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Slumlands — filthy secret of the modern mega-city

Across the world, slums are home to a billion people. The rich elite want the shanty towns cleared,

There is a long curve of water and, as far as the eye can see, there are shacks, garbage, washing, tin, bits of wood, scraps of cloth, rats and children. The water is grey, but at the edges there's a flotsam of multicoloured plastic rubbish. This is the Estero de San Miguel, the front line in an undeclared war between the rich and poor of Manila. Figures emerge from creaky doors to move along bits of walkway. In the deep distance is the dome of a mosque; beyond that are skyscrapers.

Mena Cinco, a community leader here, volunteers to take me in - but only about 50 yards. After that, she cannot guarantee my safety. At the bottom of a ladder, the central mystery of the Estero de San Miguel is revealed: a long tunnel, four feet wide, dark except for the occasional bare bulb. It's just like an old coal mine, with rickety joists, shafts of light and pools of what I'm hoping is water on the floor. All along the tunnel are doors into the homes of as many as 6,000 people.

We knock on the first one that's ajar. Oliver Baldera comes blinking to it, pulling on his shirt. On the floor behind him are his four kids, eating ice cream. His wife joins him.

The room is eight feet by eight and forms their entire dwelling space. It contains everything they own: a television, four bowls of ice cream, a light bulb, a mattress and the clothes they are wearing. "We've been here more than ten years," he says. "There's no choice. I'm a carpenter in the construction industry. We came from Mindanao."

Why did he move? "Because of poverty. It's easier to get a job here and I can earn 400 pesos a day. I can send the kids to school and they eat three times a day - but it's not enough. I need more space."

“But they're happy," Mena chips in.

Further along, there's a shaft of light and some kids are splashing about in a blow-up pool. Mena makes them sing. One of them comes up to me. "What's it like living here?" I ask. Mena mutters something to him in Filipino. "Happy," he says, and smiles.

This is a place where you cannot stride along without hitting your head or bruising your elbow, so people creep and shuffle. Here, you cannot go to the toilet without standing in a queue. Here, sex between a man and a woman has tohappen within breathing distance of their kids and earshot of 20 other families. This is the classic 21st-century slum. A billion people live in them, one in seven of the world's population. By 2050, according to the United Nations, there could be three billion. The slum is the filthy secret of the modern mega-city, the hidden achievement of 20 years ofuntrammelled market forces, greed, neglect and graft.

Yet Mena, at my elbow, is feeding me an incessant mantra: "We are happy; there is social cohesion here; we are organised; it is clean." The reason is this - the Estero de San Miguel has been condemned. The president of the Philippines, Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, has decided to clear Manila's slums and send half a million people back to the countryside. That suits the business elite and the political clans that run the country fine. "Many of our people are no longer interested in agriculture, so we need to give them incentives to go back," says Cecilia Alba, head of the national Housing and Urban Development Co-ordinating Council. "If we had to rehouse the slum-dwellers inside Manila in medium-rise housing, it would cost a third of the national budget."

At the top of the list for relocation are the residents of the Estero de San Miguel. They will not go without a fight. "We will barricade and we will revolt if we have to," Mena says. "We will resist slum clearance and we will fight to defend our community. We are happy here."

This is not an idle threat. On 28 April, residents of the Laperal slum a few miles away engaged demolition teams with Molotov cocktails and guns in a riot that injured six policemen and numerous slum-dwellers. An arson attack had wiped out most of the area's dwellings ten days earlier.

Technically, global policy is on the side of the rioters. In 2003, an influential UN report, entitled The Challenge of Slums, signalled a shift away from the old slum-clearance policies and recognised that informal settlements make positive contributions to economic development. They house new migrants; because they are dense, they use land efficiently; they are culturally diverse; and they offer numerous opportunities for ragged-trousered entrepreneurs.

“Ten years ago, we used to dream that cities would become slum-free," says Muhammad Khadim of UN-Habitat. "The approach has changed. People see the positives. The approach now is not to clear them but to improve them gradually [and] regularise land tenure."

Cameron Sinclair, who runs the non-profit design firm Architecture for Humanity, goes further. "A slum is a resilient urban animal. You cannot pry it away," he tells me. "It's like a good parasite. There are some parasites that attack the body and you have to get rid of them but, within the city, the informal settlement is a parasite that acts in harmony with the city, keeps it in check."

Sinclair, whose organisation has upgraded slums in Brazil, Kenya and South Africa, believes that modern city design should not only tolerate slums but learn from them - and even emulate them. "To be honest, what we lack in a place like London is that the lower classes can't live in central London and have to commute for two and a half hours to do the jobs that keep people going."

What has driven the new thinking is ugly economic facts. After the 1970s, there was a sharp slowdown in the provision of social housing. The free-market revolution in the cities has led to the retreat of state provision, the rise of the informal economy and the rapid impoverishment of the rural poor. As a result, we are having to ask ourselves a question that would have made the 19th-century fathers of city planning shudder: do we have to learn to live with slums for ever?

It's a question to which the Filipino political elite have defiantly answered no.

“Should I buy them ice cream?" Regina "Gina" Lopez asks me, tilting her white Stetson as she leads me through what is left of a slum called the Estero de Paco. Teenage boys wearing hip-hop clothes and baseball hats are crowding, shirtless, around Gina. It's one of their birthdays, so should she buy them ice cream? Gina's trouser suit is the colour of ice cream. She is lithe, slinky and 61 years old. Among the 30 people with her are two cops, a media team of six, guys from the local community, her bodyguards, factotums and a man in dark glasses who is carrying her handbag.

Gina is a TV star, philanthropist, boss of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission and, most importantly, a member of the Lopez family. Lopez Inc owns much of downtown Manila - the energy company, a TV empire, a phone company - and has interests in all kinds of infrastructure, including water. Who better than Gina, in a country untroubled by worries about conflict of interest, to lead the forcible removal of slum-dwellers from the waterways?

The Estero de Paco used to have slums right down to the water's edge, just like the San Miguel. Now, instead of shacks, there is a neat border of agapanthus and rubber plants. State-of-the-art oxidation units are turning the brown sludge into something chemically close to H2O. Into the space that has been cleared, work gangs are laying a wide-bore sewage pipe.

As Gina approaches, a group of women from the slum falls into line and salutes. The women are middle-aged and poor; their T-shirts bear the words "River Warriors". They stand to attention and Gina, Prada-clad, goes into a drill routine: "River Warriors, atten . . . shun!" Then there are slogans about honour and playing for the team and some more of the drill, before they all fall about laughing. "I ordered them to dive into the water," she giggles.

The idea behind the River Warriors is serious. The clearance of the Estero de Paco was "non-negotiable". The Warriors' job is to make sure that those who have been cleared do not come back. "They will poo here! They will throw garbage," Gina says. "They would come back, if we didn't guard the place. So we work with the ones who are compliant. To make a change like this, you have to work with a chosen few, the vanguard."

The clearance programme works like a giant scalpel. Four metres of land is all that is needed to create the easement for the waste pipe, so a second, deeper layer of slums remains - you can see where something has sheared through walls, windows, dirt, alleyways. This is social engineering on a vast scale. It's what the government has decreed for half a million people. Like the slum-clearers of 19th-century London and New York, Gina has a missionary enthusiasm. "You can't live well if you're faced with the constant smell of faeces, right? You can't live a decent life on top of a sewer. Even if those people want to stay there, [they can't because] it has a wider impact on the city, the environment: we can't clean the water and bring the river back to life if they're there; the crime and sickness have a big impact on the environment."

With Gina out of earshot, two of the River Warrior women quietly tell me that they are secret returnees. They were moved on to a place called Calauan, four hours away by road, but have come back. I demand to see Calauan. "No problem," says Gina, flipping open her mobile phone. "Get me aviation."

The chopper skims low across Manila Bay. It's fringed with slums and, out in the bay, there are homes on stilts. "Even the sea is squatted," Monchet Olives, Gina's chief of staff, tells me. Soon, the skyscraper outline of downtown Manila disappears. We're above rice paddies; in the distance, there are mountains. Calauan comes into view - neat rows of single-storey housing, their tin roofs glinting. The whole complex houses about 6,000 families and there is room for many more.

On the streets, density is not a problem. The public space is deserted. There's a playground; there's a school with the name Oscar Lopez painted on the roof. The problem is - as Monchet concedes - there is no electricity, no running water and no prospect of ever getting any. And no jobs. "When it comes to electricity, we're between a rock and a hard place," he says. "Many of the new residents have never been used to paying bills, and the electricity company, to make the investment, needs an income stream that they just can't provide."

I notice that we're being shadowed by two soldiers, in camouflage and with assault rifles, on motorbikes. "That's because of the New People's Army. Guerrilla activity is what made them abandon this place for ten years."

Deep in the jungle? "No, just up there on the hill." Monchet waves his finger in the general direction of the landscape, which suddenly looks a lot like the treeline in the opening credits of Apocalypse Now.

Ruben Petrache was one of those who moved here from the Estero de Paco. He is in his fifties and has been seriously ill. His home is a spacious terraced hut. It has a tin roof, tinfoil in­sulation to keep the heat down, a pretty garden and a "mezzanine" arrangement that creates two bedrooms, such as you would see in a loft. Ruben's English is not so good, so Monchet translates: "What he's saying is that although the community is disrupted, he thinks it's better here. For him, at least. Once you get here, after a while, you realise that you'd become accustomed to conditions that were insanitary. You learn to move on, live in a new way."

For electricity, he points to the solar panel; for water, to the barrel collecting rainwater on his porch. Are there any downsides?

“It would be better if there was a factory here, because we need more jobs," Monchet summarises. Later, with a translator, I work out what Ruben, hand-picked by the camp's authorities, was trying to say: "What the people need is a job. We need a company nearby so that we don't have to go to Manila. Also, we need electricity. Many residents here know how to fix electric fans, radios, but the problem is, even if they have the skills, they cannot [use] it because there is no electricity here - so they are forced to go to Manila to find work and earn money to buy food.

“We are hard workers. If we don't do anything, we might die of hunger here. That's why many go back to Manila: to look for work and earn money."
In the covered market, the stalls are stocked with meat, rice and vegetables but there are more stallholders than shoppers. Gloria Cruz, a 38-year-old mother, is holding forth on a kara­oke machine to three toddlers, two other mums, the ArmaLite-toting soldiers and me. After a couple of verses, she hits the pause button. "My husband goes to Manila to work," she says. "He comes back at weekends. It's the same for everybody. There's nothing here."

Felino Palafox is an architect who specialises in the construction of vast, space-age projects in the Middle East and Asia - mosques, Buddhist temples, futuristic towers on the Persian Gulf - always for people with money to burn.

Now, however, he wants to save the Estero de San Miguel: to rebuild it, in situ, with new materials. The plan is to clear it bit by bit and put inmodular housing. Each plot will be ten square metres; the ground floor will be reserved for retail and tricycle parking, the floors above extending out above the walkway, just as slum-dwellers build their homes - "stealing the air from the planning authorities", Palafox calls it. "The slum-dwellers," he adds, "are experts at live-work space design. They spontaneously do mixed-use! We just have to learn from them."

From the roof of the tower block in Makati, the central business district, where his practice has its headquarters, he gives me a primer in what has gone wrong. He indicates the neighbouring tower blocks - "monuments to graft" - and the gated compounds downtown where the rich live. To the government, which says his design is too expensive, he says: "OK, the total cost of rehousing slum-dwellers in situ is 30 per cent of GDP [but] I calculate we lose about 30 per cent of the country's wealth through corruption. If we didn't have corruption, we wouldn't need to tolerate slums." He sees the Estero de San Miguel as a test case: if he can make it work there, it's scalable to each of the city's riverside slums. So the stakes are huge.

Father Norberto Carcellar, who has worked for much of his life with Manila's poor, thinks that the elite are engaged in a huge self-deception about the question of slum clearance: "We have to recognise the value of slum-dwellers to the city. These are the ones who drive your car, clean your house and run your store. If these people were cleared from the city, the city would die. Slum-dwellers add social, political and economic value to the city."

That sentiment would have seemed alien to our grandparents' generation: I can still hear mine, brought up in Edwardian poverty in a coal and cotton town in northern England, spitting out the word "slum" with disgust. For them, slums meant a dog-eat-dog, dirty world where solidarity could not flourish and people lived like animals and treated their kids worse. Thirty years of globalisation have produced something which defies that stereotype. With Mena at my side, I'm about to witness it.

As it is Saturday night, there is a full complement of beefy guys with sticks, rice flails and flashlights - the volunteer police force of the Estero de San Miguel. Mena and I turn off into an alleyway opposite a McDonald's. You would hardly know it's there. The passage narrows, jinks around, and suddenly it feels as if I am in a novel by Charles Dickens.

On a bridge that is less than a metre wide, a man is squatting beside a barbecue. Because of the smoke, I don't see that it is a bridge until
I'm on it, or that below us is the canal, which is about two metres wide here. The dwellings are built so close together that the mothers peering out of the upstairs bedrooms, made of wooden boxes, could shake their neighbours' hands. If you'd decided to remake Oliver Twist as an expressionist film and this was the proposed set design, you would probably sack the designer, saying: "It's too much, too grotesque."

We head down into the tunnel, stooping now, because it is less than five feet high. After passing a poker game and a stray chicken, I come to a store that is run by Agnes Cabagauan. It sells the same things as every slum store in the world: sachets of Silvikrin hair product, Cif, Head & Shoulders shampoo, the Filipino version of Marlboro cigarettes, lighters, tampons and chewing gum. "My parents helped me set up [the store] to pay for my education," Agnes tells me.

What are you studying?

“Business admin. I have a degree. I also have a day job in a large corporation - coding in a sales department."

And you live here? "Yes. I was born here." She is 22 years old.

Then we run into Mena's son; he's an engineering student. As we cross another bridge, the unmistakable whizz and pop of something digital come blasting across the stagnant water. It's an internet café. There are nine computers crammed into a plywood hut. A dog yaps and runs around; the light is harsh. Some kids are on Facebook. Others are playing online poker. One young woman is doing her CV, another is engrossed in a game called Audition. She, too, is at college, she tells me, multitasking between her BlackBerry and the game.

Business admin? Yup.

In the space of a hundred yards, I have encountered three graduates, a DIY police force and the social media revolution. As I become used to the smoke, the wail and chatter of children, the chickens and the confined space, I learn what a billion people have had to learn: it's not so bad. "Other places have prostitution. We don't," Mena says. "We get drunks and a bit of drug-taking but it's under control. We look out for each other. We can see everything that happens - it's one big family. The main job for the volunteer police force is to look out for arsonists. Settlements under threat of clearance have a habit of getting burned down." As she discourses on the fine details of social policy in the five-foot-high niche that is her living room and kitchen, I ask the question I should have posed when we first met. How did she become so politically literate?

“I majored in political science at the University of Manila."

What slum-dwellers have produced (and I've seen it not just here but in Cairo, Nairobi, Lima and La Paz) is something the slum clearance tsars of yesteryear would not recognise - the orderly, solidaristic slum, or what the UN calls the "slum of hope".

The debate, at the global level, is no longer about how fast to tear these places down but whether we can meet the rapidly developing aspirations of highly educated people in tin shacks. To those who dream that, as capitalism develops, it will eradicate slums, Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity says dream on. "You can't fight something that has a stronger model than you [do]. It's never going to happen again. The fact of it is that if you tried to do it in some of these informal settlements, they could take out the city . . . march on the central business district, and it's game over."

Paul Mason reports from Manila on Tuesday 16 August in "Slums 101" (Radio 4, 8pm) and on "Newsnight" (BBC2, 10.30pm).

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule

MURDO MACLEOD
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Where the bodies are buried

Whether you’re alive or dead, Sue Black knows who you are – as dozens of murderers and war criminals have discovered.

Even before she became an anatomy student, Sue Black was used to death. From the age of 13 she had worked every Saturday at a local butcher’s shop. On cold days, she would rush to pick up the livers from the incoming vans, the fresh organs warming her hands in the cold Scottish winter.

By the time she arrived at the University of Aberdeen, having lied to her worried parents that she had secured a full grant, she was already familiar with bones, blood and flesh. But what she saw inside David – the nickname she gave to the cadaver she was instructed to dissect – was very different.

She calls the inside of the human body an “amazing world”, a life story written in skin and tissue. Stretching out her pale forearms – she is red-haired and “tans as well as a snowball” – she shows me her freckles. Their ­position was decided in her mother’s womb: the cells settled in a layer of skin called the basal lamina, waiting to be activated by sunlight. “If you stay indoors and you never go outside,” she says, “well, you’ll always remain pale and interesting.”

Black, now 54, has made her career painstakingly learning to read these human stories. She is now Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology at the University of Dundee and one of Britain’s leading experts in human identification. She sees bodies that betray their owners – the veins on a paedophile’s hand, for example, which are more distinctive than a fingerprint – and bodies whose marks and scars become testimonies to murders and war crimes. She cannot help looking at the world as an anatomist: it always annoys her that political cartoonists put the gap in Tony Blair’s teeth in the wrong place.

Three deaths influenced Sue Black’s childhood and set the pattern for her career. The first was that of her grandmother – a tough old woman who, when she knew she was dying, told the young Susan that whenever she needed advice, she could turn to her own shoulder and talk to her. (She still does.) The second was a young mother called Renee MacRae, who went missing in 1976 with her son Andrew near Inverness, where Black grew up. “I can remember the police coming round and asking my father to look in the outhouses,” she says, her hands cradling a cup of tea in her university office.

The officers found no trace of MacRae and her son, there or anywhere else. The case remained dormant until 2004, when a new chief constable decided that there was enough intelligence to excavate a local quarry. Black was involved with the search but after the police moved tonnes of earth, they uncovered only a few bones – which belonged to a rabbit. The disappearances are now Scotland’s longest-running missing persons case. “Those kinds of things get under your skin,” she says. “You think there’s a family sitting with their life, in part, in a stutter. They just want their sister back . . . Whoever killed her is the only person, I suspect, who knows where she is.”

The final death that changed the young Sue’s life was that of a rat, beaten to death by her father, who had found it scavenging outside the hotel that he ran on the shores of Loch Carron. She remembers its eyes, its teeth, its tail, its fevered thrashing as it died. It left her with a fear of rodents, so she was stumped when, on reaching the fourth year of her anatomy degree, she was told to dissect the brains of hamsters and mice. She convinced her tutor to let her study human bones instead – and never looked back.

***

What Sue Black does is easy to explain but sometimes difficult to accomplish: she finds out who people are or, more often, were. After training as an anatomist, she was employed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and travelled to Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Thailand and Iraq to help identify the bodies of those killed in natural disasters and massacres. Her first big mission came in 1999, when a colleague, Peter Vanezis, was asked to collect evidence in Kosovo for a possible war crimes tribunal. He arrived at a barn in the village of Velika Kruša, in the west of the country, and found it filled with 42 decomposing bodies. He told his superiors that he needed help. He needed Sue Black.

She was by then the mother of three children, aged 15, five and three. With her husband working full-time and her parents living 120 miles away, she hired a nanny and got on the next plane. It was not a hard decision. “The girls have grown up knowing that we adore them but they also know that their dad has a life and their mum has a life, the same as they will have a life – or they do have a life now, because they’re much, much older.”

What she found in Kosovo was a scene of horror. There was a survivor from the barn massacre – a man who had made it to the corner of the room and had been shielded by his friends as Serbian troops sprayed the men with bullets, then tried to set the barn on fire. He lay still under their bodies until it was safe to emerge, many hours later. Black’s job was to see if the physical evidence corroborated his story.

That involved sifting through the remains with her fingertips, working on bodies that had been burned and partly eaten by local dogs and were now a boiling mass of maggots. There was no running water on site and there were snipers in the hills. There were also no toilets. On the first day, one of the police officers on the mission returned from the tree that the team had been using as a makeshift loo, beaming from ear to ear. He had found himself urinating on an explosive device. It had a tripwire that would have triggered if anyone walked down the road away from the barn, killing or severely injuring them. But the man was thrilled: at his age, he had managed to stop mid-flow as soon as he saw it.

During her time in Kosovo, Black took on the role of the team’s surrogate mother. “Everybody kicks in to a professional mode the minute you get into the car and you’re heading out to an event,” she says. “But when you’re in your lodgings at night, when people are being people rather than being professionals, there’s a different dynamic that goes on.” In that role, she says, she could tell them to stop drinking, have a proper meal, or go to bed. “And those buttons are ones that a mother can hit. What becomes quite disruptive within a team is when you have single, available, attractive women and you have men.”

She also helped the rest of the team deal with the emotional demands of the job. Once, she was conducting a post-mortem in a field. The subject was a toddler, still in red booties and a sleepsuit. Soldiers had chased the village children into the field and then used their heads for target practice while the adults were made to watch. Pausing for a moment from her work, she looked up and saw a line of policemen’s boots. One of the officers had broken down – he had a toddler at home – and his colleagues were sheltering him until he could continue. Black, however, was having none of it. She stood up and threw her arms around him, allowing him to cry in the open. Then she told him that he had to keep his work and home life separate.

When she is working on a difficult case, she has a mantra: “You didn’t cause this, you didn’t do this, you’re not responsible.” She keeps her professional life in the “work box” and, because of this, she professes never to have had a sleepless night as a result of the things she has seen. The crime writer Val McDermid, who has known Black for 20 years, says that she is “very good at compartmentalising . . . It’s that ability to not bring her work out of the building that makes it possible for her to survive.”

***

For the first half of her career, Black was mostly concerned with identifying the dead. But it can be just as important to identify the living – as in the case of Scotland’s largest paedophile ring.

Some time between 2005 and 2007, a man called Neil Strachan, who worked as an engineer with Crown Paints in Edinburgh, attached a personal hard drive to a computer at work. He forgot all about it, until one day the computer was sent away for repair. On the hard drive, the technician found a sexually explicit photograph of a child.

That discovery set off a chain of raids and arrests, leading to the trial of a group of men who had met online to swap indecent images and boast about their exploits. One of Strachan’s contacts, a man called James Rennie, had an email address beginning “kplover”, standing for “kiddie porn lover”. When the case was coming to trial, though, the police faced a challenge. Strachan had sent messages to Rennie indicating that he was not only looking at child sex abuse images but abusing children. “I might have found us a contact with two boys, two and four, willing to share,” he wrote once. Another time, he boasted of “having fun” with an 18-month-old boy; police found a picture of a man abusing a child roughly that age around New Year, which became known as the “Hogmanay image”. They desperately wanted to know if Strachan was the man in the photograph, because the penalties for making child pornography are far greater than those for merely viewing it.

But how? The images didn’t show the man’s face. For some unknown reason, however, the defence counsel had taken images of Strachan’s thighs – and although his legs were entirely unremarkable, in one of the images he was holding the photographic scale. And there, on his thumb, was the mark that betrayed him. He had a deformation of the lunula, the crescent-shaped white area at the base of the nail. So did the man in the Hogmanay image. The evidence went to court and in 2009, Strachan was convicted of the ­attempted rape of the 18-month-old and sentenced to life.

Black and her team now examine dozens of similar images every year and in 80 per cent of the cases they work on, their identification of an anatomical feature convinces the defendant to change his plea to guilty. She is the only member of the team who has children and again the mantra – “This is  not something you caused . . .” – helps her, as does her day job in the dissecting room. “When you’ve worked in anatomy, where you spend your life with the deceased, when you then work in forensic anthropology, where you see individuals in all sorts of circumstances, whether it’s in burnings, whether it’s in explosions, whether it’s in murder, suicide, whatever it may be, all of these serve to help you find that ability to retain a detachment.”

Some of Black’s opinions are unexpected, such as her belief that defendants in rape and child abuse cases should not be named unless they are found guilty. “I can’t think of anything worse for a man than to be wrongly accused of being a child abuser,” she says. “Once that label’s been put on you . . . even though you’re found innocent, in the public’s mind there is still always this: ‘Is there no smoke without fire?’” She is wary, too, of investing too much in cases and feeling tempted to overegg the science or her certainty. “It’s incredibly important that we only say things that are backed up by research, because to put the wrong person on the wrong side of bars is unacceptable. That’s not justice working, that’s injustice.”

In almost all of her work, the forensic evidence is just part of a larger case built by the police. This can have unexpected consequences, as in an early case that used vein pattern analysis. “The very first one we did was a case of alleged child abuse where the girl alleged that her biological father was abusing her and she – bless her – had her Skype camera on her computer. And I don’t know if you know, but if you run it in night mode, it goes into infrared, so you had infrared capture through the night. And a picture was picked up on the camera at about half past four in the morning of a hand coming in and interfering with the girl under the covers.”

The infrared camera picked up the perpetrator’s hand and, from her years in the lab, Black knew that the veins that were visible were very distinctive. Her team compared the blood vessels in the images with the defendant’s. They matched. “But what I had no research on – and didn’t present [in court] – was what the likelihood was of anybody having the same veins, because we simply didn’t know,” she says.

After some back and forth between the judge, the prosecutors and the defence, the vein match was ruled admissible. “So the jury heard it. The jury then went away and they came back with a not guilty verdict.”

Black and her team wondered what they had done wrong, so they sent a note to ask whether the jury had not been convinced by the untested technique. “They said, ‘Oh, no, we had no problem with the science, that was fine.’” The trouble was that the members of the jury did not believe the girl, whom they had found to be too composed in the witness box. She sighs. “She was a young teenager. Who else would be in her room at half past four in the morning? But, you know, that’s not our case.”

***

Since then, Black and her team have discovered that the veins in the hand are, as they suspected, highly distinctive – even in identical twins. (Earlier, she told me with relish: “That’s the wholly wonderful thing about identical twins – that the one thing that they are not is identical.”)

This new information provides police with a more reliable method of identification than many of the better-known forms. In Scottish courts now, for instance, fingerprint matches are treated as matters of opinion rather than fact. This follows an inquiry into an eyebrow-raising case in which a police detective called Shirley McKie was suspended, then sacked, then charged with perjury, after her fingerprint was apparently found on a door frame at a murder scene, although she denied ever visiting it. Her father, a retired detective, took up the case and McKie was eventually acquitted and awarded £750,000 in compensation. It seems likely that although her prints matched those at the scene on all the points that had been sampled, they were not identical.

“It took her many, many years to prove that, in fact, the way in which fingerprints were being assessed was fundamentally flawed, so that all cases where convictions relied on fingerprints were now in jeopardy,” Black says. Other staples of forensic science, such as gait analysis, now face similar questions. “In America at the moment, they’re having horrendous problems – and we’re not surprised – with bite marks.”

She is also dismissive of iris identification, because it is possible to make a good-quality replica of an eyeball on acetate and print it on a contact lens. “If you can spoof the biometric, then ultimately it’s not a very good biometric. And they’ve now been able to spoof irises. Spoofing of fingerprints is child’s play now.”

Such concerns are why Black talks about a “crisis” in forensic science. For many years, DNA evidence has been a kind of deus ex machina in criminal cases – the DNA has spoken: that guy did it – but matches are based on probability rather than certainty and the modern techniques used to isolate very small strands of DNA are open to contamination.

Other types of evidence are prone to misunderstanding. In February 2014, she brought together a group of forensic scientists to discuss the limitations of their work. Without the scientists’ knowledge, Black also asked several senior judges and lawyers to attend. “We have two key players in the forensic world who only ever meet in an adversarial position, so they’re never, ever going to understand each other,” she says. “So, by the scientists being open and honest and not realising the judges were in the room, the judges were going, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is what the scientists think. Ooh!’”

The result of the meeting was that the scientists and lawyers agreed that 40 evidence types needed attention. “And that went from DNA, fingerprints, footwear marks, gunshot residue, bite marks – you go through the whole list – that said either we’ve got a problem in detecting it, or recognising it, or comparing it, or evaluating it, or communicating it.”

The scientists are now producing primers, written in simple English, to help juries and judges better understand the science they are being asked to weigh up. “That’s probably the biggest ever project attempted in public engagement with science, if you think that’s taking science into every single courtroom in the land, every single day.”

***

Alongside these grand plans, Sue Black’s attention in the past few years has been on a project closer to home. When I visit Dundee on a wind-whipped December day, the department is humming with quiet industry: there are students (95 per cent of them female), mortuary assistants and colleagues in Christmas jumpers. And there are bodies.

When Black arrived at Dundee in 2005, anatomy departments were in decline – they were either closing down altogether, or moving to “prosection”, in which an instructor dissects a cadaver in front of the class. But she is an evangelist for the importance of hands-on experience, and the department receives 80 new bodies every year for its students to cut into and explore.

Val McDermid was one of a group of crime writers who agreed to help Black raise the funds for a new mortuary a few years ago. They asked their fans to vote for a room to be named after them and to pay a pound to do so. It’s clear who won, as Sue Black guides me into the “Val McDermid Mortuary” and then to the “Stuart MacBride Dissecting Room”. The other eight writers each got their name on an embalming tank, with the exception of Lee Child, who decided to use that of his lead character Jack Reacher instead. “We realised early on we couldn’t have the Child Mortuary,” says Black dispassionately.

The dissecting rooms are cool, and – to my surprise – smell of very little, not even disinfectant. The air-conditioning draws the air downwards and the new Thiel embalming method stops the bodies from decomposing. This has been Black’s pet project for the past half-decade, as formalin, the old embalming fluid, is known to be carcinogenic and leaves dead bodies stiff and unyielding. Other departments tried “fresh frozen” – dismembering a cadaver and defrosting each section as it was needed. Black thought that this was “incredibly wasteful of the gift”, because each body part has a usable life of just a few days, and wasteful of money, too, because limbs and organs had to be bought in from abroad. “You could have 12 legs come in, shipped into Heathrow. They would carry a health certificate that they’re free from everything – I’m sorry, but I’d want to check – and then they’d go off and be dissected. Incredibly expensive.”

Black’s preferred alternative is the Thiel method, named after the Austrian anatomist Walter Thiel, which involves soaking bodies in a mixture of salts, chemicals and a smaller measure of formalin. It keeps the bodies soft and pliable, which Black says works better for everyone except trainee neurosurgeons and colorectal specialists (a living gut has more tension). McDermid says that the Thiel cadavers “look like people – albeit slightly strange, with no hair or fingernails. For the students, that’s a huge advantage, because it gives them a sense of what they are going to be working with in a way the old bodies didn’t.”

Downstairs, two of the department’s mortuary assistants, Claire and Sam, are dressed in scrubs and wellies, preparing a body using the Thiel method. The cadaver is propped up, almost upright, on a table, with tubes running into the top of his head and out of his thigh. He looks peaceful; the scene is not in the least Gothic. “I do tend to talk to them,” Claire says. “I applaud them if they have very good veins.” What’s the difference between picking up a live patient and a dead body? “The bodies are heavier, because they’re not helping you,” Sam says.

Black and her PA, Vivienne McGuire, meet many of the cadaver donors while they are still alive, offering them a cup of tea in her office, which is spangled with plaques and knick-knacks. (“To save time, let’s assume I know everything,” reads one slogan. “My job is secure – nobody wants it,” offers another.) There’s a skeleton in the corner, which might eventually be replaced with Black: she has said that she would be delighted to become a teaching aid in her old department one day.

There are many reasons why people agree to donate their bodies. For some, it is as simple as wanting not to burden their families with the £3,600 that the average funeral costs. Others want to pay back the medical profession, or hope to train doctors to cure the disease that killed them. As they leave her office, Black tells the donors, “Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but we really don’t want to see you soon.”

She takes me upstairs and shows me the book of remembrance: the donors for 2014 included Shelagh, James, Irene and Angus. On the first Wednesday of May every year, the department holds a memorial service for donors’ families, attended by the staff and students. “I found it quite moving to go into the mortuary and see the cadavers,” says McDermid. “There is a sense of respect for the people who have donated their bodies. This is not Doctor in the House. There’s no larking about in Sue’s mortuary.”

Throughout her career, Black has been close to death, often involving the most traumatic circumstances. Yet she is one of the most serene, untroubled people I have ever interviewed; serious when the occasion demands it but ready to laugh. “Her students are utterly devoted to her,” McDermid says. “It’s extraordinary. They’d walk on hot coals for her.”

Perhaps the cliché is true: contemplating death really does make you feel more alive? “It’s my view that we have, as a society, removed ourselves from death,” Black says. “We’ve built a wall around it that makes us uncomfortable, whereas if you go back just a few generations, when Granny died she was in the coffin in the front room. It was viewed as just as natural as birth.”

On my way out of the building, I think: I wouldn’t mind if my final resting place were Sue Black’s mortuary. I pull my coat around myself, happily, and walk out into the cold winter sunshine. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war