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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 January, 2004, 16:55 GMT
Archaeologists play key role in Iraq
Forensic archaeologists at work in Iraq
The US believes there may be 260 mass graves in Iraq
In any case to be made against Saddam Hussein when he eventually comes to trial, evidence from forensic archaeology will be crucial.

Almost as soon as Saddam's regime fell, mass graves containing thousands of corpses were found in the desert of southwestern Iraq.

Archaeologists are working to uncover the circumstances of the deaths - and their conclusions may form the fundamental basis of evidence of war crimes.

"If perpetrators know the remains can be recovered, evidence can be recovered, I hope it is going to have a big deterrent effect," Professor Ian Hanson, a member of the Inforce group of specialists who collect evidence of genocide and crimes against humanity, told BBC World Service's The World Today programme.

Reversing time

US officials believe Iraq may have up to 260 mass graves, containing as many as 300,000 bodies.

Iraq woman searches through bone remains
If perpetrators know the remains can be recovered, I hope it is going to have a big deterrent effect
Professor Ian Hanson, Inforce
The most recent discovery was in late December, when 60 bodies were found in a mass grave outside the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

The bodies are thought to be those of Shia Muslims killed after an uprising in 1991 was brutally crushed by Saddam's regime.

Police said that as well as bundles of decomposing clothes and bones, wire used to bind victims' hands had been found.

Professor Hanson said that the perpetrators of war crimes tried to "obliterate" people, and that as well as gathering evidence, forensic archaeologists were "giving the dignity back" to the victims.

As well as Iraq, Inforce have worked in the former Yugoslavia, South America, and Africa.

The archaeologists have had to make corpses tell stories.

"You're trying to reverse time as you go, from the latest to the earliest events," explained Professor Hanson, who has substantial experience at the site of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, where 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by Serb forces in 1995.

'Unrealistic expectations'

However, many feel that there are limits to what forensic archaeology can prove.

Srebrenica massacre
The Srebrenica massacre has been a key point in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic
As evidence it cannot be used as more than a support - along with witness statements or satellite pictures.

Julie Roberts of Glasgow University, who worked in Kosovo from 1999, said families there had "unrealistic expectations" of what her team could do.

"There was this constant pressure to prove that someone was definitely somebody's relative so that that person could get closure and bury a member of their family."

She recalled how one family member had asked her to identify his father and younger brother, both of whom had been killed in a massacre.

"The son brought me a tooth that his father had had extricated the day before he was murdered, and he wanted me to fit it back into the jaw of his father and therefore tell me that that was his dad that had been murdered.

"It was difficult for me to explain to him that he actually didn't have a face any more because the face had been shot away and his father had been burnt afterwards."

Forensic specialist Ian Hanson
"You're trying to reverse time as you go, from the latest to the earliest events"

'Mass grave' found near Iraq city
22 Dec 03  |  Middle East
Mass graves 'hold 300,000 Iraqis'
08 Nov 03  |  Middle East
Bahrainis missing in Iraq 'dead'
04 Aug 03  |  Middle East
Milosevic 'knew Srebrenica plan'
18 Dec 03  |  Europe


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