By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Maureen Schaefer will soon stare into a hole in the harsh landscape of Northern Iraq and see, among a pile of bones, the monstrous horror that was Saddam Hussein's regime.
The 29-year-old forensic anthropologist, a native of White Oak and graduate of McAuley High School, will go to Iraq in March and use her skills in examining human remains at some of the 14 mass grave sites in the Kurdish-dominated area of Northern Iraq. That's where the former Iraqi dictator is believed to have committed some of the most horrific of his atrocities in the murder of thousands of Iraqi Kurds.
Maureen Schaefer, a forensic anthropologist originally from White Oak, has been asked to go to Iraq and investigate that country's recent atrocities.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
"It will be forensic detective work," said Schaefer, who performed a similar job on an 18-month mission to Bosnia in the mid-1990s. "The mission is to identify who these people were and how they died."
In Iraq, Schaefer will work for Archaeologists for Human Rights. The international organization based in Germany was formed last year to help the Iraqi people identify the remains of family members murdered by the regime and to aid the post-Saddam government in Iraq in documenting the genocide.
It will be work similar to that of the forensic anthropologists who, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, spent months sifting through the rubble of the World Trade Center piecing together human remains and identifying victims through the use of DNA provided by relatives of those who had died.
"It is hot, dusty work and it means long days and, sometimes, a lot of frustration,'' said Schaefer. "But it is work I believe I was meant to do.''
There were signs, when she was growing up in White Oak, that Schaefer was meant to do a job that others might find depressing, perhaps even repugnant.
"Even as a girl, she'd say that she wanted to work in a funeral home,'' said her mother, Dianne Schaefer of White Oak. "I always thought she said that kind of thing to be different, to get a reaction out of people.''
In the seventh grade, her Girl Scout troop went on an all-night field trip, visiting businesses and people who worked throughout the night. There was a stop at a west-side funeral home, where the young girl sat fascinated, listening to one of the morticians talk about her craft.
"That's all she could talk about for a while, the trip to the funeral home,'' Mrs. Schaefer said.
There were other signs as well. There was the high school science project on Egyptian mummification, complete with plaster mummy models and mummification instruments, such as the needles used to pull the brain of a corpse through the nose.
And there was the time her brother found her in the front yard with the carcass of a deer in a large barrel, using liquid bleach to remove tissue for examination.
So it was no surprise to Maureen Schaefer's family when, on her graduation from McAuley High School, she entered the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science.
Her mortician degree led to a job in a funeral home in Louisiana. But she quickly soured on the funeral-home business.
"I realized I was more interested in the investigative aspect of death than in the business of death,'' Schaefer said.
She entered Louisiana State University, where she earned a master's degree in forensic anthropology. The title of her master's thesis indicated where her career was headed: "A comparison of the cranial wounding effects of .22- and .38-caliber bullets through the analysis of entrance diameter and fracture types.''
Identifying bodies in Bosnia
In Bosnia, she worked for a human rights organization that was invited in by the Muslim, Serb and Croat factions to help with the identification of the remains of about 7,000 men and boys found in a mass grave after the 1995 fall of Srebrenica.
There, forensic anthropologists were merely identifying remains for the survivors. They were not involved in building a war-crimes case.
"In Bosnia, the situation was still unsettled. It wasn't clear that there was one victor in the conflict who would be trying those responsible,'' said Schaefer in a phone interview from the home of a friend in London. "In Iraq, it might be different.''
With Saddam Hussein in custody and the process of building a post-Saddam Iraqi government slowly moving forward, "It is clear that some day before long there may be trials in Iraq, and what we do may help build a case. I just don't know enough yet about our mission there to say what the end result will be."
The daily work in Iraq, though, will be quite similar to what she did in Bosnia - removing bones from mass graves; laying them out to create complete, or near-complete, human skeletons; matching remains with personal items or documents found in the graves; and examining skulls and other bones for signs of trauma.
"The difficulty is that, in mass graves, bodies are all thrown in together, and it is hard to sort out the bones,'' she said. "The aim is to make sure that that pile of bones in front of you is one person.''
The team from Archaeologists for Human Rights also will train local Iraqis in excavation of graves and documentation of remains so that the Iraqis can complete the work on their own.
"It will be an exciting job, an adventure,'' said Schaefer, who expects to spend at least six months in Iraq. "And important, too. It is important that these people know the truth of how their people died.''
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