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Kenya: ICRC forensic expert helps identify victims of post-election violence

23-06-2008 Feature

Following the post-electoral violence that shook Kenya in early 2008, the Kenyan Ministry of Health requested help from the ICRC to support local forensic teams identify badly decomposed or burned bodies. The ICRC sent three of its forensic experts to Kenya between January and June 2008. The ICRC’s Nicole Engelbrecht reports from Nairobi.


  ©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
  Andrés Patiño Umaña, ICRC forensic expert.    

" It is very clear to me that what I am doing is helping people. With that in mind, I can overcome the stress. It is like any other job, I don't have nightmares, " says Andrés Patiño Umaña. The 39-year-old Colombian is a forensic expert working for the ICRC in Kenya.

"We are looking after the dead for the living. There is a mother, brother or spouse behind each dead body." 

The East-African country, considered an island of stability in the region, suffered a tragic humanitarian crisis following the general elections in late December last year. Political protests degenerated into widespread tribal violence, displacing over 300,000 people and killing an estimated 1,200. Relatives were able to identify most of the human remains. For dozens of people however, the task proved to be challenging. Either nobody claimed the bodies as families had been displaced during the violence or the remains were in a dire state, burned or mutilated beyond recognition.

" If visual identification of a dead body is no longer possible, there are several other ways to assess the person’s identity, " explains Andrés Patiño. " Resorting to DNA techniques is only the last option. First, we can rely on other forensic identification techniques. " According to the skeletal development and the morphology, a forensic specialist can make estimations about the age and the sex of a person. He carefully examines the bones, either through X-rays or with the help of a pathologist who carries out an autopsy.

 Skeleton reveals a lot  

" The older a body, the weaker it gets, and the more it is ‘used’, the more changes you’ll see,” says Andrés Patiño. “There are bone alterations associated with age, like arthritis, which renders the joints between the bones less flexible. The bone structure of a person can also hint at a certain profession. A peasant or a blacksmith has a different skeleton than a school teacher. "

" Another important element for the identification process is the teeth. They usually survive fire and reveal habits such as smoking and coffee drinking. For young people up to 18, their age can be determined accurately, sometimes with a range of certainty of 1-2 years. "

Upon request from the Kenyan Ministry of Health, the ICRC specialist visited 12 hospitals and morgues in areas affected by the post-election violence to support local forensic teams. Besides helping them identify badly decomposed or burned bodies, Andrés Patiño also shared his expertise on how to manage human remains.

" The first step when identifying a body is to keep track of basic information such as gender, height, age, physical traits and a description of personal belongings, " he explains. This data is included in the individual post mortem report. The body has to be tagged with a number matching the one on the report. If possible, photos of the deceased should be taken. "

 Easing the task for the living  

" What we want to avoid is that a father has to look for a son or his wife in a pile of bodies. For someone who is not prepared, it is a shocking experience to face the view of a crowded morgue. Proper management of the bodies and the correct use of forensic techniques make the process much easier for everyone involved, including the families, " adds Patiño.

Proper management of the bodies also includes the use of body bags and refrigeration. Without cold storage, decomposition advances rapidly, especially in hot climates. Within 12 to 48 hours, facial recognition is no longer be possible. The ICRC and the Kenya Red Cross Society donated refrigerating units to the morgues of three towns to help preserve the bodies until the families claim them.

Together with the Kenyan forensic teams, Andrés Patiño managed to gather post mortem information about every victim of the post-election v iolence who has not yet been claimed or identified. The teams also took DNA samples and handed them over to the Government Chemist Lab for analysis. The available data can now be matched with information given by relatives who are looking for a missing person. The ICRC expert estimates that at least 30 per cent of the bodies can now be identified. " We are trying to alleviate the suffering, " he says. " For a mother to think of her missing son and wonder whether he is hungry or ill is torture. To find out that he is dead is terrible, but also brings some relief and peace. "

The pain of not knowing the fate of a missing relative is not only emotional. As long as a person has not yet officially been declared dead, family members are unable to move on, sell property, marry again, access pensions or simply hold funeral rites.

 Prevailing attitude that 'the dead can wait'  

" In times of disaster or of an unexpected outbreak of violence with a large number of casualties, the attitude seems to prevail that the dead can wait, " says Caroline Rouvroy, ICRC protection coordinator in Kenya. " Families, however, have the right to know as soon as possible what has happened to their loved ones. Tracing mortal remains is therefore as much a priority for us as any other humanitarian task. "

Restoring family links is part of ICRC's mission to protect and assist victims of conflict and other situations of violence. This includes the deceased. In 2003, the organisation founded a forensic department that offers guidelines and trains local experts in dozens of countries. Besides Andrés Patiño, two other forensic experts carried out support missions in Kenya since the outbreak of the violence. The ICRC invited two Kenyan forensic specialists to a course on DNA and genetics in Preston, UK. At the initiative of the M inistry of Health, the ICRC will conduct training of key actors in the identification process such as pathologists, police, magistrates and judges in November 2008 in Nairobi.

" People think that forensic experts like to be among the dead, " says Andrés Patiño. " That is not true. We are looking after the dead for the living. There is a mother, brother or spouse behind each dead body. "