Thursday, 25 April 2013

40 feared dead in Liberia building fire

Over 40 people are feared burnt to death when a building in the Waterside commercial district in central Monrovia was destroyed by an inferno, local authorities said.

The casualties include members of a Lebanese family and looters who had gathered in the building on the pretext of helping to fight the fire that broke out on Wednesday night.

The building, owned by the famous Fouani Brothers and estimated to be more 50 years old, collapsed on the victims.

Capt. Augustine Kolubah of Liberia's National Fire Service said two firefighters were among those who died and that five bodies had been recovered.

He said two others from the Liberia Petroleum Refining Corporation had narrowly escaped death and that five bodies have so far been recovered in the debris.

Armed officers of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and the Liberia National Police have been deployed to the area to assist in the search for more bodies.

Witnesses said some of the casualties included looters who entered the building on the pretext of fighting the fire. The 50-year-old building collapsed during the fire.

The cause of the fire wasn't identified.

Thursday 25 April 2013

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Between two earthquakes - Chinese media moves from tabloid to tender

More than 4,000 aftershocks have been recorded since the earthquake that struck Sichuan Province, in the southwest of China, last Saturday.

The death keeps rising, with dozens still missing reports Xinhua. More than 11,470 people were injured in the 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

While the relief effort continues in Sichuan Province, with 22,000 Chinese troops deployed in the area, the disaster has sparked a debate on Chinese Internet about how the press should cover such news, reports Caixin media.

Five years ago, when a massive earthquake struck Sichuan Province, killing more than 80,000 people, numerous photos of dead bodies were shown on television and in the newspapers. The media circus that descended on Sichuan was seen as many as highly insensitive, with journalists hounding the victims’ families and putting on a sensationalist show.

The number of reporters who rushed to the disaster site took up the time and energy of the local authorities, which had other – more important – things to do, obviously.

Xinhua reports on a Chinese student studying in Japan who wrote an article entitled How the Japanese media reported the 2011 earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tohoku, saying that Japanese reporters had stayed calm and “released sufficient information without violating privacy; provided data without being sensational; offered warnings without prompting panic."

According to Caixin media, although China is prone to disasters, its press seriously lacks experience in ethics. This is because of the lasting influence of the propaganda machine.

This time the reports on the Sichuan earthquake focused on rescue efforts and on heart-warming stories – but still avoided talking about important issues.

Many are happy, though, that the Chinese media is starting to show signs of maturity in the way it covers disasters.

The media is also changing the way it is reporting news. The People's Daily newspaper reports out that the Chinese television stations have adopted the foreign media’s practice of interrupting programming to provide updates on the earthquake.

There is also a new phenomenon, a kind of “grassroots Internet journalism,” that has appeared on China’s micro-blogging sites, as well as on WeChat, a popular mobile phone text and voice messaging communication service. These new medias played an important role in the aftermath of the earthquake and during the rescue effort.

Thursday 25 April 2013

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How do I become… an embalmer?

As an eight-year-old, Kevin Sinclair would fetch the Hoover from the chapel beneath the family flat, see dead bodies in coffins and carry on. "They were just sleeping," he says casually. "That's what my parents would tell me." What the average person would have considered macabre, he saw as normal and merely a matter of getting used to.

And after getting used to it, he followed his father into the funeral business and became an embalmer, a job he has been doing for 22 years. He co-founded the Feltham-based London School of Embalming in 2006, where he embalms and teaches.

A typical day starts with a delivery, but not your standard postal influx. Around eight to 10 bodies released from hospitals, nursing homes or private residences arrive ready for the embalming to begin. During the week, he teaches as he embalms. Under supervision, students have the opportunity to learn the craft with the deceased.

In layman's terms, the practice comes down to a trinity process of "sanitation, preservation and presentation". Once the body is washed, the deceased are then injected through the arterial system with a formaldehyde-based fluid which is used as a preservative as it plasticises the tissues.

The presentational aspect of the procedure is an area a lot of aspiring embalmers mistakenly hope to specialise in, but Sinclair says: "In the UK you have to train in all areas, you cannot specialise to only be a mortician."

Personality is more important than academic prowess for would-be embalmers. Although having a set of GCSEs is essential, an average C grade will do. To get a place at embalming school you will need to get through an interview. This is designed to "get a sense of the person's mental attitude because it can be traumatic", Sinclair says. And after passing a foundation exam which includes a mix of maths and English questions organised by the British Institute of Embalmers, the student begins a two-year course.

An art background will see you a long way; a creative flair teamed with a strong stomach is ideal. Inevitably, Sinclair has seen it all. As a former stonemason his creative skills allow him to restore dismembered bodies, with the aid of a photograph, to a fully identifiable condition. From burns to car accident victims, he uses a special facial wax to rebuild tissues and, if needed, reattach bodily features such as ears. Despite his life-long services to the profession, he is met with a challenge "every day, every day" he repeats. "No two deceased are the same. You have to rectify the situation like a puzzle."

Sinclair displays a very practical but reverential disposition about the procedure. However, he admits that having to embalm children or friend's relatives can be an emotional challenge: "You start associating the love you give your own family to the deceased."

In the embalming room, it's a solo job: Sinclair, the deceased and background music. What does an embalmer listen to? "What do you think, organ music or something?" he roars with laughter. "It's either the radio or my iPod." Being the high-pressure job it is, water-cooler conversations don't exist. The only time he can have a therapeutic discussion about work is during meetings with fellow embalmers where, he says, "you can talk and be understood". It is not a conversation starter at the dinner table.

Word-of-mouth is the gateway to progressing as an embalmer. Once qualified you need to be recommended. With Sinclair's catalogue of contacts in the industry, "people will contact me with an opportunity in an area for an embalmer to start", which gets passed on to students nearing the end of the course.

Jobs can take you across Britain and beyond for a "mini-adventure". Sinclair has provided his services from Afghanistan to the Falklands. Within close proximity to Heathrow he has a "flight-ready kit" for repatriation and rescue operations.

Among the job's many eccentricities are the outfits the deceased have chosen to be dressed in. From the bizarre to the sentimental, Sinclair has adorned people in Father Christmas outfits, cycling gear with aerodynamic speed hats, biker's leathers, and clown costumes. One request was particularly special: "A woman had asked to be put in her wedding dress, made out of parachute silk from the second world war."

It is not a lucrative profession – the average embalmer earns between £18,000 and £27,000 – but the rewards are far richer. The feedback from grieving families who value the achievement of dignifying the deceased with a sense of peace is the mark of a job well done.

Thursday 25 April 2013

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The disappeared in Turkey: Justice central to Kurdish peace process

Justice for the thousands of state-perpetrated killings and disappearances of Kurdish civilians in the 1990s should be an essential part of the peace process under way in Turkey, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch released a video outlining the events of that era, with family members whose loved ones were killed describing the lack of justice ever since. Ongoing talks between the Turkish government and Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), aim to end a decades-long conflict to further human rights and democracy in Turkey.

“Justice for the crimes of the 1990s is an important element among the human rights steps to resolve the Kurdish issue,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Ending decades of impunity for security forces and other public officials for the serious human rights violations perpetrated in the 1990s will take a real commitment from the government and prosecutors.”

In the new video, families of victims talk about their long search for justice for the execution-style killings, disappearances, and deaths in custody carried out by state agents in southeast Turkey and in some of the country’s main cities in the early 1990s. The video explains that Turkey’s 20-year time limit on criminal investigations for murder means that without urgent action there may soon be procedural obstacles to pursuing prosecutions in cases from the early 1990s.

The video includes interviews with some of the many families of victims who, in the absence of domestic investigations and prosecutions, brought their cases to the European Court of Human Rights, after they were denied justice in the Turkish courts. In repeated judgments against Turkey, the European Court found violations of the right to life and a pattern of failure to conduct effective investigations. These families continue to seek the prosecution in Turkey’s courts of those who killed their relatives and want to see justice enforced at home too.

In the most recent European Court ruling on April 16, 2013, in the case of Meryem Çelik and others, the court held Turkey directly responsible for the July 1994 disappearance of 12 men who are presumed dead, and the killing of another, following a military operation in a village in Hakkari province. The court further ruled that there had been a failure to investigate the 13 cases or the circumstances leading to the death of a fourteenth man whom soldiers allegedly shot dead in the village during the operation. The court ordered compensation to the families totaling €1.4 million.

In spite of many such rulings over the years, the Turkish authorities have taken few steps to put military personnel and state officials suspected of these crimes on trial.

Many of the cases from the period 1993 to 1996 may soon reach the time limit in domestic law for prosecutions, and the responsibility falls to both government and prosecutors to overcome the barrier presented by the statute of limitations in these cases. They can take steps to set aside the statute of limitations, either as a matter of case law or through legislative changes or both. Turkey has an obligation under international law to prosecute these serious human rights crimes and to enforce the findings of the European Court judgments, Human Rights Watch said.

A Human Rights Watch report in September 2012 identified the statute of limitations as a key obstacle to accountability for these crimes.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly explained why statutes of limitations cannot be applied to prevent prosecutions of serious human rights abuses. It made the case in a legal opinion presented to the justice minister in January that a change in the law to lift the statute of limitations in these cases would allow for their future prosecution and would not violate the principle of legality in international law.

A reform package passed by Turkey’s parliament on April 11 lifted the statute of limitations on investigating and prosecuting the crime of torture. The change offers an opportunity for accountability for acts of torture by security officials in the 1980s and 1990s, for which investigation and prosecution had previously been barred.

“Following the very positive step Turkey’s parliament took in the latest reform package to end time limitations on prosecuting torture cases, the government should ensure that there are no obstacles to justice for killings and disappearances by state forces or officials,” Sinclair-Webb said.

“European Court rulings such as the most recent one concerning the disappearance of 12 villagers in Hakkari are a reminder that the Turkish authorities have a duty to hold to account military, police, and other state officials for killing and disappearing civilians at the height of the conflict with the PKK in the early 1990s,” Sinclair-Webb said. “Prosecuting the crimes of the 1990s era would also help build the foundations of lasting peace.”

Prosecutors in Ankara have invoked the European Court judgments in decisions not to bar some old investigations into political killings despite the statute of limitations, citing a failure to conduct effective investigations in the past and the need to combat impunity. While the prosecutors’ actions should be supported and represent an important step forward, they should be complemented by legal reform that abolishes the application of the statute of limitations for killings involving state officials in the same way as for torture, Human Rights Watch said.

In two cases, Human Rights Watch interviewed relatives of victims who are still seeking justice in Turkey, despite winning cases at the European Court of Human Rights.

Adnan Örhan’s father, Selim Örhan, an uncle, Hasan Örhan, and cousin, Cezayir Örhan, were detained by a unit of the Bolu Commando Regiment during a military operation against their hamlet in Çağlayan village in the Kulp district of Diyarbakır province in May 1994. After a 2002 judgment (Örhan v Turkey) in which the European Court held Turkey responsible both for their deaths and for failing to conduct an effective investigation, among other violations, the Turkish authorities took no steps to reopen the investigation to identify and prosecute those responsible.

Despite a DNA test that in 2007 identified bones discovered in a mass grave as belonging to Adnan Örhan’s father and uncle, the Diyarbakır prosecutor’s office has still not actively pursued an investigation or interviewed witnesses. Almost 19 years after the disappearances, without resolute steps to investigate, the statute of limitations in the case will expire in May 2014.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed Resul Kaya, who was among dozens of villagers whom soldiers tortured during a military operation in February 1993 against their village, Ormaniçi, in the Güçlükonak district of Şırnak province. Seven among the villagers had to have feet or toes amputated as a result of incurring frostbite and then gangrene after being made to walk through snow then to stand for many days in cold water while in detention. Kaya described to Human Rights Watch how a group of soldiers had set fire to him and attempted to burn him to death.

The villagers from Ormaniçi took a case to the European Court, which ruled in Ahmet Özkan and others v Turkey that the Turkish authorities were responsible for torturing them, for the death of one man, and for burning down their homes. Despite the ruling, no one in Turkey was subsequently put on trial for these crimes.

Kaya also told Human Rights Watch that in June 1994 in a second military operation against the village, soldiers summarily executed his father, Mehmet Kaya, and three other villagers and that there had never been any investigation into the killings. After speaking to Human Rights Watch, Resul Kaya and families of the other villagers executed in June 1994, filed a new complaint with the Cizre public prosecutor and expect to be called in the coming days to testify before the prosecutor as witnesses and plaintiffs in the case.

The third interview in the Human Rights Watch video is with Saadet Dayan and Halil Dayan, concerning the death in custody in January 1994 of Ebubekir Dayan, an imam in Cizre. Saadet Dayan, his widow, told Human Rights Watch that her husband was summoned to the police station and detained for over two weeks. She told how she went to the morgue to identify his dead body, which bore the signs of torture.

She showed Human Rights Watch the possessions her husband had with him when he was detained and that the police had returned to her with his body. For 19 years she has preserved Ebubekir’s watch and takke, the hat he wore during prayer, his comb, belt, and a box of matches.

Halil Dayan, Ebubekir Dayan’s father and himself an imam, told Human Rights Watch that the family is still seeking justice for the torture and killing of Ebubekir.

Thursday 25 April 2013

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Tattoos honor victims of bombings

A week after learning his friends escaped harm in the Boston Marathon bomb attack, Adam Myerson was squirming with pain in a tattoo-parlor chair, fulfilling an urge that had been building for days.

“Anyone who has tattoos, when you have something important you want to mark it,” said Myerson, a professional cyclist and coach who lives in Dorchester. The neighborhood was home to an 8-year-old boy killed in the attack that took the lives of two others and wounded more than 260.

Since the bombings at the finish line of the city’s celebrated marathon, Boston tattoo artists have received a surge of business from people looking to move past the violence of April 15 by putting permanent mementos on their bodies. Some chose the skyline inside a heart, others the outline of Massachusetts. Myerson went with the B logo of the Boston Red Sox baseball team in yellow and blue: marathon colors.

Others have the city’s 617 area code in the tattoo design.

“I did it on my leg for all the people who lost their legs to kind of pay tribute in that way,” said the 34-year-old mother of two.

Mulysa Mayhem, owner of Good Mojo tattoo salon in Beverly, has had customers lined up since Saturday for marathon-related tattoos. Among the popular styles are “B Strong,” “Boston Strong” (set beneath the Boston skyline) and marathon logos. All proceeds from the marathon-related tattoos, which range from $50 to $100, will benefit The One Fund Boston (one

“It hit home,” Mayhem 
said. “A lot of those guys who are first responders are people we tattoo.”

Colleen Cushman was one of the first clients Tuesday at Good Mojo to have the skyline and “Boston” tattooed onto the left side of her lower back.

Watching the way the city reacted -- shutting itself down to apprehend the suspects -- “the rest of the country finally understood,” Myerson said. “This is who we are.”

He wanted that local pride on his body, he said, and now it shows just above his elbow on the back of his arm. Feeling Helpless

Tattoo artist Bill Byers said a friend was near enough to the blasts to be engulfed in their smoke and others he knew had nearby businesses or were running. His sister had lost a leg to disease, he said, and he felt for those maimed in the bombing.

“I’ve seen what it’s like to have to learn to walk again,” he said.

He plans to donate the $900 he’s collected in tattooing Boston commemorations to a victims’ charity.

“A lot of people feel helpless and want to do more, and it is our town,” he said. “It’s not like just giving $100 bucks. It’s making a statement.”

Chameleon Tattoo & Body Piercing in Cambridge had about 20 people come in April 20, five days after the bombings, to get Boston-themed ink as part of a fundraiser. The shop raised $5,000 for One Fund Boston, a charity for victims’ medical care, said tattoo artist Reuben Kayden, 40, of Somerville.

“Getting tattooed is a way to never, ever forget. It’s embedded in you,” Kayden said.

Julie Clifford, 33, is a hairdresser whose salon is a few blocks from the second explosion. Many of her tattoos, she said, are a way to commemorate a part of her life.

“I’ve lived in Boston for 15 years and it feels like home,” she said. “It wasn’t fun to have your home rattled.”

She got her newest tattoo, an abstract outline of city landmarks with a small heart overlooking them, from Byers, who also is donating his proceeds to the victims. Her friend and her husband are also getting tattoos, she said.

Other parlors are planning fundraising ink sessions in the days to come, including Regeneration Tattoo in Allston. The shop’s manager, Edwin Marquez, is from Watertown, the suburb where bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was caught by police.

“Birth, death, disaster -- whatever it is, people want to get tattooed,” he said.

Thursday 25 April 2013

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14 people buried in Ecuador landslide

A total of 14 people were buried by a landslide on Tuesday in Ecuador's coastal province of Esmeraldas, Xinhua news agency reported.

Esmeraldas mayor Ernesto Estupilan said the landslide occurred Tuesday night at a site called Tabete in the Chinca district of Esmeraldas, burying some 14 people who lived in two homes.

Six bodies were recovered from the landslide by rescue units on Wednesday.

The mayor, who had earlier reported 13 buried victims, said search continued for the rest of the victims despite difficulties accessing the tragedy site.

The landslide covered an area of 300 square metres and ranged from 4 to 20 metres in height

Thursday 25 April 2013

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Search for survivors continues, evacuation order ignored before Savar building collapse

One day after Wednesday's collapse, as hundreds of rescuers clawed through the rubble, the cries of trapped survivors could still occasionally be heard, with the screams of a woman pinned between concrete slabs mingling with the wails of distraught relatives waiting for news or collecting bodies. An enormous section of the concrete structure appeared to have splintered like twigs.

The disaster in the Dhaka suburb of Savar came less than five months after a blaze killed 112 people in a garment factory and underscored the unsafe conditions faced by Bangladesh's garment workers, who produce clothes for global brands worn around the world.

After the cracks were reported Tuesday, managers of a local bank that also had an office in the building evacuated their workers from the site and suspended their operations. But the garment factories continued working, ignoring the instructions of the local industrial police, said Mostafizur Rahman, a director of the industrial police.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association had also asked the factories to suspend work starting Wednesday morning, just hours before the building fell.

"After we got the crack reports, we asked them to suspend work until further examination, but they did not pay heed," said Atiqul Islam, the group's president.

2,000 people rescued from wreckage

On Thursday morning the odour of rotting bodies permeated holes cut into the building and rescue workers continued to search for more survivors and victims. Junior minister for home affairs, Shamsul Haque, said that by late Thursday morning a total of 2,000 people had been rescued from the wreckage.

Brig.-Gen. Mohammed Siddiqul Alam Shikder, who is overseeing army rescue teams, said the death toll had climbed to 194 as of Thursday afternoon.

Dozens of bodies, their faces covered, were laid outside a local school building so relatives could identify them.

The garment manufacturers' group said the factories in the building employed 3,122 workers but it was not clear how many workers were in the building when it collapsed.

A clearer picture of the rescue operation is likely to be available by afternoon, officials said.

Searchers worked through the night to probe the jumbled mass of concrete with drills or their bare hands, passing water and flashlights to people pinned inside.

"I gave them whistles, water, torchlights. I heard them cry," said fire official Abul Khayer late Wednesday, as he prepared to work late into the night.

Abdur Rahim, an employee who worked on the fifth floor, said a factory manager gave assurances that the cracks in the building were no cause for concern, so employees went inside.

"After about an hour or so, the building collapsed suddenly," Rahim said. The next thing he remembered was regaining consciousness outside. 3 storeys added illegally to building, official says.

On a visit to the site, Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir told reporters the building had violated construction codes and that "the culprits would be punished."

Abdul Halim, an official with the engineering department in Savar, said the owner was originally allowed to construct a five-storey building but he added another three storeys illegally.

Local police Chief Mohammed Asaduzzaman said police and the government's Capital Development Authority have filed separate cases of negligence against the building owner.

Thursday 25 April 2013

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Two more bodies found in Rizal landfill

Two more workers buried in a mountain of garbage at the Rizal Provincial Sanitary Landfill last Friday were identified Thursday morning, authorities said.

Calabarzon Police director Chief Superintendent Benito Estipona identified the victims as Eddie Malano and Rubidico Olog.

Malano, whose body was found at around 3:30 a.m., was identified through the motorcycle key in his pocket, according to Estipona and Dennis Taguno of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) rescue team.

Authorities said only half of Malano's body or his lower extremity was recovered. The other half of his body has yet to be found.

The body of Olog, meanwhile, was found at 9:15 a.m.

On Wednesday morning, the rescue team recovered the body of Garry Balahibo inside the backhoe that was also buried in last Friday's accident.

Balahibo was the operator of the backhoe.

Search and retrieval operations are still ongoing for Pablito Esto, also a landfill worker who went missing after the garbage dump collapsed.

The victims were conducting clearing operations for draining water in the area when the incident occurred on Friday.

Thursday 25 April 2013

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Digging up the past in Halbe

In the forests around Berlin lie perhaps tens of thousands of bodies, victims of the fierce battles of WWII and the vagaries of history. One man is digging up this past, determined to give the dead a proper burial.

The Battle of Halbe in Brandenburg, eastern Germany, and many other similar battles during the Red Army’s gradual march towards Berlin, raged in the last days of World War Two, in April and May 1945. Estimates vary as to how many soldiers and civilians died, with the Russians claiming to have killed about 60,000 Germans in Halbe alone, and similarly high losses exacted on the Red Army. It is estimated that more than 100,000 civilians got caught up in the battles too as they attempted to flee westwards ahead of the advancing armies. Hundreds of thousands more were involved in other battles as the Eastern front moved inexorably west.

Today in the cemetery in Halbe, about 29,000 people, so far, have been buried, many in unmarked graves, but tens of thousands more still lie in the Brandenburg pine forests where they fell. The Volksbund's "Waldfriedhof," or forest cemetery in Halbe, (maintained by the German war graves' commission) is heavy with history. Tall pine trees stand silently above row upon row of graves, some bearing names and some just listing a number of soldiers and civilians whose remains have been interred beneath the simple plaques.

One man's battle

Joachim Kozlowski is the man in charge of finding these soldiers in the forests and burying them in cemeteries like Halbe, which is one of the biggest war cemeteries in Germany. He has a personal reason for trying to identify fallen soldiers too.

"My family history is such that my great grandparents were born in Kiel and died there," he tells DW. "But by the time of the Second World War my grandparents had resettled in East Prussia. They had five children: my mother, two sisters and two brothers, Kurt and Max, and the two brothers have been missing ever since the war. One definitely died somewhere in East Prussia, and we have information that the other one was sent to the elite SA unit, the 'Feldherrnhalle' in Berlin in 1944, but then we lost any trace of him."

Kozlowski works mostly on his own on a daily basis, but he's part of a much wider team from the German war graves commission (the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge) and sometimes he calls in teams of diggers, or bomb disposal experts when he uncovers a big grave. He is not allowed to dig without having the bomb disposal teams on standby; because as well as human remains these forests still sometimes turn up unexploded ordnance too.

'The dead have the right to rest in peace'

Stomping through the forest in his warm winter boots, Kozlowski is practical and determined. "We find the dead in all sorts of places and we bring them to the graveyard. The dead have a right to rest in peace. A dignified burial can only really be in a proper graveyard. It’s not just a case of me finding a mass grave of 500-600 bodies, sticking a cross on top and saying, that’s me done." He explains that once he has found bodies, a process of meticulous identification starts where he uses photos and written records to catalogue everything he finds. Then he has to try and cross match it with war records of the period and lists of the still missing.

Sometimes he also digs up the unmarked graves within the cemetery to further identify who might lie beneath the crosses. "When I find dog tags or other bits of information that might identify the soldiers, that can really help. I send it all to the Wehrmacht's information center. There they have information on millions of soldiers. So it's easier for them to match up information I've found with potential people and then see if there is up to date contact information for that person's relatives so they can be told we've found their missing soldier."

Historical CSI

Kozlowski is a former soldier and paramedic himself, and his job today is like a kind of historical CSI (Crime Scene Investigator), forensically piecing together history from the tiny fragments of a person's life that he finds.

"When I find soldiers in the hills or mountains they often have with them other means of identification. This might be a wedding ring, or a lucky charm, or something that their children or their family gave them to carry, with initials or a name on it. Perhaps an ink pen with initials, or glasses, anything personal."

Identifying as many people as possible is important for Kozlowski, not just for the dead, but the living too. He thinks that grief should be focused on a place and that families need to know, wherever possible, what happened to their loved ones.

The German War Graves Commission, charity donations and the "Bundeswehr", the German army, support and pay for his work. Amazingly, even almost 70 years after the war's end, he is still finding unburied bodies in these forests.

Hidden depths

The equipment Kozlowski uses is relatively simple. He has a series of metal detectors, a spade and a shovel. Although for big areas of forest, he will use earth excavators before finishing the job by hand. Bodies lie at all different depths in the forest, depending on whether they were killed by a bomb and lie in the crater or shot dead or mown down by tanks. Some bodies lie just 50 centimeters below the surface, he says. Others can be one, two or three meters down.

"When big bombs go off, the bodies can lie as deep as 15 meters. The earth's structure is completely changed when a bomb has exploded, so you can tell what happened here. This here is where I found the last two bodies. In this area, I found loads and loads of bomb shards that had just been blown all over the place. Sometimes the bodies are completely blown away, or scattered, but if I've found two bodies here, you can be sure I will find lots more."

Sometimes Kozlowski's work can be complicated by bounty hunters, looking for memorabilia and ordnance from the war. But he quickly sections off the forest when he finds something and starts sifting and digging through the earth so he can maximize his chances of identification.

A boot, relic from the Second World War

We walk towards a spot he's been working on this week. The bones have already been carefully packaged in small purpose built coffin shaped boxes, but one soldier's boot is still in the grave and intact, although rotting.

"One of the soldiers I found here was about 20 years old, and the other one was between 25 and 30. I have to wait for the bones to dry more, and then I can find out a bit more."

Looking all around at the seemingly unending forest, you realize just how vast Kozlowski's task is, but he seems undaunted. "You know it is a great feeling, when you can find out enough from the bodies and the bits around them to identify someone totally. On those days, I feel super. I go and sit in my car, and just listen to some nice old music; it is just such a fantastic moment for me. Of course, other days, I just can't establish anything, even when I try and try and search and search, and those days are very frustrating."

He tells of how some families will phone him up to thank him personally if he uncovered their relatives. Others send money via the Volksbund organization so that he can place flowers on the graves, something he says he is very happy to do as he lives near many of the graveyards.

An inconvenient truth

Kozlowski's work is not just confined to Germany. He has been all over the former battlefields of the East, in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Russia. In the past things could get complicated with foreign authorities and history still looms large. The wounds of the Second World War are still not healed. This was also true in Germany, until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the East German communist regime. Prior to that, no one in the former GDR wanted to waste time or money digging up the inconvenient truth that Germany was once at war with Russia and therefore communism.

"It just wasn't a theme that was talked about during the GDR. No one bothered to look for German soldiers then. There were lots of monuments put up to Soviet soldiers, of course."

Even today, the taint of the Nazi past can make some Germans unwilling to confront what went on here. However for relatives of the dead soldiers, finally knowing what happened to their fathers, brothers, uncles and grandfathers allows them to close a bitter period of history.

'Who is happy when they find a dead body? I am'

"I’m happy when I manage to find and identify a body. That might sound macabre," he smiles. "I mean, who is happy when they find a dead body?" he questions, and then explains: "I am, then I can give that person back to their relatives and they can visit a spot where their loved one is buried."

But the saddest thing about his job, he thinks is finding children and civilians who were caught up in these battles. "I think: what did they have to do with all this horror? So many children paid for this war with their lives, really tiny ones, new born, or two or three years old. And then I think, I want a new job."

A mission

Standing in the latest shallow grave, an eerie sadness fills the air, you start to feel like you are walking on the dead wherever you tread. Joachim Kozlowski, though, remains practical and pragmatic in the face of the enormity of his task. He says the numbers of dead and missing are impossible to quantify, as estimates vary wildly as to how many people fell victim here. But the forests around Halbe and Berlin have potentially hundreds of thousands more bodies lying just a meter or two under the sandy soil beneath his feet just waiting to be found.

Kozlowski, knows that dying is the business of war. But even someone who acknowledges he's seen pretty much everything you can see, can find it hard. But it's almost as if he has got no choice.

"This is a mission, a calling," he confides. "It's not just a normal job. The work gets into your heart, it really does." Deep down, the born optimist is still hoping to find his uncles buried in the sandy soil somewhere during one of his excavations.

Thursday 24 April 2013

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