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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Conclusion

What special insights has this work given you on life and death? Anything in particular that you'd like to comment on?

Yes. We live a dance of birth and death. We're all going to die. That's why we were born. Like Woody Allen, I'd prefer not to be there when it happens, but I will be. To know the inevitability of death, if you can be as honest as you can every day, if you've finished the sentence when you go out the door in the morning, and your wife is there and you say what you need to say, because you never know if you'll see those people again. Be true to yourself. Be true to them.

What advice would you give students who see this interview and say, "Hey, I would like to do that."

I'd think, "Why you would like to do it?"

Find a school that has the focus on forensic anthropology, if you want to do it. But really know that you should have other anthropology that you could fall back on, other things you can fall back on, because the job niche is very limited.

If they wanted to know what it takes to do the kind of work you're doing, what would you tell them?

I think there are different things. It depends upon what dimension of the work. In dealing with the families, it takes a good heart. And dealing with the technical work, you have to be knowledgeable about your discipline, you should be as experienced as possible, and concerned for the product. Forensic anthropology's a tremendously glitzy, glitzy discipline right now. Unfortunately, there are probably fewer than a couple dozen forensic anthropologists in the world that are fully employed in forensic anthropology. Other people are into academics, they see occasional skeletons, or [they are] consultants. It's changing. It's changing rapidly because the tribunal is becoming a hiring agency. But I always caution people, make sure you have other skills because you may not get into forensic anthropology.

One final question. One of the things that strikes me about your work is, at one level, the magnificent plane that you're operating on. It's cutting-edge work in the struggle for defining human rights in a new age. But on the other hand, the nitty gritty of the actual work that you do. Tell us a little about that interplay.

Getting up in the morning with the smell of the graves still on you from the night before. If it rains, you're stepping into mud at the bottom of the grave, as you step out of your Wellies. You're exhausted. You're in a country where maybe the water runs only between four and seven in the morning, and it's not hot water if it does comes out. Food can be much to be desired. You're dealing with a lot of good people; they're exhausted, too. But you can always look out of the grave and see a sky and the birds are singing, and you have to be hopeful about it.

And then finally, what keeps you going?

I think I'm just ignorant, I don't know. Because if I had to do things over again, and know what would have been entailed, I'd probably say "I don't know if I really want to do that, Bill." It's hard, you know; I haven't learned how to say no.

On that note, Bill Haglund, we want to thank you very much for being with us, and for sharing your extraordinary experiences in being on the cutting edge of establishing what human rights means in our time.

Well, thank you for this guided tour through my life.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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