Subject: NYTimes: Bones Offer Testimony of Killings in East Timor

The New York Times September 30, 2001

Bones Offer Testimony of Killings in East Timor


DILI, East Timor — Sofia Egana placed her hand on the smooth brown skull as if to soothe it. The dismembered skeleton, boiled clean of its flesh, lay spread before her on a broad stainless-steel tray.

"Look at the ribs," she said. "These are perimortem fractures. This one must have been kicked many times in the chest."

The fractures were torn and ragged, like snapped twigs.

She turned and pointed to its neighbor, a slightly darker set of bones that had lain buried in loamier soil. The skeleton seemed perfect, like the anatomical chart on a wall behind it, but its left clavicle was marked by a deep horizontal gash. "You see, this one was cut with a machete," she said.

The bones are the remains of two of the victims of East Timor's mass killings, two years ago, when as many as 1,000 people were shot, hacked and beaten to death by opponents of independence from Indonesia.

Ms. Egana, 30, feminine in her pink smock, workmanlike in her white rubber gloves, is one of their avengers.

A forensic anthropologist working for the United Nations, she is part of a growing corps of anatomical sleuths who travel the world — from Rwanda to Bosnia to El Salvador — following in the footsteps of mass killers.

The evidence she gathers from the skeletons here — 300 have already been studied — will be used in trials that are getting under way in East Timor of people charged with crimes against humanity.

As society has begun to focus more than ever on past atrocities and as international tribunals have been set up to bring justice, it is specialists like Ms. Egana who provide the basic physical evidence. "The bones speak to us," she said. "They are like a photocopy of everything that happened in your life."

No matter how the killers try to cover their tracks — reburying the bodies, dousing them with lime, burning them — no matter how old the crime, the bones still tell their stories.

"If you are killed, all your body reacts," she said. "We can tell if there are stab wounds, gunshot wounds or blunt force injury. They look absolutely different. With a projectile there are many different effects."

When Ms. Egana began her work in her native Argentina, the skeletons told a somewhat different story. There, the remains of people who had disappeared under military rule often showed the marks of torture and long imprisonment.

In East Timor, by contrast, death was usually quick. "We see a lot of decapitation and stab wounds," she said. "The systematic killing happened suddenly; suddenly on the street with a machete. Sometimes we have a perfect skeleton, only decapitated."

Quite often, the bodies here were burned in an attempt to destroy evidence of the killings. "But the thing is, it's not easy to burn a body," Ms. Egana said. "There's a reason why crematoriums have to work with such high heat. In most cases the bodies we see are only partly burned."

There is an occupational hazard in this intimacy with death and bodies, Ms. Egana said: it is all too easy to become hardened and callous.

"All my cases are terrible, each one," she said. "But you must not put up a wall to protect yourself. I want to keep in mind that I am working with human beings. Each one is a person, some human who died. If I stop having that feeling I will lose my humanity."

Though she works in a dark world that most people avoid, she insisted: "I'm a normal person."

"Of course I don't like going into a cemetery and digging up bodies," she said. "The thing that helps me personally, that helps me to continue, is to know that sometimes this is the only evidence that a country or the relatives have to get justice."

At the same time, her work does fascinate her. For Ms. Egana, a skeleton is a beautiful thing, and it takes only the smallest prompting to start her on a rhapsody.

"Each one is perfect in its own way, beautiful," she said, hovering over the skeleton of the man who had been killed with a machete. "Look at the articulation. We can walk. We can move our arms like this. We can make absolutely precise movements with our fingers. I love skeletons."

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