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The anthropologists and archaeologists brought in to help identify the victims of Israel’s biggest crime scene

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28 January 2024, ABC, by Tom Joyner and Orly Halpern

The human bones laid in pieces on the table, with sections of skull arranged at one end and fragments of arms and ribs at the other.

WARNING: Some readers might find the details and images in this story distressing.

A line of vertebrae ran down the middle, forming a misshapen spine.

Poring over them in green scrubs was Michal Peer, a forensic anthropologist at Israel’s National Center of Forensic Medicine – or Abu Kabir as it’s better known – who picked up a jagged piece of bone and held it to the light.

“All the DNA is completely burned away,” she said, peering closely.

The bone had at some point endured intense flames of more than 700 degrees Celsius, she added, causing it to bleach and warp.

On the floor around Ms Peer were white plastic bags containing similar fragments of blackened remains – bits of hips, arms, skulls and ribs – all awaiting her careful examination.

The bags have arrived on the centre’s doorstep most days since Hamas’ attack on Israeli communities along the Gaza border more than three months ago.

With an unassuming facade next to a public park, Abu Kabir, named after its Tel Aviv neighbourhood, faces an intersection obscured from the road by greenery and a guarded front gate.

Inside, the staff have found themselves thrust into a race to unravel the details of the largest crime scene in Israel’s history.

“Everything helps narrow down who it could potentially be,” Ms Peer said, examining the pieces assembled before her.

“Some of them are just one bone. Some of them are whole skeletons. There’s always a chance of doing DNA testing and finding that it belongs to somebody else who is already identified and buried.”

Piecing together Israel’s biggest crime scene

The majority of the remains of the roughly 1,200 people Israel says were killed on October 7 were taken to Shura military base, a 20-minute drive south, where they were tested for DNA and stored in shipping containers.

The worst cases – bodies so badly burned or decomposed they no longer bear any DNA or human semblance – are brought to Abu Kabir, where specialists are able to apply a closer forensic eye.

Their goal has been to identify as many as they can and return them to their families for burial.

To do this, a team led by Australian-trained chief pathologist Chen Kugel relies on tiny clues corroborated by medical data, video evidence and survivor testimony to arrive at a conclusion.

“When a plane crashes, you know exactly who was in the plane and you know who is missing,” said Dr Kugel.

“But this is not such an event.”

Working in shifts alongside a legion of volunteers, including a team from Switzerland and experts based in the US and New Zealand, Israeli authorities have so far managed to identify the remains or bodies of more than 1,185 people, though no-one seems sure of the exact number.

That figure has come after more than 20,000 tests for DNA profiling, interviews with released hostages, as well as a forensic process that has, at times, led to a redrawing of conclusions when new information has come to light.

Sometimes the key to unlocking someone’s identity can be as simple as a laundry tag on an item of clothing, or a handwritten note left in a pocket.

In several cases, cross-referencing scans with records of a routine X-ray a victim may have had years earlier has led to a match.

In the many cases where severe burns removed all traces of DNA evidence, staff turned instead to a system of deduction.

“We try to see what is the sex of this bone. Is it male or female? And what is the height or what is the age? And then we build an anthropological profile,” said Dr Kugel.

He says there is now only one Israeli missing who are believed dead in Israel from the October 7 attack whose remains have not been found.

Scans of badly burned remains have also revealed details of victims’ final moments.

“This looks like coal. You don’t see anything special here,” said Dr Kugel, pointing to a screen mounted to a wall in his office bearing a photo of a charred mass.

“And you can see on the CT scan two spines. Two sets of ribs. These are two people hugging each other while they were burned.”

Each day, forensic pathologists and anthropologists methodically sort, clean, label and process evidence that will ultimately, they hope, contribute to an accurate picture of what occurred on October 7.

“The problem is the scope of the numbers,” said Judy Melinek, a volunteer American forensic pathologist who worked as an intern in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001.

“You need to have an assembly line type of operation where everybody is given a role to play and you stay at your station and do that role.”

In the weeks after October 7, Abu Kabir was receiving one or two truckloads of body bags each day, according to Professor Tal Simmons, an American forensic anthropologist.

Not all of the material arriving at Abu Kabir each day is useful for identifying victims. Among the human remains are the bones of dogs and chickens – pets or livestock caught up in the chaos.

Having worked in conflict zones in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Cyprus and Guatemala, Professor Simmons was prepared for the volume of work. What she was not ready for was the scale and severity of burned remains.

“I think that put an enormous amount of pressure on the staff,” she said.

Jewish religious practices, which require a body to be ritually buried as soon as possible after death, have complicated the forensic process.

In some instances, only a tiny part of the victim was able to be recovered to be buried. A missing man was declared dead based on a tiny piece of bone weighing just 15 grams which staff determined belonged to a part of the skull he was unable to live without.

Among the bags were remains also belonging to Hamas militants and Gazan civilians, the latter of whom Abu Kabir staff believe entered through the broken fence into Israel.

In a handful of cases, bodies initially identified as Hamas were later determined to be Israelis, likely mistakenly killed by their own military.

“A terrorist near them was killed by Israeli soldiers and somebody saw it and took their gun,” said Dr Kugel.

“But somebody sees a guy with a Kalashnikov and he thinks that he’s a terrorist.”

Mistakes were also made in the collection of remains in the aftermath of the attack. Responders not trained to properly gather them inadvertently damaged critical evidence and hampered the identification of a body.

In the months since October 7, experts from the Israeli Antiquities Authority have joined efforts to comb over attack sites, bringing their own brand of archaeological rigour.

“They can obviously recognise bones and tell the difference between animal bones and human bones, which is really like one of the most basic things,” said Ms Peer of the archaeologists assigned to the task.

For such a grim endeavour, the mood in Abu Kabir’s cramped quarters is often upbeat. Volunteers bring home-cooked meals to staff working late, and the narrow warren of corridors feels abuzz with activity.

“It’s always busy, even at night,” said Dr Melinek, who has since returned to New Zealand, where she works as a forensic pathologist in Wellington.

“Have you met Israelis? They’re never silent.”

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Article source: ABC | Tom Joyner and Orly Halpern | 28 January 2024

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000