Julie Fleischman's winning essay for the 2016 AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition student competition tells of how her work in Cambodia with the skeletal remains of the victims of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime put her at the nexus of science and human rights.
For nearly a year in 2014 and 2015, Fleischman, a Ph.D. anthropology candidate at Michigan State University in East Lansing, joined the Cambodian team charged with cleaning, preserving, and analyzing skeletal remains from the mass graves at the “killing fields” of Choeung Ek, an especially infamous site. Fleischman's training in anatomy allowed her to assess skeletal evidence in a way that could bring the story of what happened in those dark days into clearer focus. Her work in Cambodia is the basis of her dissertation.
A primary role of forensic anthropologists is to provide legal testimony, but Fleischman said that for four decades after the mass murders, until 2016, the courts in Cambodia “had never once looked at the remains” and “didn't seem interested in that type of evidence.”
Fleischman had to find a different way to make her research count, providing hard evidence to back up the shocking stories survivors told about what happened under the Khmer Rouge.
One-quarter of Cambodia's population, nearly two million men, women, and children, were murdered during the Khmer Rouge's brief “utopian” reign of terror, 1975 to 1979. Victims — educated people and members of the upper classes, but also old people, children, anyone who resisted, many of them worked or starved to death — were buried in mass graves all over the country.
“Human remains, in contrast to eyewitness accounts and historical records, can provide direct evidence (i.e., distinct skeletal-injuries patterns) of traumatic events that can be assessed to discern human behavior, one of the key principles of anthropology. Human skeletal research is, therefore, vital for a more comprehensive understanding of this time period in Cambodian history,” Fleischman wrote in her essay.
From a human rights perspective, that's important. Scientific evidence of the murders will block apologists for the Khmer Rouge from denying what happened, bear witness in hopes of preventing virulent mass violence from recurring in Cambodia and elsewhere, and fill in the narrative for the families, and the nation, that must make sense of the episode and move on, Fleischman said.
Her work helped establish that most victims at Choeung Ek were in their 20s and 30s, and more likely men than women, which was somewhat surprising. “We expected more of a balance,” she said.
Survivors of the killing fields had long told stories of how people died when they were murdered outright: bullets were considered too expensive, so soldiers and the hapless internees they pressed into doing the work simply bashed in people's skulls.
“Part of my goal was to find out if that was what we were seeing,” Fleischman said, and indeed, nearly every skull from Choeung Ek she examined bore marks of lethal violence, mostly blows to the back of the head. Most skulls had been separated from their bones when they were exhumed during the 1980s, she said, and identifying individual victims is often impossible. However, she was able to “integrate previously undocumented data into a more holistic narrative of Khmer Rouge atrocities.”
While in Cambodia, she interviewed 10 people she met at memorials across the country. “For the most part, everyone said, ‘We want to preserve these bones so we will never forget what happened,’“ she said. Some bones have been cremated, the ashes interred in Buddhist ceremonies, but others will remain displayed in memorials.
Forensic anthropologists have worked with the remains of victims of global atrocities for a relatively short time, since Argentina’s “Dirty War,” which saw the kidnaping and execution of tens of thousands of people in Argentina when the military ruled from 1976 to 1983, Fleischman noted in her essay. Sometimes these scientists testify in court, if a society is ready.
But in Argentina, some mothers of the “disappeared” resisted the anthropologists' work, holding out for accountability for the crimes before agreeing to see their loved ones' remains analyzed and put to rest — a reminder of the need to keep culture in mind when deliberating on even such concepts as “justice, evidence, and truth,” Fleischman wrote.
Fleishman's experience in Cambodia was especially challenging, “to be confronted with the violent deaths of a lot of people,” she said. “I've learned over the years to put on the science and research hat and turn off the emotional side of it, to think ‘I'm here to work.’ But then I take off the hat and go home, and that's a different feeling, a human being confronting this awful tragedy.”
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