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December 8, 2005

UPG prof’s work figures in Saddam Hussein trial

As the trial of Saddam Hussein before an Iraqi special tribunal continues, Pitt-Greensburg professor Joan Bytheway will be watching a bit more intently than many observers. Her work as part of a Regime Crimes Liaison Office (RCLO) forensic team is expected to be instrumental in the case against the former Iraqi leader.

Anthropologist Bytheway, an adjunct faculty member at Pitt-Greensburg, and her husband, Rob, returned in June from a six-month stay in Iraq where they gathered and analyzed human remains taken from mass graves for use as evidence of war crimes.

“I hope they find [Hussein] guilty and punish him to the fullest extent for them, which would be execution,” she said.

The Bytheways were part of a team that documented mass graves at al-Hatra in northern Iraq, where the bodies of hundreds of Kurdish men, women and children were found. They also documented remains at another mass grave in a location in southern Iraq they declined to identify.

“After the Iran- Iraq war, this is where Saddam sent people to basically exterminate them because of their involvement in the war,” she said of the al-Hatra site. Many of the dead are believed to have been killed during Hussein’s 1988 Anfal campaign against the Kurds.

Bytheway said the men had been sprayed with AK-47 gunfire. The women and children, who were found in a separate mass grave, had been shot in the back of the head.

It was important “to let them have a voice again” after decades in the sand, she said.

Rob handled the logistics of transporting the remains from the site where archaeologists were unearthing them to the base where the rest of the RCLO team was working.

Joan’s job was to perform a biological profile for each set of skeletal remains, stating the gender, age and height of the person and documenting any trauma found on the bones or any identifiable characteristics such as dentures or gold teeth.

She said she was given only the bones, without any clothing or objects found with them, to prevent any sort of bias in the examination, she said. Other members of the team worked with the cultural objects and documents found with the remains.

Finally, a pathologist, who received the remains and the clothing and associated objects, officially determined the manner and cause of death, she said.

The Iraqi tribunal will use the individual case files to prosecute members of the former regime.

The Discovery Times channel plans to air a program about the RCLO mission Dec. 13. The RCLO’s work also is to be featured in the January issue of National Geographic magazine.

Although some human rights groups estimate hundreds of thousands of victims’ bodies may be in mass graves throughout Iraq, former Iraqi minister of human rights Bakhtiar Amin has estimated the figure could be as high as one million.

Some mass graves had been unearthed by Iraqis who did not meticulously document each case the way the RCLO has, with attention to detail in order to use the evidence in court.

The RCLO conducted one field session in 2004; the Bytheways were part of a second mission that began in January 2005.

Their involvement began when Joan saw a job posting late last year on the American Association of Physical Anthropologists web site.

The ad, posted by the Army Corps of Engineers, sought bioarchaelogists and forensic anthropologists for the Department of Justice’s investigation. Undaunted by the posting’s warning: “Be advised that Iraq is a hostile, dynamic environment,” Joan, who has worked locally with skeletal remains and relics from Monongahelan Indians, applied and was accepted.

The experience was profound.

“It changed my life professionally, it changed my life personally and it changed my life spiritually,” Joan said.

“To be part of history and to be able to serve my country in a way that was not militaristic was something that I wanted to do.”

When the offer became a package deal so Rob could join her, she quickly made arrangements for a colleague to take over her spring teaching schedule, found a dog sitter for their pets and by January the couple were on their way to a military base in Iraq.

For six months, they worked 10-hour days, sometimes in temperatures well above 100 degrees, lived in a trailer with no private bathroom and adapted to the regimented military base lifestyle.

They developed a great respect for the soldiers who were charged with keeping the team safe, Rob said. “We had to trust them,” he said, noting civilians were not permitted to carry weapons on the base.

In spite of their military protection, there still were some close calls. A suicide bomber with an improvised explosive device (IED) blew up two Humvees about 100 yards from the building where the team was working, Joan said.

“It shook the facility we were in,” she said. Mortars also were a concern. On days of high alert, everyone would be required to wear flak jackets and helmets. ID checks and safety checkpoints became a part of life. “You didn’t let your guard down,” Rob said.

“It’s a wonderful country, but it’s not safe. Definitely not safe right now,” he said.

The Bytheways are prepared to make a second trip to Iraq, but future missions have been postponed for safety and security reasons. For now, it’s uncertain when work may resume.

“It was a great experience because you felt like you were part of a beginning,” Rob said. “It changed our lives.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 8

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