- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 27, 2009

Victoria Avila was only 1 when her father went missing, snatched up by agents of Argentina’s former military dictatorship in 1977.

Now, Victor Hugo Avila is no longer among the ranks of the disappeared. Thanks to DNA tests conducted at a lab in Lorton, Va., scientists are helping families of the long-lost victims of a defunct junta identify the remains of loved ones - with 42 matches in 2009 alone.

Advances in DNA testing are making it cheaper and faster to identify victims of the South American atrocities, raising hopes among relatives that in the years ahead science will answer painful questions from Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship.

For Victoria Avila, 33, learning of her father’s fate has brought “a strange feeling, a weird kind of happiness, because after all, it’s not like he was alive, but at least his remains were with us.

“After 32 years my mother can finally call herself a widow,” Miss Avila said at her home on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital.

She learned that her father, who was a political activist, was killed 10 days after being abducted, and she finds comfort in knowing he didn’t suffer long.

Victor Avila’s identification began with bone fragments exhumed in Argentina and ended in Lorton in the lab of Bode Technology Group Inc., where samples from some 600 skeletons are being compared with thousands of blood samples supplied by victims’ relatives.

About 12,000 people are officially listed as dead or missing from the junta’s “Dirty War” on dissent; human rights activists put the figure at nearly 30,000.

An independent group called the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team has led efforts to exhume graves and urged relatives to provide blood samples.

Luis Fondebrider, a forensic anthropologist and president of the group, said he’s often asked whether the bones showed signs of torture - something he says is almost impossible to tell. He says loved ones are given the option of viewing the skeleton in the lab.

There’s no hair or skin or features to remind them of the person they knew, but identifications usually unleash difficult emotions, tears and relief.

Mr. Fondebrider recalls one man, who upon learning his father had been identified, asked to see the remains. The man took his guitar to play a song in front of the skeleton with his young son present.

“I think the man, with that song, was trying to link those three generations,” Mr. Fondebrider said.

About two years ago, the anthropology team began a wide campaign to solicit blood samples, posting ads on TV and banners at soccer stadiums.

Bode, a private facility whose experts have helped identify victims from Bosnia, Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 attacks, outbid several labs to work for the Argentina team. The U.S. Congress provided $1.4 million for the first two years of the campaign, while Argentina is helping cover costs in 2010.

Scientists store the bones in a freezer, helping to preserve the remaining DNA that has been exposed to soil for three decades. To extract DNA, lab workers pulverize bone samples, mix the powder with liquids and use chemical reactions to generate many copies of the DNA.

That provides plenty of genetic material to test, said Ed Huffine, vice president for humanitarian missions at Bode.

Seeking to avoid contamination, scientists wear gloves, coats and face masks and insert their arms under a hood when handling the bones, which contain little DNA.

“There’s so much more than what ‘CSI’ shows on TV,” Mr. Huffine said. “It’s not that simple. It’s a multiple-day process and it takes years of practice.”

Besides the 42 IDs this year, about 100 additional identifications are awaiting confirmation.

The identification means “there’s no longer a hope of finding that person alive,” said Mercedes Doretti, founder of the anthropology team. “It’s a confirmation that person is dead, and that’s very difficult to handle.”

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