Shifting sands


Missing © John MacPherson

Missing © John MacPherson

I’ve had a long (since childhood) fascination with deserts. Our local librarian in my small wet West Highland Scotland town used to laugh at me as I took out their few desert books for the umpteenth time. Once I was old enough to travel I went off and wandered about in Africa to the Sahara and the Karoo, and later into the south of the USA and through West Texas, Arizona and Nevada. Deserts are amazing places, they seem ’empty’ but there’s lots of life, animal and human, if you know where to look, and, not unexpectedly, there’s lots of death too.

The desert presents the visitor with space, huge vistas, the massive arc of sky bearing down on you. It reminds you also of your fragility, the various risks that nature and distance can throw at you, but primarily the need for water. I bicycled through some of this landscape in West Texas and Arizona, on back roads and byways, and the scale of the distance, and the need to drink is etched in my mind. I often wondered if I went into some of the really remote areas I’d read about, how long I would survive if anything happened to me, and if I’d ever be found.

I came across a very moving article on the BBC News site about identification of migrants who have died in the Sonoran Desert, and it rekindled those memories. It’s got a link to a Radio interview and is a very moving piece, well worth your time listening.

It’s the job of a forensics team in Arizona to identify the bodies of migrants found in the desert.

Anthropologist Robin Reineke describes how she pieces together the sad jigsaw puzzle of personal attributes and belongings………..

“Some of the items have unspoken stories.

There was a young kid – he was probably only 15 or 16 years old – and the soles of his shoes were just completely worn off. He had been carrying one orange paper flower.

I remember a man who had a small dead hummingbird in his pocket. I know that for a lot of indigenous North American peoples hummingbirds hold a sacred significance – they represent hope and love and they’re a powerful protective symbol.”

“Because of the highly decomposed nature of the bodies, the calls I make are never as simple as, “I am sorry to inform you…” Instead, it’s the beginning of a process that could take months. It unfolds as a kind of a negotiation between the scientists and the families. Both sides have the same goal- to find the missing person.

But for the scientists, the problem is an unidentified dead body, whereas for the families, the problem is a missing living person. These realities pull them in opposite directions.”

“Immigrants are being blamed for a lot at the moment – they’re being scapegoated. I feel that these people were, by and large, good, hard-working people that did not mean any harm. By attempting the crossing they were trying to do the very best for their families.

I would definitely do the same thing.”

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