Forensic science to identify South Africa's Forgotten Dead

South Africa’s Forgotten Dead

Every year, thousands of people are murdered in South Africa, at a rate that has been steadily increasing over the past three years. On average, some 50 people a day fall victim to violence at the hands of those motivated by rage, opportunity, or some dark compulsion it is difficult for others to imagine. These victims go from people, to targets, to dead flesh. But their dehumanisation does not always end in death.

Many of these men, women and children become “veld bodies”, a term coined by forensic scientists and police – the occurrence is so common, it requires its own moniker. If the victims remain anonymous, as most do, they are ultimately buried. In a minority of cases, they are reduced to a collection of boxed-up bones in a research laboratory.

It is only by extraordinary chance that their loved ones will ever know what became of them, a chance even more unlikely if the victim is one of the many foreigners living in South Africa.

These unidentified dead tend to belong to the most vulnerable groups: women, children, and particularly illegal immigrants, many of whom “come down into South Africa, and they die in a field and no one is looking”, according to one forensic scientist.

This story is a three-part series, made possible by a grant from the Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism Fund, run by Wits Journalism. It first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on January 13, 2017.

Featured image credit: Kristen van Schie

Kristen van Schie is a multi-award-winning journalist, having worked for The Star and international news agency Agence France-Presse. She has reported from seething post-coup Central African Republic, from a makeshift field hospital in drought-stricken Mogadishu, and from the icy decks of an ageing polar research vessel deep in the Antarctic Circle.

Sarah Wild

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