Wiliam Haglund Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Voices from the Graves: Conversation with William Haglund; Director, International Forensic Program of Physicians for Human Rights; 9/22/00 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 5 of 8

From Domestic to International Forensic Work

So you said you wanted to move from the local murder scene to an international context. What led you to get into human rights work, which is what you finally did?

Well, first, the incidence of skeletal remains is very low, and if a person wants more experience, they're not going to really get it in a traditional medical examiner setting. That was one. The other thing is that it was sort of intriguing, this international work, because they were dealing with graves and lots of skeletons. The experience was there. But I thought it was historically very important because of the issues involved, like in Argentina and Latin America. And it was sort of sticking up for the underdog and trying to do something that ... people in these underdeveloped countries, some of them are underdeveloped countries, they didn't have access to that kind of expertise, and it felt good.

We've gotten a sense of your interest in the body and skeletons and how that interest evolved over time. What in your background propelled this concern for justice, which is what you just addressed? Righting wrong, that's what I hear you saying. Do you want to reflect on that?

An incident happened in the medical examiner's office shortly after I was there. I went into the cold room in the morning where the bodies were laid out for that morning's autopsies, and there was a child there, maybe about a six-year-old child. And I pulled the sheet back and I saw a big boot imprint on his chest and a mark on his forehead, which we later determined to be a ring. And I thought, that child was helpless and innocent, and, really, we're their advocates. We speak for them. We are witnesses for them. That's a hackneyed phrase, but we are witnesses for them. And I like that voice.

So an exchange, although the person wasn't talking, but his body and his condition were.

There is a dialogue. You look at a trauma and that tells you what happened around the time of death, or another injury might say that happened after death, or you might see an infection, or a previously broken bone, so that you get sort of a biographical history of this person.

There is a fascination in our culture today in popular movies -- I have in mind The Sixth Sense -- with speaking to the dead, so that their justice can be wrought. You know, they can then pass on to peace and quiet in the afterworld.

Right, and it's powerful evidence. You know, the Nuremberg trial didn't depend upon physical evidence, it was narrative and testimonial. More and more we're required to get physical evidence and proof, which is much more resilient to opposition.

What was the first place you went to?

I got a hint that something was going to happen in the former Yugoslavia, where the war had started.

It would have been about 1993?

This was about 1992 when it started. I was told in 1993 I could be included in a mission going with a group of Physicians for Human Rights, with the expert commission that the UN had convened to look into the possible opening of an ad hoc tribunal. I eventually did go there. It was every week for a year; "You're going to leave on Friday." Finally, I got a call after about eight months, and they said "We have your tickets, you're leaving on Thursday." So I went. We went to Zagreb, eventually we went to the far eastern border of Croatia to the town of Vukovar.

Your task was to use your skills to establish the need for there to be a tribunal to invoke international law against some of the people who had committed crimes.

It was to look into allegations of the removal of approximately two hundred patients and staff from the Vukovar Hospital. At the time, it fell to the Serbs, and there was a mass grave outside of town, in a collective farm at a place called Ovcara.

So in a nutshell, with the death of Tito, Yugoslavia comes apart, and the different nationalities begin seeking to declare their independence, or they are attacked by the central government, which is controlled by the Serbs. And in this particular case, this was a Croatian village?

This was actually a town of about 55,000 people, on the Danube, directly across from Serbia, and it was the first area that the Serbs would have to go through.

It was in Croatia?

It was in Croatia, yes. As you know, one of Tito's strategies was to mix up all the ethnic groups. In the outside villages lived a lot of Serbs; within the town of Vukovar the majority were Croatians.

A group of men were missing from the hospital, or was it men and women?

Mostly it was men. The city fell after about three months of bombardment. According to the rules of war, then [comes] the evacuation of the hospital, and triage, and the patients to be monitored. That wasn't allowed, and then approximately two hundred people disappeared.

In this situation, there are strange things going on beyond the horrors that you have to look at, and that involves the apparent incapacity of international authorities to stop the fighting, to create what was called the safe zone, which turned out to be not a haven for the displaced and the homeless, but rather a haven for armies to come in and attack.

This was later on, in Bosnia, when the war spread. At this point there had been sort of a cease-fire, but under heavy control by the Serbs. The UN had a presence under very, very heavy security and an army guard. We went to Eastern Croatia.

You were trying to gather evidence during a period when the law hasn't really been established yet, right? There is an body of international law, but the question is, will it apply in this particular place?

Yes, that's correct. It's fuzzy in some of the conflicts we have now, because standard war crimes law was made to deal with national entities fighting each other. This was a little blurry at that time.

Right. And you're suddenly moving from domestic murder cases, to a vortex of international affairs. What struck you most? Or was it similar to what you were used to doing?

Well, the basic tasks that I was asked to do were very similar, but I was a small cog in a very large wheel. I wasn't dealing with the politics, in that I was there to dig and to analyze bones. But it involved me being with the logistics and setting up the morgue because [unlike] other anthropologists, I had supervised a morgue and supervised death investigators, and so I brought a different perspective with me.

When you were working in the United States, the basic assumption could be that the murderer was not still around or would be taking pop shots at you. Was that true in the international setting?

We wore flack jackets, we were under armed guard. This is a place where if the sign says "Keep Off the Grass," you keep off the grass because it's mined. It was my first immersion in a military environment, and that was quite interesting. It was an international team; I met people from Chile and Honduras and Argentina who'd been doing this work, so it was quite an amazing experience.

It must have brought the kind of work you do to a new level of satisfaction.

Absolutely, it was very challenging, and you immediately recognize the historicity. You know that it's really important and it's eclipsing the leading edge of what's happening because it's changing all the time.

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