2017 Small Newspaper - Gold

In a moving series on forensic science and the quest to identify hundreds of unidentified dead who pass each year through the mortuaries of a single province in South Africa, Sarah Wild told the stories of both the professionals trying to improve the identification process and the families seeking to know what happened to their loved ones. Each year, between 1,300 and 1,600 people in Gauteng province are added to South Africa’s already long list of unidentified dead. Forensic anthropologist Ericka L’Abbe of the University of Pretoria, holding the skull of one person who died from blows to the head, told Wild “it breaks my heart that no one is looking for him.” Although South Africa has a robust forensic system and a Bureau of Missing Persons, Wild writes, there is no continental or regional database for missing people. Many of Gauteng’s unidentified dead are assumed to be from neighboring countries. Meanwhile, the South African system is groaning under the sheer numbers of unidentified dead and the burden of doing comprehensive investigations. One in 10 will ultimately remain unidentified. More research could help, Wild writes, “but no one is throwing money at forensic science.” And even more research money and data would not fix such fundamental problems as illegible writing in mortuary records and failure to enter such information as the responding police officer’s phone number and the unique crime administration number that identifies each case. Kate Lunau, Canada editor at Motherboard, a Vice News outlet, called Wild’s series “a chilling and well-researched story on forensics and its shortcomings, with a focus on the families left behind.” Wild said the story haunted her. “I could not let go of the idea that there were families waiting for people who would never come home,” she said. “TV shows give the impression that science holds all the answers, that we can identify a body from a scrap of clothing or DNA, but that is just not true. The crisis of the unidentified dead in South Africa shows that science has its limits.”