National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover story
Issue Date:  July 30, 2004

'The bones don't lie'

Forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow travels continents to bring the crimes of mass murderers to light

Oklahoma City

Clyde Snow is a forensic anthropologist. But it makes more sense to call him a detective. He digs up clues from the ground, from graves both proper and improvised. He makes witnesses of bones and he has dug up and sorted out witnesses from the mass graves of the most vicious and unthinkable massacres of the last half-century.

Guatemala. El Salvador. Argentina. Iraq. The former Yugoslavia. The Congo. Ethiopia. Zimbabwe.

And here at home, too: the victims of Gacy; Dahmer; Washington state’s Green River Killer; the Oklahoma City bombing; and countless less sensational but no less tragic killings across the country.

Clyde Snow knows the human skeleton, whether battered or scattered, perhaps better than most anybody alive.

He trails death from continent to continent, sometimes arriving 10 or 20 years after the fact. For Snow, there is no ideology to dealing with death, only the haunting wish that murderers be held accountable.

Often a direct line exists between the data in human rights reports from all corners of the globe and Snow’s work in mass graves and laboratories.

“If you’ve got people committing murder, they’re murderers. I don’t care if they’re heads of state. You should be brought to justice and given a fair trial. If the evidence is there, you go to jail. If it’s not, you’re free. But you should be accountable.

“There shouldn’t be immunity and there shouldn’t be amnesty,” said Snow, with a slightly perceptible scowl. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

He is always on call. Respite comes in peculiar forms. There was the trip to Bolivia to find the remains of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He succeeded. And there was the time spent examining the bones of the fallen at the Battle of Little Bighorn -- Custer’s last stand. And there was Chile.

In 1987, workers at a construction site in Chile’s Atacama Desert region came across some bones. They were human. Some wondered if the bones belonged to leftists murdered in the early days of the Pinochet regime.

The local archbishop called Snow, who was on the other side of the Andes examining the bones of the disappeared dug up in the aftermath of Argentina’s “Dirty War.”

Snow and a small team left Argentina and headed north.

“We stayed [in Chile] for about a week while a judge was trying to make up her mind whether she would allow us to examine the skeletons,” Snow told me. “The judge was under a lot of pressure. Pinochet was still in power. She would change her mind about once a day.”

Eventually the judge gave in. “Yes, you can look at the bones.”

Snow and his team made their way to the morgue to see what they could see. By the time they arrived, the bones had already been laid out for them.

“Well,” Snow recalled, “that took about five minutes. They turned out to be prehistoric Indians. I could tell almost from across the room.”


“The edge bite, the big faces,” he said. “I walked in a little closer and in the right femur there was a stone arrowhead.”

“Unless the Chilean army is still using bow and arrows,” he said on his way out the door, “you don’t have a case here.”

Skulls and computers

There is a computer program for forensic anthropologists. There aren’t many copies floating around -- the program’s designer estimates about 400. In America, there are only about 100 people who do what Snow does.

Snow has been using the program for a few years. He shows it off like a neighbor showing off his new car.

He clicks a tiny skull icon on his computer’s desktop. The hard drive whirs and another image comes up while the program is opening. It’s the program name above a skull with crossbones. The skull -- a peek into the morbid world of forensic humor -- has a bullet hole in the temple.

The program comes up and Snow is ready with a notepad he’s pulled from his leather tool bag. The measurements sketched in pencil are of a head attached to a body that washed up under Chicago’s Navy Pier, a tourist haunt on Lake Michigan’s waterfront.

The Chicago medical examiner couldn’t identify the body. Clyde Snow is in contract with the examiner’s office. He flies up every other month from his home in rural Norman, Okla., to look at newly discovered bones and peck away at mysteries like the Navy Pier remains.

He suspects the mystery man -- he knows it is a man from the large pelvis -- is a drowned derelict. He has already made his “eyeball diagnosis.” A Mongoloid, most likely American Indian. He doesn’t need a computer, but he likes the extra affirmation.

“I’ve seen thousands of skulls. I know what a typical black male and a typical American Indian male and a typical Caucasoid male looks like. And females. The way I work it only takes three or four minutes of looking at the skull. The way I use this program, I go ahead and take the measurements and put them in here. And if the computer and I agree, then I’m home free.”

He punches in the measurements:

“Facial height.”

Click … click … click.

“Nasal breadth.”

Click … click.

“Orbital breadth.”

Click … click … click.

When the numbers are all in, he clicks “process” and the program checks his measurements against several hundred skulls -- many less than Snow has analyzed himself -- in a database managed by forensic anthropologists at the University of Tennessee.

The results come back in seconds. “American Indian male. And it’s 86 percent positive.”

You might be imagining this scene in a lab or maybe a morgue, but we’re in Snow’s living room, which is also his office. Dogs are curled up or stretched out on the carpet.

This is a man swimming in his work. For the first of the many hours we spent talking at his dining room table, Court TV was on in the kitchen. A forensics expert was testifying. Evidence of Snow’s work and travels floats and hangs on nearly every surface and wall. Books like The Hour of Death and The Mummy sit on shelves otherwise burdened by a book lover’s hodgepodge of history and literature.

There’s a skull next to his computer.

“Tell me about that skull, Clyde.”

“Oh. That. That’s just something I keep around.”

Seems strange, sure, but skulls in the home have a history. American soldiers in the South Pacific boiled the heads of Japanese soldiers to clean them of flesh and sent them home to their sweethearts as souvenirs. It happened again in Vietnam. These “trophy skulls” turn up now and again in dumpsters and demolitions to stump unsuspecting homicide detectives.

Snow’s skull is for reference. “I got it from a medical school years ago. Now and again I need to look at a skull.”

Sitting with Snow and his skull, watching him peck measurements into his computer in his living room, it is easy to imagine him the typical loner detective type, an endless trail of open and closed files behind him.

But Clyde Snow is no more the hermit snoop than he is the dispassionate scientist, an impossible label for a man who has spent the past two decades in graves, laboratories and courtrooms in intimate solidarity with the world’s victims of political murder.

The field of forensic anthropology is a relatively new one. Thirty years ago, when anthropology was added to the list of forensic sciences, the number of Americans devoted to the infant field numbered six, according to Snow, who knew each of them.

Tools of exhumation

Asked what he takes with him to an exhumation, he leaves for a minute and returns with a worn leather bag. He unfastens a clasp and the bag folds out in four directions. It lays flat on the table.

Except for the black Sharpie, the pencil and the yellow legal pad, the tools are Swiss-made. He takes them out one by one and describes their function. He handles each tool with the familiarity of a tradesman decades at his job.

“This is what we call an anthropometer,” he says. That’s the tool that measures the long bones to determine stature. “We can usually get within two or three inches.”

Next out of the bag, the sliding caliper. “You measure the skull with this fellow.” He said there are generally about 25 different skull measurements to make.

He points to a tool that looks a bit like a lobster claw on a stick. “That’s called a Boley gauge. You use that to measure teeth.”

The measuring tape, he said, is for skull circumference.

He holds up the last tool, a spreading caliper. “You only use this for measuring head length or head breadth.”

He designed the bag himself and paid two “counterculture types” who ran a leather shop in downtown Oklahoma City to put it all together. “They made jackets for Willie Nelson,” he says. “They did beautiful leather work.

“We also use shovels,” he adds, “but I don’t carry those.”

Some things he can eyeball. “Most of the time we can determine whether the person was right-handed or left-handed. In women we can often get a hint of their parturition history -- there is some remodeling that occurs in the bones of the pelvis during childbirth.

“Then there are things like old diseases that leave their marks on bones. And injuries, most commonly fractures, we’ll see evidence of that for years.

“If we have the facial portion of the skull we can come up with at least a broad diagnosis of the person’s ethnic identity.

“What we’re trying to do is reconstruct a life history of the person from the evidence preserved in the skeleton.”

That includes cause of death.

“In these cases of the disappeared in Argentina, about 80 to 90 percent had a single gunshot wound to the back of the head. You see a lot of that.”

Often he can identify the instrument. “We can see knife marks. Machete marks in Guatemala. A hammer leaves a hammer-shaped hole in the skull. We can get a pretty good picture.”

‘The game’s afoot!’

Twenty years ago, Snow gave a talk to a gathering of scientists at a hotel in New York City.

He had been invited to speak about the role forensic scientists might play in the investigation of international human rights abuses.

It was just an idea at the time.

Snow brought some slides and talked a bit about what he knew. When it was over, he read a poem by Federico García Lorca, the Spanish poet “disappeared” by a group of Francoists in 1936. Then he shared some thoughts.

“Of all the forms of murder,” Snow told the scientists, “none is more monstrous than that committed by a state against its own citizens. And of all murder victims, those of the state are the most helpless and vulnerable since the very entity to which they have entrusted their lives and safety becomes their killer. When the state murders, the crime is planned by powerful men. They use the same cold rationality and administrative efficiency that they might bring to the decision to wage a campaign to eradicate a particularly obnoxious agricultural pest.

“The homicidal state shares one trait with the solitary killer,” he continued. “Like all murderers, it trips on its own egotism and drops a trail of clues which, when properly collected, preserved and analyzed, are as damning as a signed confession left in the grave.

“The great mass murderers of our time have accounted for no more than a few hundred victims. In contrast, states that have chosen to murder their own citizens can usually count their victims by the carload lot. As for motive, the state has no peers, for it will kill its victim for a careless word, a fleeting thought, or even a poem.”

Snow concluded with a challenge: “Maybe it’s time for the forensic scientists of the world to heed the old call of our favorite fictional prototype -- ‘Quick, Watson, the game’s afoot!’ -- and go after the biggest game of all.”

That was in May. By June he was packing for Argentina.

Unlikely paths cross

In 1983, after seven years of brutal repression at the hands of a military government, elections were held. The new government of Raul Alfonsín -- a one-time small town lawyer -- was inaugurated on International Human Rights Day.

Alfonsín initiated a commission to investigate the thousands of leftists “disappeared” by the right-wing military government.

Eric Stover had worked with human rights groups in Argentina for years. Shortly after its inception, he received an invitation from the head of the commission asking if he could assemble a forensic team to come to Argentina and look into the graves of the disappeared.

“I did not know much about the forensic sciences,” Stover recalled. “Clyde was the first person I called.”

Snow said he’d do it. And he gave Stover a few more numbers. Soon, there was a team.

“I took them down to Argentina and we went around to see what the situation was.”

Snow grimaced into his coffee and recalled the scene. “With absolutely no knowledge or skills, they were going out with bulldozers and just plowing up areas where the disappeared were buried in unmarked graves.”

The remains of the disappeared came up. But so did the remains of local paupers too poor for burial in a proper cemetery. Argentina’s political killers, it seems, buried their victims in this “pauper’s field” to camouflage their crimes.

“They wound up with a mass of bones,” Snow remembered, “and they just sorted them out.” His kitchen table becomes a scale model of the scene. “Femurs here and skulls over here,” he said, pointing at the imaginary bone piles. “It was turning into a disaster. Nobody was going to get identified.”

A small auditorium was reserved for Snow and his colleagues to address a group of judges and lawyers. “The idea,” Snow said, “was to explain to them that these skeletons, if approached properly, could potentially be identified.”

It was a simple message. But the presentation got off to a frustrating start. After just one hour, the team’s translator, a young medical school student, was in tears. She simply couldn’t keep up.

The team called a break.

In the audience that day was a young anthropology student. Morris Tidball-Binz had seen a sign posted at a nearby bank announcing the event. He made his way to the auditorium and took a seat.

Snow remembers the young man with the kind of details that color all his stories. “This kid came in wearing blue coveralls and an old denim shirt. He had a cap on his head of long, blond hair.”

In an auditorium of lawyers and judges, the kid was hard to miss. “When we took our break,” Snow said, “he came up to the stage and started talking to out translator. He knew her.”

The young man turned to Snow and the rest of the panel: “Could I help?”

It was one of those moments. Unlikely paths crossed. Lives were changed.

“We said yes,” Snow laughed, a trace of the day’s anxiety in his voice. “Of course, everybody was looking at him. But for the rest of the day he did a fantastic job.”

After his presentation, the commission asked Snow to stick around. He stayed on for a couple more weeks. The pathologists and the dentist went home. The commission wanted Snow to organize a team to dig up and identify Argentina’s disappeared. The work, they said, would take 10 years. At least.

Rag-tag team

He called around: anthropologists, archeologists, pathologists and the like. But assembling a local team was a difficult task.

The anthropologists didn’t know anything about forensic anthropology. The forensic medical experts had been complicit with the junta, issuing false death certificates, keeping double books, and insisting bodies could not be identified when their fingerprints were on file.

Others were just scared. “There were rumors in Buenos Aires that the military was coming back in. Anybody dealing in this kind of work might be on the next round of death lists.”

Then one night, as Snow remembers it, returning to his hotel in Buenos Aires, he found visitors waiting for him in the lobby.

“There was this little rag-tag group of kids, ranging from around 17 to 23 years old, about eight of them. One or two were medical students. The others were anthropology students.”

Morris was there. He had put word out through the student networks: An American was looking for help. They had come to volunteer.

“I was kind of touched by this,” Snow said. “I was also kind of hungry -- we hadn’t had dinner -- so I took them out to the steak house around the corner, very cheap.

“We had a good meal. I talked to them. I told them that this would be kind of dangerous work. Could be depressing. And besides that, it’s dirty work. They had no experience and we didn’t have any money. I was trying to discourage them.”

The students told Snow they’d talk it over and come by the next night with a decision.

“I thought it was their polite Argentine way of saying bye-bye,” Snow recalled. “The next night and they were there. They said they had talked it over and it sounds like a pretty good deal.”

One of the students was 25-year-old Mercedes Doretti, who was studying cultural anthropology at the University of Buenos Aires. “When we first met him we thought he was crazy,” Doretti recalled. “What is this gringo doing here? He wants to exhume the disappeared people? It sounded like an idea from Mars.”

Once Snow explained himself, she said, it all seemed “absolutely the right thing. Completely logical.”

They wanted to get started right away.

“So,” Snow said, “I was kind of stuck.”

There had to be a test. There was a judge who wanted Snow to dig up the remains of a young woman, one of the disappeared known to be buried in the suburbs. With 24 hours before a flight home to Oklahoma, Snow took the case, and he brought the eager students.

They would be digging in a graveyard, another popular dumping ground for the disappeared, whose graves would not be marked.

There were police everywhere. The judge had called them out for security. The students were terrified of the police. Some of them gave fake names. It was scarcely a year since the repressive powers granted to Argentina’s police had dissolved.

The exhumation, Snow remembered, was “very hastily arranged. We didn’t have any tools. We had some chopsticks that I told them to pick up at a Chinese restaurant -- if you sharpen them up a little bit they’re a great little digging tools. We had a tablespoon. We were able to get some brushes and string and stuff of that sort but it was pretty primitive.”

Still, they located the grave and began the exhumation. “It took us all day. We work real slow.”

It was the team’s first exhumation. A critical measure of the team’s potential would be their reaction to the actual remains. “When we got down to the skull,” Snow recalled, “Morris was down there and he was really into this -- very interested and excited. We started digging around the skull and we could see a gunshot wound.

“I pointed it out to him. While she was still in the ground, this woman was telling us she had died of a gunshot wound. And that’s when one of the students -- Patricia -- just kind of disappeared. I looked around … she was gone.

“Then I walked around behind one of the vehicles and she was back there crying.”

In Snow’s line of work, this is an ominous sign. “Once this gets started,” he thought to himself that day, “it’ll spread and they’ll decide this is not the kind of thing they want to do.”

He walked back to the grave. About 10 minutes later Patricia came back too. Morris was using the tablespoon to separate dirt from the woman’s skull.

“Morris,” Patricia said, “give me the spoon.”

“What do you want the spoon for?” Morris replied.

“I’m going to make coffee.”

Snow pauses. Then he lets out a sort of sly grunt. “That’s when I figured, well, maybe we’ve got a team.”

They had completely exhumed the woman’s skeleton by sundown.

“We got the bones out by about five o’clock that evening,” Snow recalled. “We took them over to a little hospital and washed ’em up.” It was after midnight when they successfully identified the body from dental records.

“We dictated the report to the judge: open and closed. Killed with a gunshot wound to the head.”

Snow was back at his hotel room by three a.m. Enough time to pack his things and head back home to his wife and work in Oklahoma.

He would return to Argentina many times. With Eric Stover, he would bring in experts to train the young team. There was usually no money. Sometimes a little. The team met at cafés and rode the bus to gravesites.

Doretti, who heads up the New York office of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team 20 years after its humble inception, recalled, “There wasn’t any time to get a formal teaching. Clyde taught us by doing work with him. With each case he explained everything that he was seeing on a bone and the history of that method. It was like improvised lectures.

“We were just a bunch of students,” Doretti said, “and he believed in us. That was, for us, very new. We were coming out of a dictatorship where you were not allowed speak out or anything like that, and here was this guy who knew very little about us and -- maybe because he was desperate to find help,” she added, laughing -- “he trusted us and he felt like we could do the work.”

“He was trying to not only teach them how to do this work,” Stover said, “but he’s also teaching them life lessons. And that was, look, you guys, you can get involved in social change by protesting -- there is a time for that, but if you really want to become engaged, learn something well, stick at it and really become the best; the master of your tools, the master of your methods and procedures and so on. That’s what he instilled in these students. And the evidence is there: They’ve worked in 31 countries around the world. They know more about mass graves than anyone else on the planet.”

Families on the scene

“Anywhere we go on these cases,” Snow said, “Africa, Kurdistan, Latin America -- the families want to be there from the moment we start. They watch the bones of their family members being exhumed. And they become part of it.

“You have to deal with the families on a kind of an up close and personal basis,” Snow said. “I found that out very early.

“Here in the States you don’t deal with families. It’s usually done through the medical examiner or the police. Here you’d have a crime scene with yellow tape.”

In other countries, he said, “you’ll have a crowd around you. Sometimes you have to be careful that they’re not going to fall into the grave.

“In fact,” Snow said, “very often, because we’re short-handed, we ask them if they want to go to work and yeah, they’ll help.”

Family and community members catch on “right quick,” Clyde said, simulating the accelerated training: “Take your brushes and work slowly, carefully.”

He did this in Iraqi Kurdistan. “Heade, heade,” he recited in Kurdish. “Slowly, slowly.”

He sipped from his coffee cup and smiled. “They turned into pretty good assistants.”

But mostly, Clyde said, the people gathered around the site are just watching. “They’ll stay there for hours and hours, day after day. After a while people will be talking about other things. They’ll be laughing. Children will be lying down.”

Then, he said, “there are moments when we expose a skeleton enough that the mother or the wife will recognize it and she’ll want to come down to the grave. We’ll very carefully escort her in. And there will be this moment, especially for her … a lot of tears.

“And then an hour later it’s relaxed again, people are talking.”

Clyde describes a photograph he keeps around. It’s a guy in an orange shirt licking a lime green ice cream cone he bought from a man with a portable ice cream cart.

“This guy’s licking an ice cream and he’s standing there watching. … We’re digging up his three children and his wife and his mother and father,” he said.

“It’s just this contrast. Later on it was obvious that he had a very deeply moving experience … but he could still eat an ice cream cone.”

The full range of human emotion, he said, can be found at an exhumation.

“In this country we wouldn’t have that. Everybody would be very solemn. It’s not that way. But it is genuine.”

For the people doing the digging who live in the graves for weeks and even months, a more cautious approach to emotional currents must be practiced.

“You always feel a little bit of weight,” Snow said. “It’s a pretty awesome thing that you’re doing. But you’ve got to do your work.

“Everybody has different ways of handling it. Some people have nightmares. Some people get a little depressed from time to time. Others go out and have an extra martini in the evening.

“I always told them, ‘Do your work in the daytime and if you have to cry, you can cry at night. During the day you do your work, whether it’s in the grave or in the lab. No matter what you’re looking at you’ve got to maintain your clinical approach to what you’re doing.’ ”

But, he said, “you can’t be totally unaffected by this. Cry at night.”

“That’s a lot of bluster,” Stover said, recalling a story from their days together in Argentina.

Liliana Pereyra was a young woman who had been pregnant when she “disappeared” -- abducted by men in naval fatigues. She had belonged to a leftist organization that opposed the military junta. Liliana delivered her baby in detention in 1978. The baby was taken away and Liliana was killed.

Snow and his young team exhumed Liliana’s remains in 1985. Her skeleton was taken to the lab in a Buenos Aires medical school where Snow and Stover were working with the young Argentine team.

Liliana’s mother, Coche, came by the lab with her two teenage children, a son and a daughter. They wanted to see the bones.

“So we found a vacant room. We blocked off the doors. And we laid the remains out on a table.

“She comes in. Snow and I are standing there with two of the students on the team. And I’m interpreting for Snow, who was explaining, this is a gunshot wound … this is how we identified her. It was fairly clinical until the daughter reached over and grabbed her mother and gave her a big hug. The whole room dissolved into tears, Snow leading the chorus.”

Snow told me this story, too. But his version excluded the tears. Still, he looks back on the experience as a teaching moment.

When Coche Pereyra asked to see her daughter’s remains, Snow said, “it just blew my mind. I had never had this kind of experience in the States.

“You run into this, particularly in Latin America,” he continued. “People don’t have the same feeling towards death as we do -- that you have to take the body out and pickle it before anybody can take a look at it. They deal with death more directly and realistically.”

The ‘chilling effect’

Snow and his teams have little choice but to deal directly with death. And, it follows, with difficult questions of justice and irony.

Back in 1993, on one of several visits to the former Yugoslavia, Serbs blocked Snow and his team from examining a suspected mass grave full of Croats missing from the brutally contested, and ultimately defeated, Croatian town of Vukovar. The team didn’t go home; they bought a little time back on the Croat side. “We dug up a mass grave of Serbs that the Croats had killed,” Snow remembered. “We work both sides of the street in this business.”

The “both sides of the street” part of his work keeps Snow safe from the tendency to romanticize one side over the other in modern conflict.

“In Latin America -- and in Guatemala in particular -- I’ve always looked on it as a struggle between two sets of elitists. On one side you had the army -- especially the officers -- people like Rios Montt. And over on the left among the guerrillas -- the upper levels -- a lot of guys, instead of going to military school, they were the ones who went off maybe to Harvard or the London School of Economics. A lot of those guys were out of the same old families.

“The people on the right were hanging out in their villas and the upper reaches of the guerrillas were hanging out in Mexico or Europe, always raising funds for the struggle.

“Meanwhile, it was the Indian kids -- impressed into the army or sometimes impressed into the guerrillas -- that were getting killed fighting each other. And it was the little people in the villages that were caught in the middle that really suffered. So I’m very cynical about the left and the right in these situations.”

There is a simple bottom line for Snow: If you kill, no matter which side you are on or what office you hold, you should be held accountable. And he’s played his part: first in Argentina’s junta trial and later in Yugoslavia. Perhaps one day in Guatemala.

But what about the countries that feed these brutal conflicts with the kind of military and diplomatic support the United States gave to the Guatemalan military?

“It’s an interesting question. I think we should be held accountable. On the other hand, I think Moscow and Havana should also be held accountable.”

He offers no clear method of accountability, but he has some ideas.

“I’ve often thought when we’re in these mass graves and looking at the skeletons of children, you know, I would like to bring some people who were involved in Washington -- who was the guy who was undersecretary of state? Eliot Abrams -- I’d like to bring him down and maybe somebody from Moscow or Havana and just sit ’em down there at the gravesite and say, you know, ‘Explain to us why these people, these children, were a threat to world peace?’

“That was always what you’d hear from one side or the other.”

Snow remembers a shot of Abrams in a documentary film highlighting Snow and the team’s work in Guatemala. “They never have to leave their offices,” Snow said. “This guy is sitting up in Washington in his suit and he’s justifying Guatemala.

“Well,” Snow said, “take him down there. Put him in some field clothes and give him a shovel. Make him confront this stuff and then see what he says.

“That would be a moment to remember. Get that on film.”

Though he concedes it’s impossible to prove, Snow believes the discoveries of forensic anthropologists in international human rights cases have had a “chilling effect” on would-be mass murderers, at least where word of the work has traveled.

“When we started in Argentina, forensic anthropology was really in its infancy,” Snow said. “It came as quite a surprise to many that we could actually find some of the disappeared and get them identified.”

Working in Argentina, he added, “you almost had the sense that [Pinochet’s] people were peeking over the Andes in Chile and saying ‘Maybe we ought to back off a bit.’ ”

Still, the “chilling effect” was slow to reach the Balkans. Croats intercepted Serb radio dispatches and passed them on to Snow and his U.N.-sponsored team after they tried and failed to win permission to exhume the victims of the Vukovar massacre, buried in a mass grave in nearby Ovcara.

The Serb dispatches, Snow recalled, betrayed skepticism that anything could be determined from a mass of buried bones.

The grave in Ovcara -- filled with Vukovar’s 200 dead, most of them pulled from a hospital and later executed -- finally did get exhumed, four years after Snow located the site and a human skull and other skeletal remains poking out of the dirt. And it was to be a few more years before indictments in the massacre would emerge.

The pace of events frustrated Clyde from the beginning. The United Nations should not have backed down once it knew there was a grave in Ovcara.

“I told them at the time -- I had been involved in the John Wayne Gacy case -- it’s like if the Chicago police had heard that Mr. Gacy was burying kids under his house and the police chief sends policemen out who knock on his door and say, ‘Mr. Gacy, we understand that you’re burying a bunch of kids under your house here, can we come in?’ And he says no and the policemen go back -- in this case they went back to Geneva -- and say, ‘Well, we went out there but he won’t let us into the house, there’s not anything we can do.’

“These things need to be investigated promptly,” Snow said. The passivity of the United Nations, he believes, was a green light to the Serbs. “Had the U.N. gone in there in 1992 or ’93 and indicted those guys,” he added, “I think the Srebrenica mass killings in Bosnia never would have happened.

“The 200 lives in Vukovar would have saved five or six thousand lives in Srebrenica.”

Today’s United Nations, he said, reflects the bloody lessons learned in Vukovar and Srebrenica. Today there is an active International Court where the bones that people like Snow dig up are used as evidence. And the indictments have begun.

Now, Snow said of the would-be political killers and mass murderers of the day, “it must be in the back of their minds.”

The reasons

Ask Snow why he does what he does and you get a simple, measured answer. “There are several reasons.”

He doesn’t rank them, he said, but there is an order.

One reason, he said, “is to find the skeletal remains and return them to the families and the communities.”

Next: “Hopefully you might get a little justice done.”

And then the “chilling effect.”

Finally, he said, “to get it on the historical record.”

“Scientific evidence is hard to refute. Living witnesses, sometimes they lie. Dead people usually don’t.

“Live people forget. They get confused. Say they do have a trial down there in Guatemala and you bring in some Mayan Indian woman. It’s 20 years later and as a witness, well, she’s 20 years older and she’s maybe somebody who hardly speaks Spanish.

“It’s going to be a big courtroom,” he said. “Its going to be a frightening experience. A good defense lawyer could really jump all over her.

“But,” he said, “they have trouble doing that with the bones. The bones don’t lie and they don’t forget. And they’re hard to cross-examine.”

Jeff Guntzel is a contributing writer who lives in Indianapolis.

Forensic sciences in defense of human rights

This month marks 20 years since forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow scrambled together a team of students in Buenos Aires to exhume and identify Argentina’s “disappeared.”

It was the beginning of a still-deepening relationship between the forensic sciences and the international human rights movement.

“It had never been done,” recalled Eric Stover, director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Stover is responsible for nudging Snow -- known then for his work on serial murder cases and airplane crashes -- into the international human rights arena.

Finding and exhuming thousands of victims of Argentina’s brutal junta, Stover said, “was the first investigation of its kind. And there had been very little mass grave work except for prehistoric or archeological digs of battle scenes or collective burials.”

The students formed the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team and quickly became experts at their peculiar trade.

In 1992, a Guatemalan team was formed in much the same manner as its Argentine predecessor. There was a team in Chile, too. Today there is the Latin American Forensic Anthropology Association, just a little over a year old. Its members -- from Argentina, Columbia, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Chile and Guatemala -- form a united front that seeks to move forensic anthropology and international human rights still further forward.

That Snow is the association’s chair is fitting. Without his emphasis on training locals to do work previously reserved to a few western “experts,” there would likely be no such association.

-- Jeff Guntzel

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 2004

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