35 years after the Malvinas War, family members of more than one hundred Argentine fallen servicemen who were buried as unknown soldiers on the islands are receiving the results of a painstaking process to identify the bodies. One of the many moving parts that made this possible was the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, or EAAF for short), an NGO that specializes in using forensic methods to investigate human rights violations worldwide.
As a result of a humanitarian agreement between Argentina and the United Kingdom that has the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as a central player and which included specialists from multiple countries, 88 soldiers have now been identified following work on the islands from June to August of this year. The EAAF was present during the collection of the DNA samples, which were then sent to its laboratory for analysis.
Sharing his first-hand experience on the identifications process and the importance of science to counter impunity for human rights violations with The Bubble, Luis Fondebrider – president of the EAAF – provides insight on the significance of the work that took place in Malvinas and what it means for the families.
How did the EAAF’s role in the work come about?
The role of the EAAF in this work began after ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner announced that she was going to ask for support from the International Committee of the Red Cross in order to identify the soldiers who were buried as unknown soldiers in the Argentine cemetery in Darwin. A few months later, the Justice Ministry set up a working group and they invited us to visit together with the families who wanted to participate. We began speaking to the different families in various parts of the country, we interviewed them and asked for DNA samples, and we began to realize how much these family members had the need to know. Perhaps they knew that their loved ones had died in the conflict, but didn’t know exactly where they were buried, so it was a very moving process that allowed us to have first-hand information about one of the key elements of Malvinas.
What came next?
There was a second phase last year when the UK and Argentine governments signed a humanitarian agreement in cooperation with the ICRC, in which the work in Malvinas began to materialize. Part of the agreement specified that both Argentina and the UK could each nominate two forensic specialists, and the Argentine government chose us. The trip to the islands was full of expectations since I had never been on the islands, I had read and heard about them, yes, but first impressions are always very important. To arrive and to see the cemetery in the middle of nowhere, the crosses, was very moving. But I was also very happy to be part of that team. I knew the majority of my colleagues from other parts of the world, and we all had to do the best job we could in very difficult conditions due to the cold and the amount of work. But we were able to do a good job, with high scientific standards and transparency, and we were able to make progress with the final report.
Have you had contact with the families after the identification process?
Yes, we tried to have the same people who interviewed the families in the first phase also speak to them once the results were in, and those of us who were in the islands also participated. In the 33 years that we’ve done forensic work, we’ve always sought to uphold the highest scientific standards, but to also have the warmth and sensitivity necessaries when it comes to dealing with the families. That’s sometimes as important as science.
How have the families been reacting to the identifications?
Before the identification, they had really high hopes. Their loved ones are always present. The soldiers who aren’t in their homes anymore, they are still present in pictures, letters, special spots. This is very similar to what we see in many places around the world regarding other types of phenomena, not like this one but with more violence, which is what we usually investigate. In that sense it was very similar, the notion of not knowing is very painful, the uncertainty, the doubts. This was different because it was a war, but there were people who thought that their loved ones could even be alive somewhere. They had really high hopes, and we were worried about the passage of time, so we explained to them it wasn’t only up to us and that it depended on very complex diplomatic negotiations between two countries. We shared with them our desire that the identification process happened, and it took a while, but it finally did happen. To meet with them now and to tell them that these were the results was very important.
Some of the families did not want to participate in the identification process. Do you think there is a chance that they will change their mind?
There are already families that are getting in touch. At the time they didn’t want to get involved, but now some of them are contacting us. We understand, it’s a very personal process, and we respect that. 107 families approached us in the first phase and certainly there will be more once the results are known. The process will be easier because we have the DNA profiles of the 122 bodies, and each one of these bodies has been returned to its original grave. As long as the families come forward, we’ll be able to identify more bodies.
Of those 122 bodies, you identified 88…
Yes, and we had 10 cases in which, unfortunately, we confirmed that their family members were not among the 122 bodies that were studied. In other cases, we have to improve the quality of DNA samples. Not every family member is as useful in terms of genetic analysis. For example, parents are a better genetic match than distant cousins, so these are the family members we are looking for. More research needs to be done in order to understand each battle and to reconstruct what could have happened with the bodies that haven’t been found yet. We think that this first phase is very important, but it can’t end here because as long as there are families that want to know, the Argentine state has an obligation to provide an answer.
What do family members say once they are informed about the results?
What you see is very similar to other cases in Argentina and around the world. It’s a mixture of sadness, relief, happiness in some cases, calm… They reach and embark on a new, important stage. Since the beginning of mankind, observing the rituals of birth, puberty, marriage, having children, and death is vital for all of us. And when you don’t have a body, these rituals are interrupted or impossible to observe. To give a name to the deceased, to give them a proper burial, is part of the steps that we take in life. When these steps can’t be taken, specially for older people, something feels out of place.
Obviously, life isn’t restored, but they can be buried with dignity, they can be named.
Was there always goodwill during the negotiations?
I can’t really speak to goodwill, but there were negotiations, and I think that the Argentine Foreign Ministry and the Argentine Ambassador to the United Kingdom Carlos Sersale played a fundamental role. Of course, the Foreign Ministry as a whole was very important for the very complex and sensitive diplomatic negotiations. The ICRC was also key; without them this wouldn’t have been possible. The ICRC is actually used to these kinds of mediations, but this case was particularly complex. Every party did what they had to do to get to this stage.
Did the humanitarian element of the work have an impact on how you approached the identification?
From an institutional point of view, it wasn’t different, and we approached it with the same level of seriousness as any other case. Clearly, in terms of Argentine history… I belong to that generation. I didn’t participate in the war, I didn’t get drafted. But I could have had to go, so for me and for some of my colleagues it might have meant something in that respect. We felt we had a duty with the family members who accepted to participate in the identification process, we met with them and so we had an obligation to them. Because of this, we were worried about the time it was taking, since we know what it’s like for families to wait for news.
And, of course, this year marks 35 years since the war…
It’s a big issue. It’s an enormous debt that the Argentine state owed the soldiers who died as well as the veterans. It was always a difficult issue, taboo even, compared to other countries. Someone said many years ago that if you want to see what a country is like, to see how they treat their dead. I think that in that regard, this is a very important step, and it will be more so when those family members visit the cemetery – which they already can. It will be a vital moment concerning the Malvinas for Argentina.
Were there any lessons learned?
There’s always lessons learned, be it from colleagues, about the characteristics of the case, the context… There are always things to be improved for the next case. We follow the philosophy set out by EAAF founder Clyde Snow: always have an open mind and don’t feel like you have all the answers. In that way, Malvinas was part of that process.
Were those lessons technical, or also in terms of the contact with families?
Both. There was also diversity when it came to the families, because not everyone who went to Malvinas had the same social and geographical origin, and that led to different perspectives, something that had to be contemplated.
Would you call the efforts to identify the soldiers a success?
I don’t know if ‘success’ is the word, but it was possible. And it was possible to give a group of families a concrete answer, which is what they were waiting for. For us, that is what’s most important.
The EAAF began its work after the end of the last dictatorship. How do you reconcile that expertise, and the ability to share it and work in other countries, with something so tragic?
It’s always been very important for us to reciprocate the solidarity that Argentina received during and after the dictatorship. In our case, it means working in 50 countries that have had similar experiences. That’s why it’s paramount to not only investigate a case, but to also build local capacities. We have helped to create teams and we believe in local initiatives; we don’t like it when people from abroad arrive, do their job, and leave without leaving anything behind. That does happen, unfortunately. We think it’s important when local actors are committed, when they want to develop their capacities and set and follow their priorities, and not have external actors being the ones who set them. It’s what we call South-South cooperation: we cooperate not with funds, but rather with experiences and best practices. We welcome visits to our laboratory. For five years now we’ve had a school in South Africa that’s training professionals there, and a similar institution in the Middle East. Giving back and working with local colleagues and family members is fundamental.
Do you prefer working with civil societies or the state?
Our point of reference is and always will be the families of the victims. Many times we’re approached by families, often because the state has lost credibility, and for us they play a central role. The mechanisms that we use can vary, it can be through the courts, through a United Nations commission, a truth commission, but we always seek that families be our point of reference in the country we work in.
One of the reasons there are efforts to prevent impunity for human rights violations is to discourage future violations. Do you think the EAAF’s work and the work done by similar groups has had a dissuasive effect?
We’ve always been aware that out work is a small part of a series of collective actions that take place around the world by civil society and states. I’m not sure if our work has a dissuasive effect because the people who do these kinds of things have improved the way that they hide their actions and the way that they kill, but it certainly has contributed to there being less impunity and finding concrete and objective evidence. For example, we participated in the case against former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré within the Extraordinary African Chambers. We were called upon to provide scientific evidence, and there was a sentence issued against the dictator. Those are small moments where one feels that it isn’t so easy to emerge unpunished from these violations. Of course, that doesn’t happen every day – sometimes we work in countries where we are able to empirically show several violations but then amnesty is granted and nothing happens. But we also know that these are medium and long-term processes that depend on the political context and on what each society wants to do with its past in terms of justice, how much justice it wants, so we are careful when we talk about other countries. But it’s clear that the best way to prevent these atrocities is to investigate them and for those responsible to be investigated with due process, a due process that their victims often didn’t have.