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

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Here you were bringing this experience of running and working in a morgue. What were some of the biggest challenges? What was shockingly new in a way?

When you're dealing in a domestic sphere where the office has evolved over years, you have a lot of support. You have to learn how to do without support. You have to make do with what you have. If you don't have a dark room to do your x-rays in, you convert a toilet and get an anorexic radiologist so he can stick them in there and get them out, and they give you an x-ray. If you don't have a building, you use tents. So you just have to be able to be very flexible and make up things as you go along. It's like working in disaster, only you're thousands of miles away from home. Most people speak a different language. You're in the middle of the war zone, and you have to watch out where you step.

I guess security is an issue; that is, securing the site and so on.

Well, security we'd look at several levels. Of course, you're always worried about the security for the staff, but when you're dealing in an area of conflict, you always have to clear the scene of potential ordnance mines. On exploded ordnance, we had a situation in Rwanda, for instance. It was supposed to be a low-tech war, no mines laid, and so we were sure there was nothing on the site. I sent the archaeologists in two weeks before I brought in the anthropologist. During the time they were mapping, a woman and her young son were walking through the area, the child picked up what he thought was a bottle of some sort. It turned out to be a unexploded rocket-launch grenade. It blew off his hands, part of his face. Since that time, I won't go on the scene unless we have ... I've stopped whole operations until we've had people in, at least to give us a comfort level [of safety].

We also worry about the security of the scene, security of equipment.

As the scale of the atrocity becomes greater in this work -- I mean, we were talking about a child in a murder case in the United States, then graves of a few hundred in the former Yugoslavia; but in Rwanda there must have been graves where the numbers were much higher. Does this change the experience that you have in doing the work? Is it more overwhelming in one situation than in the other, or is it just really about the unexplained death of a human being at all levels?

We expend and develop so much energy and resources for one single victim, one life is really important. When we're dealing with the tribunals now, a tribunal is not particularly interested in individual identifications. They are interested in categorical identifications that would help them with their strategy in proving and showing lines of command and larger strategies. So in former Yugoslavia, if you prove that a grave had Muslims versus Croats versus Orthodox, or they were non-combatants versus combatants, or if they were bound or incapacitated in some way, that's a level of identification called categorical. But if you lose sight that these graves contain individuals, then I think you should not be doing the work. Because the basic human right to me, and some people call it humanitarian desire and need, is that the families know the fate. Otherwise, they live in suspension with that question mark in their mind.

Dealing with mass graves is a fairly new phenomenon. The techniques we use are somewhat similar. But there are various conversions that need to be made. Using archaeologists and anthropologists, they're used to dealing with bones. Now with our faster reaction time, we're doing the decomposed, and flesh remains. They have eyes, they have ears, their clothing is still on; you can empathize with [the body]. Psychologically, it's a great transition for some. It's hard. And just the overwhelming, exhausting, day after day -- I think in 1996 I spent about eight months straight in graves, between Rwanda and Yugoslavia. I had never been more physically and mentally exhausted my whole life.

Tell us a little more about that emotional experience. Is it harder to be clinical in a setting like that?

I spent so much of my time every day solving problems, I would forget what the problem was the next day. As long as it was solved, I wanted to get on to the next one, that was part of it. But while you're doing that, you have to monitor your people, you have to know what they're dreaming, you have to know how they're feeling, maybe they need to go home, maybe they need some rest, which is hard to do. But all the while, you need to maintain a certain standard of scientific credibility. And so you're struggling to maintain that standard, when you're also struggling for cars and diesel fuel and electricity and finding a plug to make things work.

Which in a way probably is somewhat of an escape: if you're worrying about the gasoline and so on, I guess it helps get your mind off the human tragedy that you're witnessing. Is that not true?

Well, the first real large grave that I saw were actually five large pits in Rwanda, and I knew that there were at least 5,000 people there, at least. We examined 496 individuals. And you find that there are niches of sensitivity and people react different ways. This was a grave in which 25 percent, or about 140, of the individuals were children under ten years of age -- many babies still wrapped on their mother's back. It's powerful, when you think about it, and your life. I don't think I'm callous, but I realize if that you don't maintain a distance, you can't do your job. I'm armored in some ways by my duties. They armor me.

We had a mass murder, the Wahme massacre in Seattle, a small room where twelve or thirteen people had been hog-tied and killed. And you walk into this room, it's smaller than this studio we sit in, and it was all blood on the floor. And to see that thing, people say, "Well, how do you react?" Well, you do your job. When you get away, then you may think about it more, you have a reaction. But while you're there, you do your job.

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