Updated: Wed, 18 Dec 2013 06:16:44 GMT | By Agence France-Presse

Colombia seeks answers in unmarked graves

It wasn't a happy ending, but for one Colombian family who wondered what had happened to a young girl missing for more than a decade, forensic identification at least provided answers.

Colombia seeks answers in unmarked graves

A forensic anthropologist of the Colombian National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences explains evidence at a lab in Villavicencio, Meta Department, on November 27, 2013

The girl was just 14 when she taken by leftist rebels from her home.

It wasn't until 2012, more than 10 years later, that she was found -- a victim of a bombing at a camp run by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main guerrilla group in Colombia that has recruited child fighters, often by force.

"We have a slogan: life took them from us and death brings them back to us," said Pedro Morales, the deputy director of Colombia's Institute of Forensic Medicine.

He said the analysis identifying the remains was done at the request of her family, who suspected she had been taken by the FARC and might be among the dead. 

Inspired by the success, the institute has embarked on a massive project to identify the remains of children from mass graves, hoping to find answers for some of the families of the more than 17,000 children who have gone missing during Latin America's longest-running insurgency.

Around a half dozen forensic experts -- with the latest technology at their fingertips -- compare DNA profiles obtained from remains of victims with samples provided by possible relatives.

The team already is conducting anthropological and genetic analysis on around 500 bodies from unmarked graves.

In one case, a girl was conscripted by the far-right United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group and murdered in 2003, according to testimony from an demobilized fighter.

Her remains, partially decomposed after eight years in a grave, are resting on the table of anthropologist Lauro Polo, of the institute's laboratory in the central Colombian city of Villavicencio. 

"She was executed between August and October 2003 by members of the AUC with a shot to the head," and she was "dismembered to hide the evidence," explained Polo, while holding the destroyed skull of the young girl in her gloved hands.

A sample was taken from one of the bones to compare the DNA with that of her paternal grandmother. 

In most of the cases Polo has worked on, she said, the child was taken from his or her village by armed groups, and their families didn't see them again until they appeared years later in mass graves or unmarked graves in cemeteries.

The experts in Villavicencio emphasize that identifying remains through DNA is far more difficult than television shows make it seem, particularly in Colombia, where acidic soil and a hot and humid climate speed up the deterioration of the bones. 

Children also have a lower concentration of the minerals that protect bones than adults, which leaves them more vulnerable to decomposition.

Further complicating the project, there is no national database of genetic information. 

"As soon as the government approves the existence of a gene bank (in the coming months), we are prepared to call families to ask them to give blood to compare with the children's bones," said Morales. 

Meanwhile, the experts are piecing together a database of genetic data for those children whose parents are unknown.

"The database will be an important tool," explained forensic specialist Hernando del Castillo, adding that chances of identifying the lost children are greater if DNA samples from a parent, rather than a sibling, are available.

As Colombia's armed conflict -- fought by right-wing paramilitaries, leftist guerillas, and drug trafficking gangs -- drags on, the passage of time further complicates the situation, as immediate relatives die and the bones deteriorate, del Castillo said. 

"There are many dead whose names were taken from them. The goal here is to return them," he said.


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