‘What drives us in the Missing Persons Task Team is much more than recovering a body; it is about finding the remains of a life that mattered and handing them back to their family in a dignified, solemn and moving ceremony,” says Madeleine Fullard, who established and leads the team.
“This is not a technical exercise. It’s about people receiving their loved ones in ceremonies that reflect deeply held values and beliefs.”
Families and the media are usually invited to a public exhumation or the handing over of remains.
“The relatives want the bones in order to bury them but, equally as important, is the acknowledgement of the price that the dead paid in fighting for their country’s freedom,” explains Fullard.
The task team was established by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in 2005 in response to a recommendation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to the government to continue recovering the bodies of those who disappeared between 1960 and 1994. Fullard, who worked with the TRC, was passionate about the task due, inter alia, to her activities with the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the 1980s, a role for which she spent time behind bars.
Since its formation, the team has recovered the remains of 141 people, and has closed cases for which it was unable to find anything. In some of the latter instances, symbolic burials are carried out with relatives, to provide them with a measure of closure.
The task team is part of a global movement to return the dead in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia.
The UN and other international bodies say that post-conflict governments must search for the dead in terms of human rights. “It’s a historical movement that emerged in the 1990s.”
Yet nothing like this exists in the rest of Africa, where there are mass graves and piles of skulls, according to Fullard.
She hopes the team’s work will help train other forensic scientists, anthropologists, DNA experts and historians to conduct exhumations.
To solve cases in South Africa, investigators with a nuanced understanding of the past and an excellent grasp of history are needed, she explains.
“They need to know the structures of the police at the time of death, the way MK [Umkhonto weSizwe] operated; to have an acute political understanding and, of course, involve forensic anthropologists who are highly skilled in working with bones.” This multifaceted approach is necessary to establish if information, usually provided by witnesses, is credible.
Fullard is a historian and she drives the investigations. “I can work in a grave but I’m not a bone expert.”
The task team has dug up human remains across South Africa, from Zeerust in North West, near the Botswana border, to the Eastern Cape. A great deal of initial investigating is carried out when a missing person is brought to its attention.
That role falls to Fullard and the team. “We have to develop a hypothesis of a possible burial site. Then our forensic anthropologists investigate. They might take a DNA sample and compare it with the family’s.”
The diverse team received a huge boost when Argentinian forensic archaeologist, Claudia Bisso joined it 10 years ago. Bisso was part of the team that helped identify Che Guevara’s bones in Bolivia.
Fullard searched South African universities for young black graduates in the field of forensic anthropology and recruited Kavita Lakha and Kundisai Dembetembe.
“We do our work in hot, dusty and backbreaking conditions. The emotional side of it is as demanding as the physical as our phones ring constantly with families asking for news. It’s the hardest thing to tell them that a DNA result is negative and it’s back to square one.”
Fullard emphasises repeatedly the importance of working as a team. “We often go together to a family to give them news.”
Fullard was raised in Cape Town and studied English and history at the University of Cape Town before working in the University of the Western Cape’s history department. She worked with the TRC from 1996 to 2001 and joined the NPA in 2005.
More recently, she’s been working on a book on the search for the missing, which has been cathartic.
“I find that writing has been a way of managing stress and pain.”
Work with people who share the same passion and understand the philosophy of your mission.
Forensic archaeologist Claudia Bisso from Argentina, where they worked on recovering ‘the disappeared’ for many years.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote; Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait With Keys
Favourite books: Wow! moment:
Finding the remains of the Pebco Three. I felt I’d achieved something after that.