I’ve now gotten used to the rhythm of my case work in the lab of the FAFG. Take a case out from Evidence, clean the bones, clean the clothes that came with the body, determine age, sex, trauma and other factors affecting the bones, type up my report, wait for my supervisors to review my work, and finally take the case up to the photo lab for photographic documentation. I am analyzing about two cases per week.
Lately, it seems that I have been dealing almost exclusively with children. About two thirds of the cases I’ve worked on in the last month have been bodies of kids ranging in age from six months to 16 years. And I haven’t been the only one; I’ve noticed an unusually large number of kids’ skeletons in the lab recently.
More than anything, this has made me realize how much war affects children, whether directly or indirectly. Many children in Guatemala were murdered along with their parents in massacres carried out as part of the “scorched earth” policies of the early 1980s, in which entire rural towns were wiped off the map by the military or paramilitary groups because they were thought to be sympathizers of leftist guerillas. Other children died of starvation either hiding in the woods with their families when their towns were attacked, or because armed groups had surrounded their towns and refused to let most people and goods in or out.
Children’s bones are quite different than those of adults because they are constantly in development. This makes analysis of such cases more difficult but also fascinatingly interesting (for those of us who are into that kind of thing, I guess!). Each stage of bone development happens within a specific age range in all children, which makes establishing age ranges relatively easy. For example, the femur (thigh bone) has growth plates at each end that develop separately from the shaft, and eventually attach in the final stages of development. So if the growth plate, or epiphysis, is partially attached to the shaft, we know that the individual died between 14 and 19 years of age.
Yet teeth, especially in younger kids like the ones I’ve been dealing with recently, are the most accurate estimators of age for children. And that is precisely what made me realize just how wretched of a thing these deaths are. I was playing with a 3 year old recently and I couldn’t help but stare at his teeth. Seeing his baby teeth in his mouth as he talked to me affected me greatly. It was deeply saddening to think of pre-school aged boys like him being killed. Yet ultimately, this feeling is what drives me to do this work in the first place.