Israel turns to DNA and dental imprints to identify unrecognizable bodies
Warning, this story contains descriptions of atrocities committed against civilians.
TEL AVIV, Israel — On an army base south of Tel Aviv, the sun is sinking behind low clouds as the smell of eucalyptus fills the air.
A man in uniform wearing a kippah is heading towards the place where remains of people killed in the massacre by the militant group Hamas on October 7 have been brought for identification.
"I ask you to respect this place. I ask you to respect the dead," says a member of the Israel Defense Forces, Lehi, who is only authorized to give her first name.
She says she wants people from all over the world to see something that medical examiners, doctors and rabbis have been bearing witness to over the last week.
"We as a people can't remain silent for something like this," Colonel Chaim Weissberg, the head rabbi of the IDF for nearly 20 years, says through a translator.
Usually when a Jew dies, a family member says a prayer called the mourner's kaddish for the dead.
"The regular way would be for a child to say kaddish, this prayer, for his parents," Rabbi Weissberg says. "But here we have entire families that no one's going to be able to say kaddish for them."
More than 1,000 bodies have been brought here. Truck after truck full of human remains of those murdered when Hamas stormed across the border from Gaza. Rabbi Weissberg breaks down as he describes in detail the condition some of the bodies arrived in.
"Young girls, elderly women, raped ... Soldiers and citizens whose heads were chopped off," he says.
Many of the people identifying and caring for 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 by their dental imprints.
"Next to the identification place there is a family room to say goodbye to their loved ones, to say their last goodbye," she says. "So while identifying, we can hear the screams 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 cry and we hear the screams, and we still identify tirelessly, uncompromisingly, to give the fallen their last respect that nobody gave them."
In another part of the army base there is a brightly-lit white tent where soldiers are identifying people. It's difficult, and the details are brutal. A soldier is handing out masks to help protect against the smell.
People at the base have been working nonstop since the massacre began, and there are still bodies that haven't been identified.
Rabbi Weissberg says they have three ways of identifying people. One is a loved one visually recognizing the person. Another is dental records. And a third is DNA identification. He says that in too many instances, DNA has had to be used because the body has been so badly mutilated — even in the case of children.
There are about a dozen refrigerated shipping containers, standing side by side. Men in white coveralls open four of them and inside are body bags stacked four high.
Some of the body bags are very, very small.
As a light rain starts to fall, a TV cameraman suddenly hunches over, sobbing.
Nearby is a small covered picnic table — the smokers' corner — where a woman named Avigayil is sitting in the dark. Like others, the IDF only authorized her to give her first name.
In Judaism, as in many religious traditions, there are rules for how a body is supposed to be treated before burial. For many years, Avigayil has done that preparation for burial as a reservist for the army.
"There's a concept of respect for the dead," she says. "It's treating every dead person with the dignity and respect that we'd want, the same as we'd want when we're living."
"Any part that was part of the human being, we bring it to burial with the body. So if there are ashes we are very careful not to lose any of the ashes. If there's skin that was torn away, certainly if there's blood, if there's flesh, we collect everything so that it's all buried with the body."
Avigayil says she has felt very little in the last week. Blocking out feelings was the only way to do the work that needed to be done. But in the last day, as the work has started to slow down just a little, it's starting to catch up with her.
She says she's beginning to feel the exhaustion, both physical and mental.
"We have some psychiatrists and social workers that are talking to us after shifts, but I think it's starting to build up," she says.
Avigayil has done this work in the army for years and has seen many people killed before. But she says this is different in two ways.
"The numbers are mind boggling ... I can't wrap my head around it," she says. "I go through the lists again and I can't believe that I can't remember from two days ago what exactly — was she the one in her cute pajamas? Or was she the one that was, I don't know what."
"And the other is it's never felt this cruel. We're seeing bodies that were mutilated after they were already dead. It's harder to wrap my head around it."
Avigayil says it had fundamentally changed her view of the world.
"For years growing up I thought the world was improving," she says. "As a human being, as a woman, I felt like things were progressing in the right direction. I can't think that anymore, and that's shattering."
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