At 60, Helena Ranta is still ready to take off to a trouble spot at short notice
By Esa Lilja
It all started in September, 12 years ago.
Forensic dentist Helena Ranta was returning from a work assignment in Norway, and stopped off in Stockholm on the way home, as had been agreed with a Swedish colleague.
The original intention was to attend an annual meeting of a local lawyers' club.
Then came the awful news on Wednesday morning, which changed the plans. The car ferry Estonia had sunk in the Gulf of Finland, and hundreds of people had drowned. Sweden went into a state of shock, and the police in the capital city were in a state of confused chaos.
"There had been civilian employees of the Stockholm Police Department on the Estonia that night. Most of them were killed, and the activities of the police were paralysed", Ranta recalls.
Soon Ranta was sitting in a working goom of the police chief, speaking on the phone with Kari Lehtola, an investigator into major disasters. The two decided that Ranta should stay in Stockholm for the time being. Bodies collected from the sea were brought to Finland, and information about lost Swedes had to be collected rapidly for identification.
Ranta was one of the few on the spot who could speak both Finnish and Swedish. She searched for dental records and was as awed as everyone else about the inconceivable magnitude of the catastrophe.
For Ranta, the Estonia disaster was just a beginning - one tragedy among many others.
Ranta's office at the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Helsinki look like an ordinary doctor's office, with books, plenty of folders, and a skeleton grinning on the windowsill.
Ranta, who turns 60 on Sunday, has driven from her second home in Åminnefors to her place of work.
"I am a cautious driver, but I used to drive this distance faster. Now there are those speed cameras along the highway. I need to be careful", Ranta giggles.
The victims of the Estonia were identified here, at Ruskeasuo in Helsinki. Fingerprints and dental X-rays were examined, and DNA samples were taken.
The work was done well and rapidly, and as strange as it may sound, the Finns who did the work established a reputation. More work came soon thereafter. Ranta and her working group were the first Westerners to examine the bones of the family of the Russian Tsar. It was a worldwide sensation, and Ranta was interviewed by CNN.
"That was a show", Ranta says dismissively. No mysteries were actually solved.
There was more to come. UN human rights rapporteur Elisabeth Rehn was shocked at the unburied bodies on the hills of Kravica in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Rehn demanded an investigation, and identification of the bodies.
"I did not hesitate for a single moment, when the job was offered. I was curious", Ranta admits.
Since then there has been plenty of work available in various backyards around the world. In addition to the former Yugoslavia, Ranta has looked for victims of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and has identified Finnish victims of the tsunami in Southeast Asia. She has also investigated the events of the Jenin refugee camp, and has been involved in the latest investigation of the killings of Lake Bodom.
Ranta has dodged snipers' bullets, negotiated with military commanders who looked like highway robbers, dug for decomposing corpses in graves, and built entire skeletons out of bone fragments. She once ordered US forces to use their tanks to protect her working group.
"When I was younger I imagined my life to be very different."
"In what way?"
"I thought it would be easier."
Helena Ranta was born in Kajaani into an academic family. When she was five years old the family moved to Imatra. The bright girl, the youngest child of a chemist father and a mathematician mother, liked science and attended the same school as a slightly older girl, Riitta Vainikka, who later became Speaker of Parliament [under her married name Riitta Uosukainen].
On the surface Ranta is very charming, friendly, talkative, and smiles a lot. When she laughs hard, Ranta leans on her knees and shakes. The chair at her desk is set so high that her legs dangle in the air.
Nevertheless, here is a woman before whom dictator Slobodan Milosevic found himself at a loss for words during his trial in The Hague.
"Milosevic should have talked to my ex husband. He would certainly have told him that it is not a good idea to argue with me."
This is followed by more heartfelt laughter. Ranta earned much praise for her spirited courtroom performance.
Ranta is not disturbed by the death of Milosevic as his trial was going on. "Many other defendants are awaiting their sentences."
Ranta has received death threats at home as well as vague phone calls. Last summer, "a party which need not be publicly identified" advised her that it would be best to cancel a trip to the Balkans.
"I sleep well at night. If there are threats, there are arrangements for dealing with them."
To counteract the upheavals, Ranta lives as ordinary a life as people can: she reads poetry, listens to music, and digs around in her garden.
"I have more enthusiasm than skill in that."
Now and then she says something suggesting that she might end her work with the bodies. But perhaps not yet. Many things are under preparation - in Chechnya, Peru...
"The prospect of having to go someplace is always hanging in front of me", she sighs.
"Besides, it was only last week that I got a steady job. Until now, the task of forensic dentist was a series of short term stints. Quite a nice 60th birthday gift."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 7.6.2005
Previously in HS International Edition:
Helena Ranta involved in plans for forensic medicine centre in Chechnya (16.9.2006)
Helena Ranta´s team examined mass-graves in Iraq (9.4.2004)
Helena Ranta to Iraq to lead group investigating graves of Saddam victims (8.3.2004)
ESA LILJA / Helsingin Sanomat