Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Amy Z. Mundorff

Committee Members

Tricia R. Hepner, Dawnie W. Steadman, Leor Halevi


Somaliland, an autonomous region in Northern Somalia, was subjected to mass atrocities throughout the 1980s under the Siad Barre regime and tens of thousands were executed and many more displaced. Starting in 2012, a governmental organization, supported by international forensic practitioners began the process of recovering and reburying the dead from the conflict. The purpose of this research is to understand the impacts of these operations as defined by family members of the dead, with the goal of informing the Somaliland operations as well as the theory and practice of forensic anthropology in conflict contexts. This work builds on three separate field experiences in Somaliland, primarily 5-months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 2019 that included individual interviews with 74 family members of the dead and 29 practitioners (forensic practitioners, religious leaders, elders, doctors, and legal specialists). This research focuses on three main interrelated research themes: necropolitics, necropower, and necrogovernmentality; justice and memory; and mortuary practices and care. These themes are approached as closely related to the human remains recovery operations in Somaliland and to “social transformation” – a fourth, cross-cutting theme.

I found that political factors have been driving the operations, though in a “muted” way partly due to fears of renewed conflict, and family members had limited information about the forensic work. These constraints contribute to a collective victimhood identity amongst the Isaaq, the majority clan family, serving to support the call for international recognition for Somaliland while also contributing to growing tensions between clans. I also found that justice was a central aspect of the mass graves, with most family members supporting legal processes to hold military commanders responsible for the atrocities. However, with the time since the conflict, justice was also closely related to memory, including emphases on informing history, the world, and the young. Family members were generally supportive of the work, save for tensions related to religious restrictions on opening of a grave. In conclusion, the human remains recovery operations are contributing to social transformation, despite lack of information, as family members exercise spiritual patience in the face of injustice, loss, and threat of renewed conflict.

Available for download on Friday, August 15, 2025

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