Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Archaeology and Genocide

How is archaeology relevant to genocide? The discipline of archaeology can be an invaluable tool in the investigation of human rights violations. While we have been looking at archaeology through an academic lens this semester, it is important to remember that this field is useful not only in uncovering truths about past cultures and ancient empires, but also in constructing narratives of current events. Forensic archaeology can be used in the exhumation of mass graves to determine whether genocide has taken place, and to understand exactly what was happening, who was targeted, and how the events unfolded. This method of forensic archaeology has been made largely popular due to shows such as CSI – the Forensic Archaeology Organization of the UK even has a “CSI Crime Shop” where one can find objects such as spy glasses, fingerprint kits, and a secret message kit. The field of forensic archaeology, however is trivialized by television, is of serious gravity.

According to the Forensic Archaeology Organization, forensic archaeology is “an expanding branch of archaeological investigation in which the methods and approaches of archaeology are applied to legal problems and in connection with the work of courts of law. Most commonly this involves the reconstruction of a chronology and sequence of events from the deposits found within and around graves and burial sites for homicide cases and investigations into the violation of human rights.” Forensic archaeology often involves exhumation, osteological analysis, and other archaeological techniques. The importance of forensic archaeology in constructing narratives surrounding death scenes is evident then, as it can show what happened

In the late spring and early summer of 1994, an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda. Catalyzed by the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira, this genocide was the result of decades of ethnic tensions. Following the April 6th assassination of the Rwandan and Burundi presidents, Hutus organized mass killings of Tutsis and Tutsi sympathizers. This genocide had been planned by members of the Hutu power group known as the Akazu, and supported by the national government, local military and other high-ranking officials. Two militias were organized specifically to carry out the killings. These Hutu militias were called the Interahamwe and the Impuzamgambi. Once the momentum of the genocide took hold, civilians resorted to killing one another.

In the aftermath of the genocide, the UN Security Council put together a commission to investigate the "grave violations of international humanitarian law" and "evidence of possible acts of genocide.” This commission suggested the establishment of an International Criminal Tribunal in order to determ

ine who should be held responsible, and how the responsible party should be brought to justice. This International Criminal Tribunal sponsored excavations at several sites, carried out by the Physicians for Human Rights, to construct a narrative of these killings. According to Haglund in “The Archaeology of Contemporary of Mass Graves,” the purpose of the excavations were to “ 1) to collect narrative and physical evidence that assists in establishing the accountability of those responsible and bringing them to justice 2) to assemble information instrumental in identifying the victims in order that the remains be returned to the families 3) to create a record that will stand up to historical revisionists; and 4) to expose such atrocities to world opinion and provide an international standard that will deter such atrocities in the future.” In order to do that, Archaeologists depended on eyewitness accounts to determine where “mass graves” were. During the genocide, Tutsis had gathered in areas of sanctuary, such as churches, to seek refuge from the slaughter. These places became some of the bloodiest of the genocide.

According to Haglund, who is the chief forensic archaeologist for Physicians for Human Rights, approximately 4,000-6,000 people sought refuge in the Kibuye Catholic Church Complex. On April 17th, soldiers, police and armed civilians surrounded the complex, and

killed all those who were inside. This site became a principal site for the investigation. A three-stage process for the investigation of this site was planned with Haglund. The first part of the process was to document the site using topographical equipment, and photography. The second phase would be to analyze the human remains that were on the surface. The last phase involved the excavation of thousands of bodies at the Kibuye site, and the forensic analysis of these corpses.

The excavation of the Kibuye Church Complex led to the indictment of Clement Kayishema and Obed Ruzindana. Through the use of forensic archaeology, Haglund’s team was able to determine that approximately seventy percent of the victims of Kibuye were women and children, and that over half of the victims had died from blunt force trauma to the head. The use of forensic archaeology in creating narratives and indicting criminals in genocide has been used in many other places, such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Argentina and Cambodia.

The relationship between archaeology and genocide is one that is complex. Looking at forensic archaeology is a reminder that the discipline is useful not only in recreating past cultures, but also in reaffirming and uncovering truths about the present. The excavation of Kimbuye not only documented an atrocity, but also provided evidence for which to give grieving families.

My thoughts on archaeology and genocide stem from an interest in the treatment of the corpse, and the archaeologist’s relationship to the corpse. While excavating in New Mexico this summer, I was surprised when I was told that finding a body was something that was most undesirable- if we did we would need to immediately stop the project, and contact the local authorities. This is because the local Native Americans find it a serious violation to disturb the dead, and unearth their bodies. The idea of the corpse as something taboo, or not to be touched, completely rivals the field of forensic archaeology. Forensic archaeology not only seeks out a corpse, but seeks also to examine that body, and handle it in such a way that pre-mortem narratives can be constructed. The implications of what these forensic archaeologists find have consequences on the living – on those who are indicted for these deaths. The living too, can glean comfort from the findings on the corpses, and gain closure. The relationship between the body and the archaeologist then does not only exist then in the moment of digging up, but extends to have consequences for the living.

The usage of a body to convey a narrative is also very interesting as it blurs the idea of personhood – a person both is their body, and what is done to their body. I also thought that this conversation was important to remember the ideas of archaeology and colonialism. After the Rwandan genocide, there was much discussion as to whether those responsible should be tried in a Rwandan court or through an international tribunal. The use of an international tribunal and for the organization Physicians for Human Rights involved an outside organization coming in, excavating, and assigning these findings in a way that had consequences for Rwandans. How do international tribunals and their calls for excavations fit into the context of colonial archaeology? There are many issues in archaeology and genocide that are important to discuss, as the result of forensic archaeology – especially when played out in the court of law – has consequences for both the living and the respect of the dead.


Sources: Haglund, "The Archaeology of Mass Graves"

Rwanda: Accountability for War Crimes and Genocide

Genocide in Rwanda, United Human Rights Council

1 comment:

  1. fascinating post Emma, and I though that the contrast that you drew with debates over American Indian remains and repatriations was pertinent.

    Another important aspect is the role of archaeology and history in creating narratives of ethnic identity that helped create the conditions for the genocide.

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