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December 9, 1996

Anthro lab manager joins human-rights mission to Croatia

The horrors of war became much more vivid for Josh Snodgrass recently when he spent three weeks on a humanitarian mission in Croatia, examining the remains of bodies recovered from a mass grave.

Trained in forensic anthropology, Snodgrass took a leave from his job managing the anthropology labs on campus to participate in the evidence-gathering mission, which was sponsored by Physicians for Human Rights under a United Nations contract.

"This is the first site in the region, so it's a high-profile case," says Snodgrass.

In a grim re-creation of scenes from war-torn regions such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Rwanda, pathologists, autopsy technicians, photographers, evidence technicians, and anthropologists joined forces to gather evidence of war crimes for prosecutors.

Three people have been indicted for the killings of 200 people at the gravesite near the city of Vukovar, though none is in custody. Physical evidence gathered by the team will bolster the case, which first came to light when a survivor told the story of his escape and led investigators to the site.

The tragedy began in July 1991, when Vukovar, a city of 85,000 people, came under heavy fire from Serbian forces. After four months of shelling, the city was destroyed and most residents had fled. Several hundred people remained in the hospital, huddled in the basement after the upper floors had been destroyed. Without food, water, or supplies, the doctors were transfusing their own blood to help patients. By mid-November, arrangements were made by the International Red Cross--with the permission of the Serbs--to evacuate the hospital.

"Even as Serb forces were meeting with hospital staff outside the building, other Serbs went through the back way and cleared the building, loading more than 200 people--all men between the ages of 16 and 60--onto buses," says Snodgrass. The men were taken to an empty warehouse and beaten for four hours. Two died and seven others were released for unexplained reasons, according to witness testimony. As the remaining victims were being transported by truck to a farm in the nearby town of Ovcara, one man jumped to freedom. It is his story that led investigators six months later to discover the mass grave where the others perished.

The preliminary investigation of the site didn't begin until the end of 1992. Early findings seemed to confirm the man's story, but local Serb authorities then barred access to the site until this past August. Two months of excavation produced 200 bodies.

The United Nations took over the still-unfinished Zagreb Medical School for the next phase of the investigation. Snodgrass worked with about a dozen colleagues from around the world to conduct laboratory analyses that included X-rays and autopsies. Some members of the team stayed on for three or four months; others, like Snodgrass, rotated through in two- and three-week cycles.

Snodgrass, who arrived October 6 and spent three weeks in Zagreb, examined bones to build a "biological profile" of each individual, compiling details of stature, age, sex, ancestry, and evidence of trauma, such as healed fractures from childhood, bullet wounds, and marks from the butt of a rifle.

The next step was to determine which damage occurred after death because each excavation begins with a sweep by a 25-ton de-mining vehicle. "They have to do it to clear the sites of mines, but it crushes ribs and does other damage to the remains," says Snodgrass.

Snodgrass, who graduated from UCSC in anthropology in 1995, had examined the remains of about 20 people in his work with Alison Galloway, an associate professor of anthropology. But nothing had prepared him for the scale of this task.

"Even for people with a lot of experience, it's still very difficult to switch over to conditions like that," says Snodgrass. "We worked long days, seven days a week, and most of the time we tried to stay detached. You pretty much had to be detached to keep yourself sane, but there certainly were times when you couldn't help but be moved by how massive it was. It's very different than what we see here, thank God."

It was particularly difficult to view video footage shot by Independent Television News at the hospital the day before the evacuation, says Snodgrass. "We saw the patients and really got an idea of who these people were," he recalls. "That was hard."

The facility lacked such basics as running water and heat, but Snodgrass was invigorated by the opportunity to work with Clyde Snow, the "grandfather of forensic anthropology." "I really learned a lot about looking at trauma," says Snodgrass, adding that most of the victims died of gunshots to the head. "Even though it was just three weeks, it seemed like years. Once they assessed my skills, I was given a lot of freedom."

The team's forensic analysis was finished in late November and the findings were forwarded to prosecutors in the Netherlands, says Snodgrass, who plans to follow the Vukovar case through contact with members of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Calling the work "too mentally and emotionally traumatic" to pursue full-time, Snodgrass nevertheless hopes to return to the former Yugoslavia to pitch in on future investigations. In the meantime, he is applying to graduate schools in physical anthropology.

Note: A BBC documentary on the Vukovar tragedy is in production and is expected to air in February.

--Jennifer McNulty