Subject: Spirits of the dead summoned to heal old wounds

The Age

Spirits of the dead summoned to heal old wounds

* Jo Chandler

* August 23, 2008

VERY different rituals of death ­ scientific and spiritual, modern and traditional ­ met one night earlier this month, on a patch of raw earth in hill country outside the East Timor capital of Dili.

After years of detective work and delicate negotiations, Melbourne forensic anthropologist Dr Soren Blau was finally excavating a site long-rumoured to hold the remains of as many as 100 people unseen since November 12, 1991. On that day they joined a funeral march, which turned into a demonstration against Indonesian occupation, and ended as the Santa Cruz Cemetery massacre. Estimates of the dead vary from dozens to 400.

With a team enlisting world-leading forensic scientists from Argentina, and local police, health and mortuary workers she and her colleagues had trained in basic crime scene techniques, Dr Blau first had the site cleared of scrub and photographed. Then began the methodical, careful task of ploughing trenches across the site, digging down 1½ metres, analysing the stratigraphy of the layers of earth, looking for any sign that they might have been disturbed.

She and her colleagues had already spent months preparing the families of the "disappeared" for the reality of the search for their loved ones ­ tiptoeing their way through scenarios of extremes. On the one hand, preparing them for disappointment should the bodies not be found; on the other for distress should remains be located, unidentifiable after 17 years.

The families had initially not taken up the scientists' suggestion that they might like a priest or spiritual leader to bless the project, but on the day they visited the site, bringing candles and photographs of their lost ones, that need stirred. A woman approached the scientists to talk. "She told us it was all very well for us to do this, but we wouldn't find anything because we had not had a traditional Timorese ceremony," says Dr Blau, who works for the Centre for Human Identification at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine.

"She talked about calling the spirits of the dead to let them announce where they were." Work stopped while the scientists and the families again conferred, and the following night the local chiefs and about 80 relatives of the lost returned to the site, gathering in an extraordinary scene.

"There were children, women, men, all different ages," says Dr Blau. They watched as one of the elders, speaking in Tetum, carried out what seemed to be a dialogue with invisible speakers. The chief of the village, and a representative of the families, spoke up. People brought forward information on where they thought the bodies might be.

In the following days the families brought in a medium who guided them to different locations nearby where the spirits were said to be speaking strongly. "We fully respected the right, the need, for these traditional processes," says Dr Blau.

Her team had been guided to their chosen sites through close study of reports, newspapers and the anecdotes and stories collected during the young nation's truth and reconciliation process. But they were open to new suggestions, walking with the relatives along a nearby dry river bed, looking for signs of disturbance, finding none.

Then the project settled into a rhythm of days ­ the scientists in the field working across two sites at Tibar, watched by a shifting guard of families in quiet vigil. By last Saturday, as the prospects of finding any remains faded, another kind of hope emerged with a late evening visit to the excavation by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

"He wasn't rushed. He spent time talking to the village elders and the family representatives," said Dr Blau. Many of them have devoted years to the effort to locate the Santa Cruz victims. Documenting proceedings was Max Stahl, the British cameraman whose footage of the scenes in the cemetery galvanised international action, lending momentum to the independence push.

Dr Blau and her team explained their techniques to the Prime Minister, and their view that they were looking in the wrong place. Still the process had buoyed the hopes of families that their hunger to find and bury their dead now had political support. They have started digging themselves at various locations.

Having found no evidence of a mass grave, the scientific team last weekend suspended operations. The members are required in their home countries, but have resolved to return and try again.

After so many years, why does it matter? The return of a missing relative to a grieving family does provide closure, says Dr Blau. "And closure on so many levels ­ to give dignity back to the deceased through identity, and to allow recognition of what happened."

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