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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Cultural Factors

Now we talked earlier about all the different groups, when you were doing a domestic murder, that got mobilized and concerned. What is it like in the middle of an ethnic war? What are the groups that you have to deal with and how are they different from what you had to deal with at home?

Well, let's take Rwanda, for instance, because I went in as a senior forensic advisor, to set up and assess and do the mission. My first visit to Rwanda was to meet the political entities, know the UN, deal with the investigators, find out what target raids they had that would fit their prosecution. Then to go to those areas to see which graves had been disturbed, which ones were the best candidates for our investigation, meet with the local politicians, the Prefay, the Burgermeisters, the priest, to let them know what we were going to do, then to go away and to put together all the supplies, logistics, equipment and staffing that you need, and then come back with the team to do the work.

As you go to these different parts of the world -- you've mentioned Latin America, you mentioned Rwanda, you mentioned the former Yugoslavia -- tell us about the cultural differences and the sensitivities you must have when dealing with the people whose relatives or friends are the bodies that you're looking at.

Well, first of all, there's a tremendous gap because of language. Honduras is where I deal with the families and the people directly. In working with the tribunal, I didn't deal with families directly; in fact, families weren't even in the areas where we could dig, they couldn't even get there. We went in a convoy with Bradley tanks and Humvees every day. In Asia, for instance, when we're at a grave that is outside of a village, it's not uncommon that we'll ask the religious leader to come and bless it. We try to explain to the local populace what we're doing. You have to be sensitive to the religion, there are concerns about spirits and the dead. Things that are not scientific, but if you're not concerned about it, you're not going to get your job done.

Whereas, in the International Tribunal and the prosecutor's office, it's a world of rules and less emotion, less of this network of cultural and affective ties.

We knew that when we were done with our examinations, those bodies had to be handed over to somebody else to identify them, so we were concerned about that, and made sure that that happened. But yes, you're much more focused on the evidence aspect of it when you're working with a tribunal. You're also nested in to a context of other investigators doing other things. You may go down to Latin America or somewhere else, and you may be doing more of the whole spectrum of the investigation.

What is the most moving experience in this international work?

I think just surviving 1996 was probably ... I felt a tremendous amount of pride in having done it, and looking back, I don't know how it was possible, although I had over a hundred people that helped. There's nothing you can do alone, really.

Explain to us what 1996 was.

1996 were the first exhumations done by the ad hoc tribunals. I began the year in Rwanda [and finished in Yugoslavia] and did the only exhumations for that tribunal that hadn't been able to be done, because afterwards security deteriorated and we could not do any others.

We should explain that the UN established two international tribunals to look at the massacres that were occurring in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia.

That's correct, yes. And so that was a very unique experience. One of the best experiences to me of all [is] when you can satisfy a family. I'm currently working on a project in Cypress; I just came back last week. For the first time in twenty-six years, we were able to give twenty-six remains back to the family.

So these bodies had been around for twenty-six years, so you're bringing a closure after all that time.

That's a closure for me, too. It's a closure for me too.

When you're in the international context, I guess all sorts of issues must arise as to who has the legal authority to let you go in and deal with the body. Tell us a little about that.

Well, the way the tribunal was established, their authorities sort of transcended normal authority, although they work in tandem with local governments. In, for instance, Honduras, [it might mean] working for the Supreme Court or the prosecutors' office, because their regime has changed since people disappeared. In Sri Lanka, I may be working with the prosecutor's office, or maybe monitoring. It's always not digging and examining bodies; sometimes you're teaching, sometimes you're monitoring somebody else's investigations in a neutral party, so it varies. You'll never go into a country without that country's permission, though, usually.

When you're dealing with mass graves, the task of identification must become extremely complex.

Well, the sheer numbers. It differs. A mass grave is two or more individuals, so you don't always have hundreds. But regardless, if the grave has a mandate, and you know who might be in it, and it's a local grave, in a local area, it's easier to identify people. If you have a situation like Srebrenica, where approximately 7,000 men and boys disappeared in a small period of time, and end up in unmandated graves -- who knows where they are? It's a horrendous task. In five years of work, I think maybe less than a hundred have been positively identified. It means you have to interview several members of families, give blood samples, DNA samples from the bodies, you have to do the examinations, so it's a tremendous effort.

In the conference you're participating here on "Who Owns the Body," the issue comes up in some settings, for example, in Nigeria, where an individual may have multiple families, multiple wives, then there's a real difficulty in determining who has the right to let you go in.

Well, things are very spelled out for us. They're still working in Nigeria at a cultural level, a local level, although there are laws that spell out how to do things, but it's a family consensus when they decide how to do the funeral and what to do at the funeral. So if there is obvious dissension, the resolution is tremendously difficult. The case you're speaking of is Ken Saro-Wiwa of the Ogoni Nine, which I dearly hope that sooner or later we will be able to return to the families.

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