary in scope, the book will appeal to readers interested in understanding this crucial phase of mass violence’s aftermath, including researchers in history, anthropology, sociology, forensic science, law, politics and modern warfare.

Methodological approaches

Mass violence is one of the defining phenomena of the twentieth century, which some have even called the 'century of genocides'. The study of how the dead body is treated can lead us to an understanding of the impact of mass violence on contemporary societies. Corpses of mass violence and genocide, especially when viewed from a biopolitical perspective, force one to focus on the structures of the relations between all that participates in the enfolding case study. Argentina is an extraordinary laboratory in the domain of struggle against impunity and of 'restoration of the truth'. It constitutes a useful paradigm in the context of reflection on the corpses of mass violence. Its special character, in the immediate aftermath of the military dictatorship, is to test almost the entirety of juridical mechanisms in the handling of state crimes. The trigger for both the intercommunal violence and the civil war was the mass murders by the Ustaša. This book discusses the massacres carried out by the Ustaša in Croatia during the Second World War. After a brief presentation of the historical background, the massacres carried out by the Ustaša militia and their corpse disposal methods are described. Using Rwanda as a case study, the book proposes an agenda for ethnographic research to explore the relationship between concealment and display in contexts of genocide. This relationship is explored in detail after a discussion of the historical background to the 1994 genocide.

Missing persons and colonial skeletons in South Africa
Nicky Rousseau

The location, exhumation and identification of human remains associated with mass violence and genocide has come to occupy an important place in the panoply of transitional justice measures over the past two decades. Yet the issues that accompany this work - and that cut across the ‘politics of dead bodies’ as well as the politics of knowledge and the ‘disciplines of the dead’ - may well exceed the bounds of transitional justice. These issues are explored here via the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The article also looks at the practice of reburial, with a specific interest in how it came to be figured, and how it featured in debates on the colonial dead as well as in subsequent work of the Missing Persons Task Team (MPTT), a unit established in the TRC’s wake. The focus on practice seeks to bring to view, not only the body of exhumation, but a range of other agencies or ‘mediating interpretants’ who do, interpret and study the work of exhumation – exhumation teams, families, the media, scholars - and to think these together.

in Human remains and identification
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Corpses and mass violence: an inventory of the unthinkable
Élisabeth Anstett and Jean-Marc Dreyfus

This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book shows the undeniable contribution and the limits of the biopower theory in the understanding of dead bodies en masse. It talks about the fact that criminology has for so long ignored mass crime, even though the link between the corpse and the criminal is one of the fundamentals of the discipline. The book addresses the issue of the practical and symbolic treatment of corpses by societies affected by mass violence. It shows how working ideologies along with historical legacy and geographical landscapes determined the disposal of the bodies. The book examines the simultaneously diplomatic and medicolegal nature of the activities of the French Search Commission for Corpses of Deportees in Germany. It also draws on German archives to describe the various modalities of treatment of corpses in Croatia.

in Human remains and mass violence
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Crossing borders, changing times
Madeleine Hurd, Hastings Donnan, and Carolin Leutloff-Grandits

This chapter introduces the relationship between borders and time, exploring this relationship through three interrelated themes: the time-spaces generated by polity borders, which construct notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’; the ways in which time features in the cross-border networks of migrants; and time in relation to the body itself as borders are shaped, felt, experienced and embodied. Outlining the arguments of the contributors, the chapter highlights how the spatial-temporal representations of borders generate hierarchies between ‘East’ and ‘West’, which change with time as borders are redrawn. Border crossing may lead to a temporal synchrony and disjuncture both within and beyond the borders, which shape the practical as well as the moral and emotional contexts in which cross-border migrants live their daily lives. The affective networks which migrants build up across borders may link, fragment or rupture ties between spouses, neighbours, friends and families. The chapter also shows how border crossing is a very bodily experience, as borders slow, impede or advance the traffic of bodies according to prevailing constellations of power and opportunities for individual agency.

in Migrating borders and moving times
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Why exhume? Why identify?
Élisabeth Anstett and Jean-Marc Dreyfus

The introduction outlines the book’s interrogation of the treatment of corpses and human remains following mass violence and genocide, focusing specifically on their possible discovery and identification. The study of these two separate enterprises – the search for bodies and their identification – has traditionally remained in the hands of forensic science and has so far only marginally attracted the interest of history, social anthropology or law despite the magnitude of their respective fields of application. In this context, one of the primary contributions of this book is to connect the social and forensic sciences, for the first time, in a joint and comparative analysis of how societies engage in the process of searching for and identifying the corpses produced by mass violence, and thereby to initiate a truly interdisciplinary dialogue.

in Human remains and identification
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The tales destruction tells
Élisabeth Anstett and Jean-Marc Dreyfus

The introduction will detail how the different disciplines (history - anthropology - sociology - law) approach the question of dead bodies during the killing processes. Corpses can be systematically desecrated, hidden, dismantled, reused, and exchanged. Ultimately, by examining the contexts within which these atrocities have taken place, the detailed case studies described show how the very methods of cadavers' destruction and manipulation reflect and inform the ideology of the perpetrators themselves. It will describe how the book will be split into three sections; 1) Who were the perpetrators and why were they chosen? It will be explored whether a division of labour created social hierarchies or criminal careers, or whether in some cases this division existed at all. 2) How did the perpetrators kill and dispose of the bodies? What techniques and technologies were employed, and how does this differ between contrasting and evolving circumstances? 3) Why did the perpetrators implement such methods and what does this say about their motivations and ideologies?

in Destruction and human remains
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Mass violence, corpses, and the Nazi imagination of the East
Michael McConnell

This paper uses the treatment of dead bodies in occupied Eastern Europe to argue that the public hangings and mass shootings of civilians committed by German troops reinforced their conceptions of the region as a disordered and barbaric space in need of outside intervention. It also intends to demonstrate how these views on the treatment of the dead later became displaced onto the populations of Western Europe and Germany itself in the last years of World War II. The historiography has overlooked how acts of subjugation, in particular, executions, served to reinforce the German imagination regarding the East and the people who inhabited it. Drawing upon contemporary police and military documents, as well as post-war trial material, this paper contends that the atrocities committed were far from merely arbitrary acts aimed at coercing the civilian population into supporting the goals of the occupation.

in Destruction and human remains
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Borders, ticking clocks and timelessness among temporary labour migrants in Israel
Robin A. Harper and Hani Zubida

This chapter explores the relationship between labour migration and everyday temporalities. It builds on the idea of a border as defining a time-space and of border crossing as generating new concepts of time. Migrants’ experiences of time are conditioned by their divergent legal status, their distance from home and family, and their relative power or powerlessness. This is particularly true of labour migrants in countries such as Israel. ‘Rupture time’ and ‘freedom time’ enable or hinder immigrant incorporation into national, institutional Israeli time-space. The result is a vivid illustration of how migrant border crossings are composed of diverse temporalities, between which migrants must navigate both in their everyday lives and as a past-future migrant trajectory.

in Migrating borders and moving times
Challenges and technological solutions to the ­identification of individuals in mass grave scenarios in the modern context
Gillian Fowler and Tim Thompson

The chapter will examine how forensic scientists, including anthropologists, have been exploring the potential of new methods and processes in the resolution of mass grave contexts. The introduction of DNA to contexts where these challenges exist has had some success in the Balkans and in Guatemala, two areas that have experienced brutal civil wars for a number of years. More recently, the analysis of elemental and osteometric measures on the body have demonstrated potential in attempts to re-associate remains. Ultimately however, technological developments complement extensive ante-mortem investigation and the two cannot be utilised independently if the required end result is to successfully identify victims.

in Human remains and identification