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