Remembering Clyde Snow

Clyde Collins Snow, a pioneering forensic scientist who developed the field of investigation of individual and mass graves to gather evidence of human rights violations, died on May 16, 2014 at the age of 86. He mentored dozens of forensic scientists and consulted with Physicians for Human Rights on critical projects including exhumation of graves in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the former Yugoslavia.

Clyde Snow. I could just let his name stand for itself. It would be the sensible thing to do. The last thing Clyde tolerated were revisionists, and – to that point – considering what a tremendous influence the man has and will continue to have, I’m not going to get into his historical merits. He’s not around to dispute anything with his one-line forensic assessments, such as, “It’s very difficult to argue with a skull with a bullet in its head.”

I first met Clyde hunkered over a grave in the highlands of Guatemala in 1991. Along with him were members of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, all young students just like myself. I had traveled to Guatemala to accompany a friend who was working for Reuters. At the time, I had never heard of forensic anthropology, but offered my services to Clyde, and from there, the world changed for myself and many others.

To me, Clyde was the quintessential American. His crumpled up hat, cowboy boots, cigarettes, cigars, and whiskey (or, when available, martinis) made you think of John Wayne. He believed in empowering those who had been disenfranchised by being denied the truth, those who bled between the fronts, and those who died without even understanding what communism is or – in today’s context – what terrorism means. Clyde fought injustice with truth, giving voice to the victims nobody hears because they don’t figure into the overall GDP. He inspired me to join law enforcement in the United States, where I gained an appreciation for a perhaps flawed justice system, but one that fundamentally upholds that justice is for the people and done by the people. That was what Clyde was about.

Clyde was contradictory and controversial, and therefore, fiercely independent; we all admire him for that. He always insisted that forensic anthropologists are not advocates, but scientists – a statement that to this day rings in my ears and continues to give me headaches. On my first international investigation with Clyde, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), and Human Rights Watch to Iraq in 1992 (after the first Iraq war), I could hear and see the bomb strikes by jet fighters originating from Türkiye falling on neighboring Iraqi villages, while sitting in a grave exhuming the remains of captured Kurdish fighters who had been summarily executed by Saddam Hussein’s forces. At some point one evening, I broke down in fury over the fact that we were pouring all our resources into documenting Saddam Hussein’s heinous abuses, not looking into the horrendous deaths of those who were being bombed indiscriminately a few kilometers away. Clyde took me aside and essentially told me: “Kid, you have to pick a side. That’s what this is about. Cry when you go to bed and are by yourself.” In other words, you have to choose your battles even as a scientist and deal with it on your own. It’s that one step that most scientists don’t want to do, that Clyde did best. That’s why I decided to study forensics, rather than pick up a gun and fight back.

Clyde Snow will always be an inspiration as a scientist that scoured the battlefields of the world for truth. The last time I saw him, he told me that he was proud of me. Coming from him, that compliment meant the world to me. Until the day I leave, every whiskey and cigar I enjoy will remind me of Clyde. Without him, most of us in the business of telling the truth through forensic science wouldn’t be here, including the International Forensic Program here at PHR.

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