Somebody has to do this job

Helena Ranta travels around the world in order to excavate mass graves.
A forensic doctor on a humanitarian mission
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By Bernhard Odehnal
Weltwoche,
June 20, 2002
(Translated from the original German.)

Now she can laugh about it. But Helena Ranta still refers to it as "one of the worst moments in my career." That was on March 17, 1999. In Rambouillet, the peace talks between Albanians and Serbs had just broken down, in Kosovo war was in the air. In a stuffy, crowded lecture hall in Pristina some 150 representatives of the international press listened to the still practically unknown Finnish forensic doctor Ranta tell how Serbian troops had gruesomely slaughtered Albanian civilians.

In the days leading up the lecture, Ranta had examined the corpses of 40 Albanians that had been shot in the village of Racak in January. As soon as the crime was discovered, William Walker, the American head of an observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), called it a “massacre" and blamed the government in Belgrade for it. The scientist Ranta, on the other hand, was more cautious; she had only seen the corpses, not the scene of the crime. And she knew that every one of her statements would be interpreted politically and could have a decisive effect on war or peace in Kosovo. Ranta therefore spoke of "several possibilities." The press conference ended in disaster. The press felt that it had been cheated out of a story and Walker openly displayed his anger towards the hesitant Finn. And Ranta felt abandoned by everyone. "I never should have gone there," she says now. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

The victims of Racak are still haunting Helena Ranta. She still gets calls and letters from people who want to know what really happened then and what she found out. This mild June evening in her country home in Aminnefors, southwest of Helsinki, is no exception. The birches rustle gently in the evening breeze. A neighbor stops by with a butterfly net and tells about his new caterpillar breeding project. Her mobile phone starts ringing to the tune of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto; a Serbian journalist wants to know if Dr. Ranta is going to testify soon against Slobodan Milosevic at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. She knows why: because of Racak. No, Ranta answers concisely, she hasn't received an invitation, "but the results of my forensic examinations are before the Court. Thank you for calling." Ranta sets dawn the telephone on the wooden table and picks up a short-handled axe. She needs to chop some more wood for the sauna stove.

Helena Ranta is a professor at the Institute for Forensic Medicine in Helsinki. In the past years, she and her team have examined mass graves in the Balkans, Africa, and Latin America. She was appointed to the (ultimately unsuccessful) U.N. committee in charge of investigating events in the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin and an investigation of war crimes in Afghanistan is on the agenda.

But nothing concerns her as much as the murder of 45 Kosovo Albanians in Racak; none of her cases is as controversial. In the Court’s indictment for “crimes against humanity,” Racak is a central point. Helena and her team submitted to the Court autopsy reports, examinations of the bullets and crime scenes, photos and videotapes. But when Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte presented the witnesses of the Racak case, the Finn’s name was not on the list. Ranta looks disappointed, but she would never simply admit it. “The prosecutors probably have other priorities,” she says sarcastically.

The exuberant, resolute Finn has just returned from a journey across Peru. President Alejandro Toledo called upon her to help set up a Truth Commission to investigate the crimes committed in the early 90s by rightwing death squads and the leftwing guerrillas of the “Shining Path.” Ranta was flown by helicopter from Lima to the Andes. From an altitude of 4000 meters, she was supposed to lay the groundwork for excavation of the mass graves. “I don’t know why the Peruvians came to me,” she said. “Probably, it’s because we Finns are independent, first of all, and secondly because we do very thorough work.”

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan must have thought along similar lines when he appointed Ranta in April to be an advisor to the special committee for the investigation of alleged Israeli massacres in the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin. The committee turned out to be a political disaster. For two weeks, Ranta met with antiterrorism experts and diplomats (including the Finnish ex-President Nartti Ahtisaari) “as in a gilded cage” in Geneva. The Israeli government denied the team entry to the country for so long that Annan angrily disbanded it. Ranta was left with countless folders full of remote diagnoses and witness testimony (“maybe we can still use it someday”) and with memories of the evenings in Geneva pubs, where she sang sad Finnish love songs with Ahtisaari.

Helena Ranta has often made enemies through her work. While she was looking for the remains of murdered Muslims around Srebrenica, Bosnian Serbs threatened to arrest her team, attacked them, and slit the tires of their cars. Just as unpleasant – and just as common – as the incidents of obstruction are the politicians’ attempts to misuse the forensic doctor for their own political purposes. OSCE mission leader Walker was only interested in hearing from Ranta that the Serbs had committed the massacre. In a conversation prior to the disastrous press conference, he broke a pencil and threw it at the Finn. She refused to be influenced by the raging American. “The more thoroughly we investigate a corpse, the more causes of death can be eliminated. That is the significance of forensic medicine,” she now explains. “In March of 1999, I still couldn’t exclude anything.”

Ranta is a scientist through and through. Her career was a matter of family pride. Her brothers are nuclear engineers. Her elder brother is one of the four people in Finland authorized to operate nuclear power plants. Ranta herself studied molecular biology and oral surgery. She initially pursued her academic career in the Institute for Biochemical Medicine. Later on, as Chief Dental Officer in the Ministry of Justice, she was responsible for dentistry in detention centers. It was an interesting job: “I got to know Finland’s prisons, inmates, and all their diseases.” But it was not a real challenge.

In 1991, Ranta became a lecturer at the Institute for Forensic Medicine at the University of Helsinki. She happened to be on a study visit to Stockholm in 1994 precisely at the time when the ferry Estonia sank in the North Sea. Her institute put her in charge of identifying and autopsying the bodies. Her thorough, rigorously scientific work made a big impression. As a result, she was recommended for more challenging missions.

In 1996, she was confronted with the realities of war. The Finn Elisabeth Rehn, who at the time was a U.N. special emissary for human rights in ex-Yugoslavia, sent her to Bosnia to help identify the victims of Srebrenica. In July of 1995, Bosnian Serbs commanded by General Ratko Mladic murdered as many as 7,000 men in the conquered Muslim enclave of Srebrenica.

The mission was not a great success. Ranta didn't know anything about the country or the conflict at the time. She thought she had already arrived in Sarajevo when the Russian military transport plane landed in the Croatian city of Split. In the woods around Srebrenica thousands of bodies were decomposing: but Ranta and her team were prevented from doing their job - not only by the Serbs, but also by the ponderous and bureaucratic administration of the U.N. “A meeting every day, everybody is writing memoranda, and nothing happens." The situation was made still worse by the lack of technical facilities and the rivalry between the Finnish team and the United States. "We are working under extremely difficult conditions," explained human-rights expert Manfred Novak, who was then a U.N. special emissary in Bosnia, "but Ranta and her team always keep cool. They are certainly one of the best in Europe." In Bosnia, Ranta collected valuable experience for future operations. She gained insight, as well: “Even as a scientist, you are part of the game and need to rehearse your role perfectly. One false step, one misplaced word, and you've ruined your reputation and perhaps destroyed the international community's only chance of ever finding out the truth."

Since then, before every mission Ranta talks things over with her closest friend, a police officer in the far north of Finland. She also gathers information on the conflict and the conflicting parties and brings the technical facilities up to the state of the art. In Kosovo, the team had a mobile X-ray device and developer for the autopsies. If she had been allowed to work in Jenin, the team would have been able to send photos and films immediately to Helsinki via satellite. Ranta is afraid that the photographic materials will be confiscated upon leaving the country. She is always careful to take on missions assigned by universities or other nongovernmental organizations. “I am an independent scientist and I don’t take orders from any government.”

In 1998, Ranta thought that she "had had enough of the Balkans after Srebrenica.” But the EU was looking for independent experts to investigate the disguised mass graves in Kosovo. And the team from Helsinki got back on the road. Excavation of mass graves is time-consuming and nerve-wracking, and often life threatening, as the grave sites are sometimes mined. Before the forensic investigators can get to work, specialists have to examine every square meter with metal detectors. Even after you find some corpses, you can't dig them up immediately. There are sometimes even mines under the corpses.

It usually takes hours before a corpse can be completely disinterred, placed in a plastic body bag, and brought to the nearest morgue, where several experts participate in the autopsy and take photos and films. Pathologists and anthropologists examined the corpses for evidence of violence, marked the entry and exit bullet wounds, and inserted thin metal rods along the paths of the bullets through the body. If no exit wound is present, the body is dissected in order to find the bu1let.

Even under normal circumstances, this is not an easy or pleasant job. The examination of the victims of the massacre in 1999 took place under especially difficult conditions, however. Serbian, Belarusian, and Finnish forensic doctors worked elbow to elbow on Albanian corpses. Each regarded the others with suspicion, each team had a member that could understand the language of the others and could listen in to conversation over the dissecting table. For eight days they measured bullet wounds and cut into the bodies to look for bullets. On the outside, new fighting broke out and the threat of war became imminent. On the inside, everybody knew that the results of the investigations would have political consequences. Nevertheless, "we had to remain objective and make our judgments on the basis of purely scientific criteria."

Her marriage broke up seven years ago. She still is on good terms with her ex-husband. She gives lectures on "The Face of Evil" and is a member of several rather strange clubs, such as "Friends of Old Bones."

She isn’t thinking of remarriage: “I’m too focused on my work.” Her parents and siblings provide support, says Ranta, but she hardly even talks to them about the details of her work. “It would be unfair to burden them with it.”

At her weekend getaway in Aminnefors, Ranta shows her guests through the garden. The grass is high, almost hiding the lone primrose that grows in the shadow of the wall. The plant has a history: Ranta’s staff dug it up in Racak and brought it to their superior.

Ranta’s reluctant attitude at the press conference in March of 1999 gave certain journalists an opportunity to speculate on a conspiracy between Albania and the West. Le Monde voiced suspicions that the alleged massacre was staged by Albanians in order to force NATO intervention. Slobodan Milosevic presented that theory to the Court as part of his defense. The Berliner Zeitung accused the Finnish forensic expert of “contradictions and half-truths” and claimed there was no proof that Albanian civilians had been executed by Serbian units. A German WDR television team gave the following title to its report on Racak: “It all began with a lie.”

Ranta refused to accept the reproaches. In the fall of 1999, she persuaded the Finnish government to send a new mission to Racak. She had the terrain surveyed, created a computer simulation of the landscape, used a “poser program” to place the digitized corpses on the screen-landscape in the locations that they had been found in Racak.

Thanks to on-site investigations and countless hours on the computer, she got all the facts. She now knows where the bullets were fired from: “point blank, not, as the Serbs and Belarusians claim, from a distance of 200 meters.” She knows how many weapons were fired, what kind of bullets were used, that the victims were shot in the clothes in which they were found (not in UCK uniforms), and that they were shot where they were found. Under the surface, investigators found a bullet along with fragments of human teeth. Those tooth fragments were found to be missing from a corpse lying precisely in that location. The DNA was identical.

By the middle of 2000*, Ranta had convincing proof that Racak had not been faked. But the German and French media continued to hypothesize a Western conspiracy. “You can imagine how I suffered. But I couldn’t say a word, I couldn’t influence the public.”

The report on Ranta’s investigation of Racak is still being kept secret. Only six copies of the full version exist. One of them is in her safe, another one is in possession of the war crimes tribunal. At the insistence of the EU, she published a 23-page summary. It’s all there in black and white; she can’t believe that anybody could still have doubts. But the report is hard to understand, because Ranta writes like a scientist, dry as bones. But when she explains the report, when she tells you about her painstaking investigations and the sources of evidence, it suddenly all makes sense. “The prosecution has presented a lot of speculation about Racak, but no facts,” says Petra de Koning, a Dutch courtroom reporter for the NRC Handelsblad. “They got the material from Ranta, but they are unable to interpret it correctly.”

Early Monday morning, Helena Ranta is back in Helsinki, in her little office of the Institute for Forensic Medicine. The report on her trip to Peru needs to be finished. New missions await. The Finnish President promised that her country would take part in Afghanistan – along with a forensic team. Helena Ranta isn’t sure that she should be happy about it. Having just celebrated her 56th birthday, she could cut her working hours by half and spend more time at her country home.

But time is pressing. An Irish journalist has accused the Americans of tolerating a massacre of Taliban prisoners. Near the town of Masur-i-Sharif, 5000 corpses are said to be buried. Human rights organizations are demanding a rapid investigation, before the evidence can be destroyed. Ranta might have to hit the road as quickly as she did for the aborted Jenin mission in April. At the time, she was on winter vacation in Lapland. During a cross-country ski trip, she flagged down a border policeman on a motorized sleigh, on which she was driven to the airport. The next day, she was sitting in the Palace of Nations.

In Aminnefors, nature is unfolding in all its splendor. Only the lone primrose from Racak looks a little wilted. It blossomed early this year, right in the week in which the Milosevic trial began. As part of his defense, Milosevic showed an excerpt from the German TV documentary “It All Began With a Lie,” in which Ranta says that no possibility should be excluded. Now she suspects that she might be summoned to The Hague as a witness for Milosevic: “In that case, the prosecution might have to cross-examine me. That will be very interesting.”

* The original published text of this article erroneously stated "By the middle of 2001." Dr. Ranta noted this error in her testimony at The Hague, March 12, 2003 (page 17712).

This article was originally posted at Weltwoche.