School builds capacity of African forensic science professionals

Posted on August 29, 2016

During times of armed conflict, disasters and forced migration many people tragically lose their lives and, depending on the circumstances, their fate might never be known to their families and loved ones. Due to a lack of infrastructure, knowledge or resources the immediate care of the deceased is often neglected.

Under international humanitarian law, the remains of people who have died in such situations must be handled with dignity and properly managed. In cases of disasters and migration in particular, proper identification of the deceased is a further challenge that often overwhelm local forensic authorities, especially when local infrastructure has collapsed.

In many instances, individuals have been separated from their families, have disappeared or have died without being identified, and the whereabouts of their remains is unknown. The knowledge that the remains of their loved ones have been properly handled is often a source of solace to those who are left behind.

There is a growing demand for the necessary forensic expertise among African authorities and local practitioners who are often under huge pressure when disaster strikes.

To address these challenges the first African School of Humanitarian Forensic Action, led by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), is currently being hosted by the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Pretoria (UP).

'Families continue to search for credible answers to the difficult questions that arise when their loved ones cannot be found following a disaster or conflict. They have a right to know,' says ICRC Forensic Coordinator for Africa Stephen Fonseca. 'The complex conflicts, mass casualty incidents and migration within Africa are creating a growing need for the scientific and systematic answers that humanitarian forensic action can provide.'

'Building the capacity of dedicated African forensics professionals on the latest techniques and approaches will allow more cases to be resolved without resorting to external support,' adds Luis Fondebrider, Director of the EAAF. 'It is a privilege to be able to share our extensive experience from Argentina and other countries to help expand this critical network of professionals throughout Africa.'

Twelve delegates from many African countries including Burundi, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Eritrea, South Africa and Zimbabwe are currently studying and practicing strategies and best practice to improve the humanitarian actions when situations lead to mass fatalities.

According to Mr Neil Morris of UP's Department of Forensic Medicine, dealing with the deceased is a complex process, but proper care is not always dependent on state-of-the-art facilities or unlimited resources. Often the simple act of taking a picture of the deceased before burial can be a huge help in finding answers later. 'It is often a question of doing the right things right at the beginning that helps in piecing the puzzle together at a later stage,' he says.

The delegates not only attend classes, but also engage in practical activities. On a media day, they were painstakingly uncovering artificial skeletons from mock-up graves in the garden of the Pretoria Forensic Pathology Services medico-legal mortuary, making notes as they went along.

'With the proper training there are many clues other than DNA or the remains themselves that can and should be used to provide a clear picture of who the deceased were or what happened to them,' explains Mr Morris.

Part of the training also includes learning the skills required to interview family members under difficult circumstances, in order to obtain information that will help in the identification process later.

'Improving our understanding of the diverse range of circumstances that African forensics professionals face has enriched the learning experience that our Department can offer,' says Professor Gert Saayman, Head of the Department of Forensic Medicine at UP. 'Partnerships such as these with the ICRC and EAAF will enable the Department to continue delivering Africa's leading research and education opportunities in forensic science, forensic pathology and forensic anthropology.'

It is planned that the African School of Humanitarian Forensic Action will be repeated and possibly further developed in future to provide more delegates with the opportunity to gain these valuable skills.


- Author Anna-Retha Bouwer

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