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Israel turns to DNA and dental imprints to identify unrecognizable bodies

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're on an army base south of Tel Aviv, and the sun is sinking behind low clouds as a smell of eucalyptus fills the air. A man in uniform wearing a kippah is leading us to see this place that the remains of people who were killed in the massacre have been brought for identification.

LIHI: I ask you to respect this place. I ask you to respect the dead.

SHAPIRO: Like many members of the Israel Defense Forces, Lihi (ph) is only authorized to give us her first name. She wanted journalists from all over the world to see something that medical examiners, doctors and rabbis have been bearing witness to over the last week. And a warning - the descriptions her colleagues gave are graphic and not suitable for some listeners.

HAIM WEISBERG: (Through interpreter) We as a people can't remain silent for something like this.

SHAPIRO: Colonel Haim Weisberg is head rabbi of the IDF. A military spokesman named Daveed (ph) translates for him. Rabbi Weisberg has spent nearly 20 years in his position. He says usually when a Jew dies, a family member says a prayer called the Mourner's Kaddish for the dead.

WEISBERG: (Through interpreter) The regular way would be for a child to say Kaddish, this prayer for his parents. But here, we have entire families that no one's going to be able to say Kaddish for them.

SHAPIRO: More than a thousand bodies have been brought here - truck after truck full of human remains, people who were murdered when Hamas stormed across the border from Gaza into Israel on October 7. Rabbi Weisberg breaks down as he describes in detail the conditions some of the bodies arrived in - burned and mutilated.

WEISBERG: (Through interpreter) Young girls, elderly women raped, soldiers and citizens whose heads were chopped off.

SHAPIRO: Many of the people identifying and caring for the dead are military reservists. They have day jobs as civilians. But since the attack, they've been here - like a dentist named Mayon (ph). She identifies people's remains by their dental imprints.

MAYON: Next to that identification (ph) place, when we take place, there is family room to say goodbye to the loved ones, to say their last goodbye. So while identifying, we can hear the screams, and we can hear the cries of a woman burying her child, of child losing his parents and stay often. And we hear the cry, and we hear the screams, and we're still identifying tirelessly, uncompromisingly to give these fallen the last respect that nobody gave them.

SHAPIRO: We walk towards the brightly lit white tent where soldiers have been doing this work. It is difficult work, and the details, as you'll hear, are brutal.

One of the soldiers is handing out a packet of masks because the smell is very strong. People have been working in a 24/7 shift since the massacre began. Even now, more than a week later, there are still bodies that haven't been identified. The rabbi said they have three ways of identifying bodies. One is a loved one visually recognizing the person. Another is dental records, and the third is DNA identification. And he said, in too many of these cases, we have had to use DNA because the body has been so mutilated, he said, even in the case of children.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SHAPIRO: There are about a dozen shipping containers refrigerated side by side, and men in white coveralls have just opened four of the shipping containers. And inside, stacked four high, are body bags, and some of the body bags are very, very small. And the rabbi says, usually when we're here, we don't speak. When you open the doors, you see that small sack - that's a baby. A light rain is starting to fall.

A TV cameraman suddenly hunches over, sobbing. We walk in the misty drizzle to a small, covered picnic table, the smokers' corner. And there we sit in the dark with a woman named Avigail (ph). Like others, the IDF only authorized her to give her first name.

AVIGAIL: It's hard to remember these days, but I work in high tech.

SHAPIRO: In Judaism, as in many religious traditions, there are rules for how a body is supposed to be treated before burial. For many years, Avigail has done that preparation for burial as a reservist for the Army.

AVIGAIL: There's a concept of respect for the dead. It's treating every dead person with a dignity and respect that we'd want, the same as we want in - when we're living. We're also very conscious of - is the woman exposed on the table - and to try to cover up, when possible. Any part that was part of the human being, we bring it to burial with the body. So if there are ashes, we're 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.

SHAPIRO: When I ask what the last week has felt like to her, more than a thousand bodies to be identified and prepared for burial, from babies to elders, she says, for most of the last week, she has felt very little. Blocking out feelings was the only way to do the work that needed to be done.

AVIGAIL: Despite the fact that I was only sleeping about two hours per 24-hour cycle and I was hardly eating, I felt like I had the energy. I don't know if it's adrenaline or the mission, the importance of the mission and just keep going, keep going. Do the work. Understand that it's horrific what we're seeing, but do our best to get the correct identification for each of the murdered women and prepare them for burial in the most respectful manner once they've been identified. I think in the last day, we've been slowing down just a little. We're making a lot of progress. And so I think it's getting - it's catching up with me a little.

SHAPIRO: You're starting to feel the feelings.

AVIGAIL: Yeah. The exhaustion - but it's not really the physical. It's - maybe part of it is the physical exhaustion. It's the mental exhaustion. We're talking about it a little more. We have some psychiatrists and social workers that are talking to us after shifts. But I think we're - it's, like, starting to build up. So yeah, I don't know if that answers your question. I don't remember what it was.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. How you're feeling.

AVIGAIL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And it sounds like for a while, you weren't feeling much, and now you're really feeling a lot.

AVIGAIL: Yes.

SHAPIRO: As somebody who has done this work in the army for a long time, you've seen people killed in violent ways. How has this been different from the deaths from violence that you have already dealt with over many years?

AVIGAIL: I think it's different in two ways. The numbers are, like, mind-boggling. I still - you know, I'm at it and at it, and I can't wrap my head around it. I go through the lists again, and I'm like, wow. And I can't believe that I can't remember from two days ago what exactly - was she the one that was in her cute pajamas? Or was she the one that was, you know - I don't know what. The numbers are incredible, and it's not just knowing the numbers. It's seeing the amount, and the smell intensifies. It's something that - that I've never - you know, seeing horrible deaths, I've never had to deal with a smell of this intensity. And the other is it's never felt this cruel. I mean, we're seeing bodies that were mutilated after they were already dead. What - like, why is it - you know, it's harder to, I feel, wrap my head around it.

SHAPIRO: This experience has obviously changed you. Has it changed your view of humanity? Has it changed your view of people?

AVIGAIL: I think it's - it shattered something in my sense of security. It certainly - you know, something in the sense of the equilibrium of the world, of the balance of good and evil. You know, I kept - for years growing up, I thought that the world is improving. 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.

SHAPIRO: Over our heads, Israeli military jets rumble through the sky, and as we drive away from the army base, a siren blares through the air. Every car on the freeway pulls over to the shoulder. People huddle on the blacktop from the threat of incoming rockets - reminders that while people are still identifying the bodies from October 7, the war and its death toll only continue to grow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Earlier today, that death toll grew dramatically in Gaza. An explosion hit a hospital. Hundreds of people were killed. Egypt condemned what it called a, quote, "deliberate bombing of civilian facilities." The Palestinian ambassador to the U.K. called it a massacre and war crimes, posting an image of the building on fire. And the Palestinian Authority declared three days of mourning. Israel's military blamed Islamic Jihad, saying the hospital explosion was a failed rocket launch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Megan Lim
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.