CityPress - - Business - Kind­ness over


‘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.”

Ca­reer tip:

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.

Life les­son:

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