On a crisp winter’s evening, a group of peo­ple gath­ered around an open fire at Maropeng’s Hominid House to lis­ten to a woman speak – archae­o­log­i­cal­ly, anthro­po­log­i­cal­ly, polit­i­cal­ly and poignant­ly – about a team of peo­ple who work to uncov­er the remains of those who dis­ap­peared under the apartheid régime.

Madeleine Fullard is the head of the Miss­ing Per­sons Task Team and was the first per­son to speak at Maropeng’s recent­ly estab­lished Fire­side Talks, under the title: Search­ing for lost bones. Bring­ing the lost ones home.”

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Madeleine Fullard, head of the Miss­ing Per­sons Task Team, address­es an inti­mate crowd at Maropeng’s first Fire­side Talk. Image: Maropeng

It’s impor­tant to under­stand, began Fullard, that the Miss­ing Per­sons Task Team is a child of Argentina”.

Between 1974 and 1983, 10 000 to 15 000 peo­ple dis­ap­peared dur­ing what is referred to in Argenti­na as a peri­od of state ter­ror­ism geno­cide. When efforts were first made to uncov­er the remains of los desa­pare­ci­dos (the dis­ap­peared), they were con­duct­ed poor­ly, with remains often dam­aged beyond recog­ni­tion by bulldozers.

By 1984, how­ev­er, this approach had been refined and archae­o­log­i­cal, foren­sic anthro­po­log­i­cal and DNA-test­ing tech­niques intro­duced. As a result, com­plet­ed skele­tons were uncov­ered and, with them, the sto­ries behind these deaths. Argenti­na paved the way for oth­er teams work­ing to uncov­er the remains of thou­sands of peo­ple who had dis­ap­peared due to repres­sion in oth­er parts of Latin America.

Work done on bone DNA in the wake of the con­flict in the for­mer Yugoslavia and by the Unit­ed States, which still has a team search­ing for sol­diers who dis­ap­peared dur­ing the Kore­an War, has also been influ­en­tial glob­al­ly. All of this serves to show that the Miss­ing Per­sons Task Team, said Fullard, is not doing this [work] because it came to us out of the blue. It has a wider inter­na­tion­al context.”

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Madeleine Fullard is a his­to­ri­an by train­ing. Image: Madeleine Fullard

The Miss­ing Per­sons Task Team, in its South African con­text, has its ori­gins in the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion. While the com­mis­sion focused some of its efforts on uncov­er­ing the sto­ries behind the many killings and abduc­tions that took place dur­ing the apartheid era, it did not set out to find the remains of these indi­vid­u­als. The fate and where­abouts of the miss­ing peo­ple remained a mys­tery, and led to the estab­lish­ment of the Miss­ing Per­sons Task Team.

The Miss­ing Per­sons Task Team’s work typ­i­cal­ly begins with a thor­ough and painstak­ing inves­tiga­tive process that involves search­ing through old police doc­u­ments and mor­tu­ary books detail­ing uniden­ti­fied bod­ies and, where pos­si­ble, inter­view­ing survivors.

The team has also worked exten­sive­ly with per­pe­tra­tors of crimes, includ­ing for­mer Vlak­plaas boss and police hit squad leader Eugene de Kock, who assist­ed with the dis­cov­ery of for­mer askari Pheme­lo Moses Nte­he­lang, among oth­ers. (Askaris were guer­ril­las turned” by the apartheid régime against their for­mer comrades.)

Once a poten­tial bur­ial site has been iden­ti­fied – a site that usu­al­ly involves unmarked mass graves, often in noth­ing more than an open, non­de­script field – the foren­sic work begins, includ­ing pro­fes­sion­al sur­vey­ing, ceme­try analy­sis, the use of var­i­ous archae­o­log­i­cal tech­niques and sys­tem­at­ic trenching.

Once (if) the remains are found (this is work couched in pro­found uncer­tain­ty and unpre­dictabil­i­ty), the bones are care­ful­ly col­lect­ed and foren­sic anthro­pol­o­gists start to exam­ine the remains for age, sex, height and the rea­son for death. In approx­i­mate­ly half of the cas­es, said Fullard, DNA sam­ples are used to iden­ti­fy the bod­ies, but this is not always possible.

As a cru­cial part of its modus operan­di, the Miss­ing Per­sons Task Team works hand-in-hand with the fam­i­lies con­cerned, peo­ple who have often gone for decades with­out infor­ma­tion on their miss­ing fam­i­ly mem­bers. It’s impor­tant that they under­stand the extent and com­plex­i­ty of the work involved, said Fullard, as we are only suc­cess­ful in a minor­i­ty of cases”.

This does noth­ing to thwart their efforts, how­ev­er. The Miss­ing Per­sons Task Team, said Fullard, views its work as a rad­i­cal anti-racism project”.

We are estab­lish­ing a more egal­i­tar­i­an cit­i­zen­ry of the dead. It’s not just about recov­er­ing the remains, it’s about know­ing the cir­cum­stances of the death, and about the fam­i­ly need­ing to know the site of the death – often so that rit­u­als can be per­formed. The val­ue of an individual’s life and death is reflect­ed in the recov­ery of his or her remains.”

When remains are dis­cov­ered and accu­rate­ly iden­ti­fied, they are hand­ed over to the fam­i­lies con­cerned at a for­mal cer­e­mo­ny, often over­seen by gov­ern­ment offi­cials. These cer­e­monies offer a moment to acknowl­edge the price paid for life, said Fullard.

To date, the Miss­ing Per­sons Task Team has uncov­ered 102 remains, with 89 of these iden­ti­fied and returned to the fam­i­lies concerned.

The work that remains is sig­nif­i­cant – and extends beyond South Africa’s bor­ders, into Ango­la, Tan­za­nia and Zam­bia. Fullard’s team is also affect­ed by the num­ber of per­pe­tra­tors of apartheid crimes who are pass­ing away, and esti­mates that in some regions they have only three to five years to request assis­tance from these peo­ple before their knowl­edge of unmarked graves is lost.

Sev­er­al arte­facts uncov­ered by the Miss­ing Per­sons Task Team’s are on dis­play at Free­dom Park, an essen­tial site to vis­it, said Maropeng’s man­ag­ing direc­tor Michael Worsnip: If Maropeng is the sto­ry of what it means to be human, Free­dom Park is the sto­ry of what it means to be South African.”

Stay up to date with Maropeng’s next Fire­side Talk and oth­er events by keep­ing an eye on our blog, and our Face­book and Twit­ter platforms.

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Look out for the next Fire­side Talk com­ing soon at Maropeng. Image: Maropeng