Dead, but far from buried

by Sarah Tsifroni
© Ha'aretz Tuesday, December 16, 1997

This material is distributed without profit to those
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The issue of missing Yemenite babies was supposed to get a boost from a new kind of DNA testing.   But as Sarah Tsifroni reports, the tests only led to more suspicions and distrust - and now the bones of babies dug from Israeli graves are in England.  
  1. Stones left unturned
  2. How can there be two answers?
  3. The ABCs of DNA
  4. Funding secured for DNA tests
  5. Dead, but far from buried
      (this page)
  6. More Articles by Yechiel Mann
  7. Directory

  About three weeks ago, the High Court of Justice heard a
petition submitted by ten families of missing Yemenite children
against Health Minister Yehoshua Matza, who was claiming to be
unable to find sources to fund the DNA compatibility tests
between members of the families and the remains of the bodies
removed from ten graves in the Segula cemetery in Petah Tikva.
Two days before the petition was heard, the NIS 400,000 that were
required for conducting the test scheduled to be administered in
England, and whose absence had been holding up the process for
over a year, were suddenly found.  The families agreed to
withdraw their petition, and the Institute for Forensic Medicine
sent off to the laboratory in England the remains of the 22
bodies found in the cemetery.  The results should be in by April
or May.  If the tests indicate compatibility between some of the
remains and the families, a more precise examination will be
conducted.

  The idea of comparing the genetic profile of the children
supposedly buried in that cemetery in the 1950s with that of
their families came up on a visit that the head of the institute,
Prof. Yehuda Hiss, paid to the United States in 1994.  While on
this visit, Hiss learned about a project that was run by the U.S.
Army and which began in 1990.  In the course of this project,
experts tried to identify the bodies of unidentified American
soldiers who were killed in the Vietnam and Korean wars and who
were buried in mass graves.  The experts tried to use DNA testing
to establish genetic compatibility between the soldiers and the
families of missing-in-action military personnel.

  Hiss passed on the information to lawyer Rami Tzuberi, who is
connected to the public committee investigating the whereabouts
of the missing Yemenite children and who also represents some of
the families of these children.  Armed with this data, the
committee petitioned the High Court that that graves be opened.
The court asked the health ministry to respond, and, late last
year, the then health minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, decided that the
test should be conducted on a sample consisting of ten bodies.

  In August 1996, preparations were completed for carrying out
the test.  Hiss was optimistic and stated at the time:

        "In my view, if we check a number of graves in various
        places throughout Israel and if we discover that,
        contrary to the parents' claims, their children are
        buried there, we will be able to close the file on this
        affair for good.  I believe that we have to carry out
        tests on only a small group in order to put an end to the
        stormy public debate going on now, although we have
        facilities for dealing with all the cases."

  A few months later, Hanegbi made his decision.

  The tests Hiss was planning entailed taking blood samples from
the ten families chosen by the association trying to determine
the fate of the missing Yemenite children.  The blood samples
would enable a comparison of genetic profiles between the 10
children buried in these graves and the families.  Then an
anthropological examination of the remains of the bones would
determine the age of the persons buried and would establish
whether the ages match those of the children supposedly buried in
these graves.

  In thinking that, with one test, the affair of the missing
Yemenite children could be laid to rest, Hiss underestimated the
intensity of the rage that had accumulated among the families
concerned:

        "It never crossed my mind that these people could
        believe the idea of such a demonic conspiracy, namely,
        that Ashkenazi children of the same age had been buried
        in these graves."

  The stage of taking the blood samples was completed
successfully. Yona Tannenbaum, the institute's administrative
director, described the scene:

        "We invited the families to come to the institute,
        although that is not our usual procedure.  The meeting
        was very emotional for us.  Some of those who came had
        not seen each other for a very long time and there was
        the general feeling that this was a happy event and that,
        finally, answers would be forthcoming.  Our attitude on
        this occasion was not that we were scientists providing
        a service to the public, but rather that we were partners
        in this project together with the families gathered at
        the institute."

  In December 1996, after the blood samples were taken, the staff
of the institute, representatives of the parents and Tzuberi
assembled at the Segula cemetery.  Ten graves were opened.
Despite the grim nature of the event, those present were in a
generally good mood.  Says one institute employee:

        "We knew this affair had created a lot of bad blood for
        years, and we felt we were going to solve a problem that
        had remained a mystery for half a century.  We all felt
        good about this and there was a sense of real
        partnership.  The families did not regard us as enemies.
        We encouraged the parents to come to the cemetery,
        although this is not standard procedure.  We even allowed
        a television crew to film the scene and we documented the
        event with more than a hundred photographs so that no one
        could later argue that it never took place."

  Basing himself on the institute's experience, Hiss knew that,
because of the movements of the earth - a frequent phenomenon -
the remains of the bodies would not be found under the tombstones
and there would be a need to excavate a much wider area and to
sift the earth in order to find the remains.  As it turned out,
however, the need for excavations over an extensive area and for
sifting the earth and the fact that the bodily remains were
incomplete led to the circulation of rumors that the graves were
empty.  The parents had hoped to see complete skeletons and,
instead, they only saw tiny bone fragments.

  They were amazed:

        "Why have archeologists been able to uncover intact the
        skeletons of infants who died forty thousand years ago,
        while the bones of children who were buried only a few
        decades ago are already crumbling into dust?"

  Tzipi Kahane, a forensic anthropologist with the institute, explained:

        "The degree to which bones can remain intact depends on
        the type of soil in which the bodies were buried.  In the
        caves of Mt. Carmel, archeologists discovered the
        skeleton of a prehistoric baby because the bones had
        fossilized as a result of a geological process.  The
        bodies in the Segula cemetery were buried in sandy soil,
        which absorbs all organic material.  The tissue
        connecting the bones had completely disappeared and all
        that we found were bone fragments measuring only a few
        centimeters."

  In the end, the remains of 22 bodies were extracted.  The
families wanted more tests to determine the age of the bones
found in the graves and requested genetic testing, the results of
which were inconclusive at the institute's laboratory.

        "We tried for several weeks to carry out the tests, but
        we discovered that we were unable to obtain clearcut
        findings, and we therefore decided to get in touch with a
        laboratory in England that has greater expertise in this
        field than we have,"

 notes Dr. Maya Freund, director of the institute's molecular
biology laboratory.  The cost of the testing in England was NIS
400,000, and the cost of an initial scan that could determine
initial compatibility was NIS 100,000.  In the meantime, a new
health minister, Matza, was appointed, and he decided that the
conducting of such a test could not be included among the
services provided by the Hhealth Ministry.

  Last May, the mayor of Rosh Ha'ayin, a town with a large
Yemenite population, Yigal Yosef - who heads the public committee
for the location of the missing Yemenite children - and the 10
families whose children were supposedly buried in the Segula
cemetery applied to the High Court demanding that the present
health minister approve the tissue testing his predecessor had
authorized.  As they waited for their petition to be heard, the
families were beginning to lose hope and to regard Hiss as a
collaborator with the establishment's conspiracy to conceal the
facts concerning the fate of the missing Yemenite children.

  The credibility crisis between the institute and the families
reached its lowest point when a DNA test was reconducted to
determine genetic compatibility between two Yemenite women,
Margalit Umassi and Tzila Levine, who believed that she had been
kidnapped and transferred to an adoptive family as a child.
After a DNA test conducted by the Hebrew University's Dr. Hassan
Hatib had indicated no genetic link between Umaisi and Levine,
the two women's lawyer, Tzuberi, asked that the institute conduct
its own test, whereupon the institute transferred half of the
blood samples taken from Umassi, Levine and other relatives to
Hatib.  A day before the scheduled completion of the testing
processd, Tzuberi asked the institute to stop testing.  Hiss
informed the health ministry's legal adviser of Tzuberi's request
and was told to transfer the findings to the two women.  At the
same time, the findings were leaked out to the media.

  Notes Kahane:

        "After we publicized the test results, we became victims
        of a media witch-hunt.  "As civil servants, we were
        forbidden to react," states Tannenbaum.  "It hurt us that
        we were the ones who had to 'separate' Margalit Levine
        from Tzila Umaisi; however, we did not order the tests."

  The families of the children supposedly buried in Segula still
have little faith in the institute.  A week ago, the remains were
sent to a laboratory in England, and the story is therefore far
from over.

 (c) copyright 1998 Ha'aretz.  All Rights Reserved

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