Sunday, November 22, 2009

The "Backstory" on Argentina's Forensic Anthropology Team

There have been many, many stories told about Argentina’s horrific 1976-1983 “Dirty War,” when the military ruled the country with an iron fist, squashing any dissident voices. At least 10,000, and perhaps as many as 30,000 people, “disappeared” during this dark era. I have done several reports over the years on a variety of topics related to the “Dirty War,” from amnesty laws being overturned in 2003, to the public opening of a former detention center in 2004, to the (still) missing witness from a trial in 2006. As more and more former military leaders appear in court on human rights abuses, and more and more victims are identified, the issue continues to be a very important one for many Argentines. When I learned about the work of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF, in Spanish) and their tremendous success in identifying and reuniting family members with the remains of their loved ones through the use of science, I immediately wanted to do a story about them.

From the initial inquiry I made with the team until I got my profile of them on-air on CNN this week, 11 months passed. I normally don’t have the time (or patience) to wait that long to make a story come together, but something told me that this would be worth waiting for. And it was. The nearly year-long process was a result of several factors, like scheduling conflicts and weather, but chief among them was getting permission to film at an exhumation site. Understandably, some people are hesitant to allow cameras into an area where their loved ones presumably spent their final, violent, moments. After much back-and-forth with the EAAF team, I was invited in October to visit a cemetery with them in La Plata, Argentina. First, though, I would need to send an official written request to a Federal Judge’s office to ask permission. When I was told this, I immediately thought it was a lost cause; the Argentine judicial system works at a snail’s pace (at best) and I figured it would be months, if not years, before I had a ruling. To their credit (and my enormous surprise) they had an answer for me within a week, faxing me an 8-page opinion signed by all seven judges from the La Plata federal jurisdiction.
Unfortunately, the answer was no.
For the aforementioned reasons, they denied my request to enter the cemetery and film. I also learned that French television network, France 2, was seeking access as well; our requests were denied simultaneously. I think the EAAF team could sense my frustration, so they quickly suggested another site in the neighborhood of Merlo where they felt it would be easier for us to enter. And they were right. I didn’t need to file a written request; I was told that the judge would just meet me there. And indeed he did. On the day we went to film, the judge and his two assistants showed up, along with the provincial prosecutor, his handlers, a local TV news crew, police and several others. The EAAF team told me that they were all there looking for a little fame on international TV, because normally they don’t draw such a large crowd. And while I would have liked to have included all of them in the story, the simple fact is that there is not enough time on-air to interview every single person. Moreover, this was a story about the efforts of the EAAF team, not about the specific grave that was being exhumed that day. I politely explained this to them, and they seemed to understand. I did get all their email addresses, and sent the story link to them; the only one who responded so far was a young provincial police officer who was monitoring the exhumation that day.

The Santa Monica cemetery in Merlo is huge. I don’t know how many people are buried there, but just from looking at it, I would say tens, if not, hundreds of thousands. This was definitely a provincial cemetery in a humble part of town; no grand, ornate mausoleums like you see in Recoleta cemetery where Eva Peron and other Argentine dignitaries are buried.

After we arrived to the cemetery, we watched EAAF team members -- Mariana Segura, Analia Simonetto and Alejandra Ibanez (pictured above)-- get their tools arranged and get ready for the dig. Truth be told, most of the grunt work of shoveling the grass and dirt was done by the cemetery workers. But once they had access, the EAAF team got right into the graves and got dirty, meticulously separating dirt from bones. It was fascinating, and a bit disturbing, to watch. The first grave that they exhumed was of a person who had died in 2001, so they had to locate that body, remove it, and then search for the body of the person they suspected was killed by the military in the late 1970s that was buried underneath. That whole idea blew my mind: Someone who died eight years ago was buried on top of another person – a possible victim -- and in order to confirm that, they needed to remove the other body. That, of course, requires permission and notification of next-of-kin, and sure enough, two relatives of the person buried on top were present, monitoring the process. Those bones were removed and will be put in a more communal grave (as opposed to an individual plot). I was told that even if the EAAF team didn’t request the exhumation of that grave, that removing and relocating skeletons after a period of at least five years is a common practice at cemeteries in Argentina, because of limited space. If a family has the money to re-bury the body, they can do so in another private plot, but if not, it goes to a communal spot. All the bones of each individual are still separated and stored apart from the others, but they likely do not have a private plot. This surprised me as well. Is that common in other parts of the world too?

As the exhumations continued under a hot sun, I interviewed Sara Cobacho, (above) the 78-year-old secretary of the Human Rights Office in Buenos Aires province, who is also a member of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Sara lost six family members to the dictatorship, including two of her sons, 23-year-old Enrique in 1977, and 28-year Oscar in 1978, and she herself was detained in a illegal detention center for six months in 1976. I could see the years of pain and anguish on her face. I could also sense her strength and determination. She now works closely with the EAAF team during their digs, although the remains of her two missing sons have yet to be recovered. I don’t know if she showed up that day because she wanted to be on CNN, but I didn’t really care. She was an important person to speak with, and had some very intelligent things to say during our interview. I feel privileged when I meet a person like Sara.

Next, I interviewed Mariana and Analia of the EAAF. We did the interviews first in English, then in Spanish. Both women continually apologized for their English skills, but there was no need for them to do so; they both spoke very well. When preparing a report for CNN, I always try to find people who speak English, as I feel it makes the story just a little easier to understand, since you are hearing the words directly from their mouth. Of course, in this part of the world, not everyone speaks English, so I often end up translating and then doing English-language voiceovers. Regardless, even if someone does speak English, I always ask them questions in Spanish too, so that my colleagues at CNN en Espanol can use the material to put together a report in Spanish.

After that, I shot my “stand-up” -- the part of the story where you see the reporter talking to the camera. I wanted to have the movement of the EAAF workers in the background, and show as much of the cemetery as possible. Cameraman Eduardo Aragona and I had to seek out a few locations where it would be possible for me to walk-and-talk (without tripping over a gravestone, which I did, twice) while also having the proper sunlight and background. We did about seven takes, and got two keepers, one of which we used in the final report. Throughout the day, I also shot more informal “stand-ups” for the CNN International show, “Backstory” which takes viewers behind the scenes of a story, and whose format I am attempting to emulate in print here. Here's that report.

After we finished shooting, we started saying goodbye to everyone, which took awhile, because there were about 25 people there at that point. We drove an hour back to Buenos Aires city and headed to the Almagro neighborhood to have a late lunch before our meeting with Ana Feldman later that afternoon. Ana’s 18-year-old sister, Laura, was “disappeared” by the military in 1978. The interview with Ana was equally emotional as the earlier ones, as she told me about her sister and her long efforts to locate and receive her remains. She was able to accomplish that thanks to the work of the EAAF. Ana is the first person we hear from in my report. The photograph I took of her below, holding a photo of her late sister, was displayed prominently last Tuesday on the homepage of, which helped make it one of the site's most popular stories that day.

We then left Ana’s apartment and returned to the bureau. I was tired and sunburned, but satisfied knowing that we had the material to tell an important story, and tell it well.

Photos by Brian Byrnes.


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Fine Woodworking Plans said...

I hope you have a nice day! Very good article, well written and very thought out. I am looking forward to reading more of your posts in the future.