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Last Updated: Monday, 18 October, 2004, 05:36 GMT 06:36 UK
Listening to the 'silent witnesses'
By Caroline Ryan
BBC News Online health staff

A British Army officer at the scene of a mass grave, in the village of Kacanik, Kosovo, June 1999
Experts investigated war crimes across Kosovo
It was said that around 30 men had been killed in the Kosovan village - rounded up and shot in an outbuilding.

When experts arrived in Krushe e Mahde, months later, they were faced with the gruesome task of studying the bodies to find out exactly what had happened there.

Forensic anthropologist Professor Sue Black was one of the scientists sent to the village.

The experts were asked were asked to examine the war crime scene to see if the forensic evidence corroborated witness statements about the massacre of Kosovan Albanian by Serbs.

Professor Black, who is based at the University of Dundee, told BBC News Online: "We were there to do two things - to see if the evidence corroborated or refuted the witness statements.

Professor Sue Black
You have to have a clinical detachment, however horrific it might be
Professor Sue Black
"Then, if it was possible, we would hope to assign an identity to the bodies."

She added: "These deaths had occurred around February, so the bodies had been lying around for four to five months in 40C heat, partially buried in rubble.

"It was like a jigsaw puzzle.

"But we were able to say, 'this is an arm from a man aged 25 to 30', and 'this leg is from someone who was aged 50 to 60'."

Professor Black said it was just one of hundreds of war crime scenes she visited in Kosovo.

Bone fragments

The idea that a body can be a 'silent witness' to a crime increasingly features in fictional and real-life investigations.

The BBC drama Silent Witness and the crime novels of Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs have provided the public with an insight into the field.

But experts such as Professor Black show how forensic anthropology - the study of human anatomy and bone - also reveals the secrets behind real-life crimes.

Amanda Burton stars in the BBC drama Silent Witness
Dramas such as Silent Witness have raised the profile of forensic work

Professor Black was called in after the partially burnt remains of a body were found at a scrapyard in Wolverhampton in 1999.

There was nothing to identify the body, and Professor Black had to use her skills to garner as many clues as she could.

She said: "The body had been burnt. We had 2,500 fragments of bone, no bigger than a thumbnail.

"We had to look at every fragment to get as much information as possible."

She said: "We had to look at certain areas of the body which grow differently."

Fragments from key bones revealed the body was that of a young woman who was less than five feet tall.

But it was a tiny piece of ankle bone which told experts most about the body.

"It was an area where two areas of bone fuse together. In this woman, it had begun to fuse but had not fused completely.

"We know that this area begins to fuse when a person is 17 and closes when they are about 19.

"So we knew she must have been around that age. But we could only give that information because we had that particular fragment of bone."

Emotional detachment

The information Professor Black was able to glean from the body was able to help identify teenage prostitute Marcella Ann Davis, 19.

In July 2000, Paul Brumfitt, 44, was convicted of her murder and given a life sentence at Birmingham Crown Court.

Despite the horrific nature of her work, Professor Black, who recently launched what is believed to be the UK's first degree in forensic anthropology, says it is crucial to remain emotionally detached from the work.

"If you cannot be objective, you're no use to anybody. You have to have a clinical detachment, however horrific it might be.

"If you get emotionally involved with a scene, then you're not going to be able to remain unbiased and objective."


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