Symes recognized for human rights work in South Africa

Mercyhurst College forensic anthropologist Dr. Steven Symes travels the world, quietly and unassumingly offering closure to families whose lives have been devastated by human rights tragedies.
In recent years, Symes has answered requests to apply his expertise in bone trauma analysis to human rights investigations in El Salvador, Peru, Guatemala, Argentina, Indonesia, Chile and Mexico. There he has examined the remains of hundreds of human rights casualties, doing his part to identify the victims and uncover evidence of war crimes.

This week in South Africa, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe publicly acknowledged Symes for his role in identifying the remains of the Pebco Three – three black South African anti-apartheid activists who were abducted by South African Security Police in 1985 and taken to a farm, where they were interrogated, tortured, drugged and shot dead. Their bodies were then burnt on a wood fire.

According to news reports, some family members were concerned that the remains, just returned by the government in September, were truly those of their loved ones.

“But a confident Radebe said the forensic examination team had included a leading international expert in burnt remains, Dr. Steve Symes from Mercyhurst College in the United States,” The Herald in South Africa reported.

Symes assisted with the forensic analysis of the Pebco Three in May 2008, when he was called to Pretoria, South Africa, by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team and Madeleine Fullard, head of the Missing Persons Task Team, which investigates apartheid-era cases for the South African public prosecutor's office.

Symes credits Fullard for leading the way in uncovering the truth of what happened to the slain activists, who were finally laid to rest on Oct. 4. Heralded as patriots and heroes, the funeral of the Pebco Three at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University was attended by local, provincial and national politicians.

Meanwhile, as a man who has studied thousands of cases in which one human being had literally butchered another, Symes admits the carnage still astonishes him. He depends on his science to see him through.

“As scientists, we need to be advocates for nothing but the science,” he said. “As soon as you let emotions into the mix, you risk losing your objectivity and being able to help these families in the only way you know how.”

Release date: Oct. 6, 2009



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