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Israel turns to DNA, dental prints to identify unrecognizable bodies: NPR

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Israeli soldiers carry the flag-draped coffin of a person killed in the Hamas attack earlier this month. Rabbis and reservists worked around the clock at a military base in Israel to identify and count the dead.

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Israeli soldiers carry the flag-draped coffin of a person killed in the Hamas attack earlier this month. Rabbis and reservists worked around the clock at a military base in Israel to identify and count the dead.

Francisco Seco/AP

Please note, this story contains descriptions of atrocities committed against civilians.

TEL AVIV, Israel — On a military base south of Tel Aviv, the sun sets behind low clouds as the smell of eucalyptus fills the air.

A uniformed man wearing a kippah walks towards where the remains of those killed in the massacre carried out by the militant group Hamas on October 7 were brought for identification.

“I ask you to respect this place. I ask you to respect the dead,” said Lehi, a member of the Israel Defense Forces, who was only allowed to give her first name.

She says she wants people around the world to see something that forensic scientists, doctors and rabbis have witnessed over the past week.

“As a people, we cannot remain silent in the face of something like this,” Col. Chaim Weissberg, the IDF’s chief rabbi for nearly 20 years, said through a translator.

Usually, when a Jew dies, a family member recites a prayer called the mourning kaddish for the dead.

“The usual way would be for a child to say kaddish, this prayer, for their parents,” explains Rabbi Weissberg. “But here we have entire families and no one will be able to say Kaddish for them.”

Members of the Chicago area Jewish community are gathering to publicly recite Kaddish and light candles to mourn Palestinians and Israelis killed in recent fighting.

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More than 1,000 bodies were brought here. Truck after truck filled with human remains of those murdered when Hamas stormed the border from Gaza. Rabbi Weissberg breaks down while describing in detail the state in which some bodies arrived.

“Young girls, old women, raped… Soldiers and citizens whose heads were cut off,” he says.

Most of the people who identify and treat the dead are military reservists. They have day jobs as civilians, but since the attack they have been here – like a dentist named Maayan. She identifies people’s remains using their dental impressions.

“Next to the place of identification, there is a family room to say goodbye to loved ones, to say your last goodbye,” she says. “So by identifying ourselves, we can hear the cries and we can hear the cries of a woman burying her child, of a child losing his parents and (becoming) an orphan.”

“And we hear the cries and we hear the cries, and we always identify ourselves tirelessly, without compromise, to give the dead the last respect that no one gave them.”

In another part of the military base there is a well-lit white tent where soldiers identify people. It’s difficult and the details are brutal. A soldier distributes masks to protect themselves from odors.

People at the base have been working non-stop since the massacre began and there are still bodies that have not been identified.

Cars are seen on fire following a rocket attack from Gaza in Ashkelon, southern Israel, on October 7.

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Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

Rabbi Weissberg says they have three ways to identify people. One is a loved one who visually recognizes the person. Dental records are another. And the third is DNA identification. He says in too many cases DNA has had to be used because the body was badly mutilated – even in the case of children.

There are about a dozen refrigerated shipping containers, side by side. Men in white jumpsuits open four of them and inside are body bags stacked four high.

Some body bags are very, very small.

As a light rain begins to fall, a television cameraman suddenly bends over, sobbing.

Nearby is a small covered picnic table – the smoking area – where a woman named Avigayil sits in the dark. Like others, the Israeli army only allowed her to give her first name.

In Judaism, as in many religious traditions, there are rules about how a body is supposed to be treated before burial. For many years, Avigayil carried out this burial preparation as an army reservist.

“There is a notion of respect for the dead,” she says. “It’s about treating every person who has died with the dignity and respect we want, the same way we would want them while we were alive.”

“Any part that was part of the human being, we bring it to the burial with the body. So if there are ashes, we are very careful not to lose any. If there are any skin that has been torn off, certainly if there is blood, if there is flesh, we collect everything so that everything is buried with the body.”

A bullet hole is visible in a window of one of the houses invaded during the Hamas attack on October 7.

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A bullet hole is visible in a window of one of the houses invaded during the Hamas attack on October 7.

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Avigayil says she felt very little last week. Blocking out the feelings was the only way to get the job done that needed to be done. But in recent days, as work has started to slow down a bit, it’s starting to catch up with her.

She says she’s starting to feel exhausted, both physically and mentally.

“We have psychiatrists and social workers who talk to us after their shift, but I think it’s starting to grow,” she says.

Avigayil has been doing this job in the military for years and has already seen many people killed. But she says it’s different in two ways.

“The numbers are staggering…I can’t understand,” she says. “I’m going through the lists again and I can’t believe I don’t remember what exactly two days ago – was she the one in her cute pajamas? Or was she the one who was, I don’t don’t know what.”

“And the other is that it’s never been more cruel. We’re seeing bodies that have been mutilated when they were already dead. It’s harder to understand that.”

Avigayil says it fundamentally changed his worldview.

“For years I thought the world was getting better,” she says. “As a human being, as a woman, I felt like things were moving in the right direction. I can’t think that anymore, and it’s upsetting.”

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