By David Nelson
The bones of a young man in his twenties rest on a metal table in the Bosnian town of Tuzla. He has no name, but the International Commission on Missing Persons hopes to give him one soon.
The skeletal remains of this young man were found in three different graves around the town of Srebrenica. Differing soil environments have turned the bones into three distinct shades of brown.
He was one of more than 7,000 people, mostly men and boys, who were killed in the Srebrenica area in July 1995, after the town was taken by Bosnian Serb forces.
How this particular individual was killed is still a mystery. Most of his skull is missing, and while there is damage to the pelvic bone, forensic experts suggest this could have been caused by the heavy machinery used to dig up and rebury bodies.
After the mass killings, bodies were thrown into mass graves at sites outside Srebrenica. But as news of the massacre and other atrocities began trickling out, Bosnian Serb security forces used bulldozers to dig up bodies, then relocated them to secondary, even tertiary grave sites with the intention of covering up all traces. Around Srebrenica – and across Bosnia and Hercegovina generally – a grisly landscape of join-the-dot grave sites was created. The perpetrators of these crimes hoped the connections would never be made, the bodies never found.
But they were found, and not only those from the Srebrenica massacre, but others from atrocities all over the former Yugoslavia. Since the International Commission on Missing Persons, ICMP, was established in 1996, it has helped account for nearly 70 per cent of the more than 40,000 individuals who went missing during conflicts in the region.
The graves reveal bodies of differing ages, sex, nationality and ethnicity, in various states of intactness. The hope is that through forensic science and research, all of them will give up their harrowing secrets.
ICMP, with other regional organisations and investigators, works to tell these victims’ stories as best it can, using DNA mapping and other techniques. Thousands of victims have been given back their names, and returned to families who have waited years to learn their fate.
The path taken to identify each set of remains is a complex one, a physical and emotional journey only made possible by advanced scientific method.
MATCHING RECORDS TO REMAINS
ICMP’s headquarters in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo are unassuming, tucked in beside a stretch of highway overpass. This part of town, like many others, is overrun with stray dogs, but look up, and you have extraordinary views of the misty hills surrounding the city.
The foundations of ICMP were laid at a 1996 G7 summit, spearheaded by President Bill Clinton. ICMP began its operations in the former Yugoslavia, and the focus of its work remains primarily there. However, US Secretary of Defence Colin Powell later approached the institution to see whether its work could be applied to other regions. Since then, it has worked in Latin America, Africa and Iraq, also offering assistance after natural disasters like the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005.
“Our approach is very rule of law,” ICMP director general Kathryne Bomberger told IWPR. “It’s all about governments taking responsibility for these cases.”
The approach is complicated not just by the slow-moving wheels of post-conflict governments, but also by the fact that the alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses may still be in power.
In the Balkans, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, in The Hague played an instrumental role in forcing national governments to accept accountability.
“We’re very much in line with this thinking where perpetrators are held accountable,” Bomberger said.
Away from the international stage, ICMP is closely involved with victims’ relatives, often the most important players in missing persons cases.
“Engagement of families is critical,” Bomberger said. “They may not be experts, but they have a right to participate…. It also builds trust between those who were victims of the previous regime and the new state.”
Bosnia has introduced legislation to allow relatives to assert their rights, for example an agreement that establishes the Missing Persons Institute, MPI. With ICMP providing oversight as an umbrella organisation, MPI conducts actual exhumations on the ground in Bosnia.
“What the law does is create this institution [MPI] that the government can use to work on these cases,” Bomberger explained. “It also allows families of the missing to assert their right to know the fate of a missing person.”
After almost two decades of work, ICMP has helped close nearly 17,000 cases, 14,000 of them relating to Bosnia.
ICMP spends a large amount of time scouring records as well as the physical landscape. The former Yugoslavia offers breathtaking scenes of remote villages tucked inside mountain valleys with rivers flowing with crystalline water, but it also holds dark secrets. Nearly 40,000 people are believed to have gone missing during the wars of former Yugoslavia in the Nineties. Close to 30,000 of them relate to Bosnia.
As for those missing persons cases that are still unsolved, Bomberger says they will be difficult to close.
“We’re still finding people missing from World War II and World War I. We had several cases where people were looking for their missing children from the last conflict, and we found their fathers missing from World War II.”
TRACING GRAVE LOCATIONS
Eyewitness information can help locate grave sites, but it can also present its own problems.
Ian Hanson, deputy director of forensic science for archaeology and anthropology at the ICMP, recalls one grave which yielded up German dog tags and paraphernalia from 50 years ago, rather than from the Bosnian conflict.
“What probably happened was when they reconstructed the road in the 1980s, they hit a World War II grave and stuff was just bulldozed to the side,” Hanson said. “So somebody says something about bones in a particular place, and it connects with somebody else. Sometimes the witness information is just not accurate.”
During the fighting around Srebrenica, the US military used U2 reconnaissance aircraft to take a constant stream of photographs of the terrain. As the US delegate to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright – later Secretary of State – used these pictures as evidence to persuade the international community that Bosnian Serb forces were holding prisoners and digging what looked like mass graves.
“The soil gets spread about and reflects light better,” Hanson explained, pointing to photographs taken during the war. An area where earth has clearly been disturbed – reflecting sunlight more than other territory – is surrounded by the tracks left by heavy machinery on the move.
While the wartime imagery yielded the most significant results, new aerial pictures can pick up unusual features that were missed first time round things, or that have become visible because of changes in the landscape.
The discovery of mass graves – especially at Srebrenica – has helped investigators account for significant numbers of missing people. But most graves in the former Yugoslavia contain far fewer remains – sometimes those of one to five individuals.
Finding these smaller sites is more difficult, but not impossible. One method is to look for unusual biological features.
“Some species of plant like disturbed soil,” Hanson said. “So you get an anomaly in the field you can identify on the ground, because you get a blocky look to the vegetation.”
While vegetation changes over time, the presence of a grave may still be detectable.
“You can see stuff, especially in crop fields, because the grave has changed the environment,” Hanson says. “There may be different nutrient levels so young crops might grow faster.”
The search teams look at relative nitrogen and chlorophyll levels in plants, and use infrared imagery to spot abnormalities. They then use LIDAR – radar and laser scanning – to verify a potential site.
Under the watchful gaze of local prosecutors, a team of specialists sets about excavating the site. Mine clearance specialists may be brought in to clear away wartime munitions scattered in the area. As human remains are found, they are collected, stored, and eventually shipped to mortuaries. Then the experts start trying to compile a picture of their identities and how they died.
PIECING TOGETHER A RECORD
Remains from Srebrenica are sent to Tuzla in the northwestern corner of Bosnia and Hercegovina. It is a two-hour drive through the mountains, along a winding highway on which drivers play a game of hazard with slower-moving cars, tour buses and logging trucks.
While the route offers unmatched views of pine-covered mountains, it also bears the scars of war. Sections of forest are cordoned off so that wartime shells and mines can be cleared, and many village buildings are still pockmarked with holes.
ICMP’s Podrinje Identification Project, or PIP, and its Identification Coordination Division both have facilities in Tuzla. For remains exhumed from a clandestine grave near Srebrenica, the next step is PIP, which was set up specifically to deal with victims of the Srebrenica massacre.
Emina Kurtalic, project manager at PIP, stands in the middle of the facility’s mortuary. Rows and rows of sturdy wooden shelves hold plastic-wrap body parts – sometimes just a skull or single limbs, very rarely an entire body.
The temperature never rises above four degrees Celsius. The musty scent of earth and flesh permeates the chill. Before the facility was set up, bodies were placed in nearby salt mines to preserve them.
Because the initial mass graves were dug up and their contents dumped at newly-dug sites in the months after the 1995 massacre, body parts from one individual may be found at four or more grave sites located kilometres apart, Kurtalic said.
“We have around 1,000 body bags,” Kurtalic said. “But those are not 1,000 persons. Those are cases which later on might be linked together. There’s a chance that one person is in several places in this room.”
Before DNA testing began being used in Bosnia in 2001, PIP scientists had to rely heavily on visual evidence.
“We started by taking only cases in which we had some very unique characteristics,” Kurtalic said. “Prostheses, implants, amputations – anything that could be totally recognisable by family members. Anomalies on the body.”
During this early period, ICMP helped publish two “catalogues” containing photos of clothing and belongings recovered with human remains. Flipping through the book makes grim viewing – crumpled shirts dyed brown by the earth, rusted belt buckles and jewellery, decaying shoes and shrunken hats.
“More than 4,000 families all over Bosnia were looking through these two books trying to recognise anything,” Kurtalic said. “Going over every page.”
These identification methods sometimes led to mistaken identification.
“In a very short period of time, family members gave us a lot of multiple recognitions,” Kurtalic says. “People in Srebrenica were surrounded for three years. They didn’t have a chance to change or buy clothing.”
Identification using personal ID cards can also be unreliable. Fathers might be carrying the ID cards for all their family members, while some people might have used someone else’s card in an attempt to hide their identity.
Relatives might recognise handmade repairs and stitches on items of clothing. But even this no guarantee of accuracy, as those trying to flee sometimes took clothing from the dead.
Footwear delivered by aid organisations proved an obstacle to recognition because the pattern was so uniform. “Thousands of the same – totally identical shoes just in two colours: black and brown,” Kurtalic explained.
Today, clothing from victims of Srebrenica sits in brown paper bags on the top shelf inside the morgue.
Across the hall from the morgue, pathologists and anthropologists examine bodies individually. The usual cause of death is gunshot wounds, but signs of beatings are also common.
Bone samples are taken from remains, using larger bones or teeth. On the young man whose bones rest on the table inside the room, staff have cut a short section from the femur.
The samples are packaged and sent to the Identification Coordination Division, or ICD, located nearby.
If you walked into the ICD’s premises, you might never guess there was important work going on inside. Outside, teenagers hang around in leather coats, texting friends and canoodling on benches. Inside, the building resounds with the squeals and thuds of basketball. It is in fact a sports centre, in which ICMP rents office space.
At the ICD, bone samples from the dead and blood samples from living relatives of victims arrive and are entered onto a database. The facility also houses a small laboratory where bone samples are prepared. Technicians decontaminate them, wash them in a bleach solution, and rinse them in alcohol and water.
Once the samples have been thoroughly cleaned, they are broken down into a fine powder and sent to Sarajevo for the next step –DNA extraction.
“In the very first year [of its use], DNA showed itself as the only possibly secure way to do the identifications,” says Kurtalic. She points to a chart in PIP’s corridor that shows very few identifications before 2001, the year ICMP began using DNA analysis in Bosnia. Afterwards the graph shows a remarkable leap.
So far, 6,054 victims of Srebrenica have been officially identified. Another 900 cases are waiting to be closed for various reasons. Families might be waiting until more of a body is found, or they may be holding on until July 2013, when the next burial of Srebrenica victims takes place on the anniversary of the massacre.
MATCHING THE DEAD WITH LIVING RELATIVES
DNA testing labs in Sarajevo can process up to 105 bone samples a day, in what ICMP describes as a sort of assembly line.
“DNA is a very democratic tool,” Bomberger said. “It’s not just about building a lab. It’s about using very advanced technology and being scientific and honest and accountable.”
Inside the lab, the crushed bone goes through a two-day process where the powder is demineralised and its cells broken down to release DNA. The material is used to build up a DNA profile of the deceased.
“The state of DNA that’s found in bone samples varies quite a bit,” says Ana Bilic, the deputy head of the DNA lab in Sarajevo. “You’re never really sure how much of this DNA you’re able to extract.”
Once that DNA profile has been established, it is sent back to ICD to be compared with the profiles of relatives of missing persons, in hope of matching them up. It may also help scientists confirm that different body parts belong to the same individual, a process known as “reassociation”.
Relatives of missing persons can submit blood samples for DNA profiling either direct to mobile MPI teams, or by using commercially available kits where blood is drawn from the finger much as a diabetes monitor does, and the result sent in by mail.
So far over 90,000 blood samples have been collected from the relatives of 30,000 missing individuals.]
The basic technique is called “kinship analysis”, an attempt to match a deceased person’s DNA to that of possible surviving relatives.
Nuclear DNA, inherited from both parents, is the first route to identification.
“Ideally, the closer the relative, the more information the DNA gives,” Bilic said. “So we like to look at the father and mother of the missing person, or even the children of the missing person.”
GIVING MEANING AND DIGNITY TO HUMAN STORIES
ICMP staff say they never forget the human stories behind the scientific work they are engaged in. At times, those carrying out exhumations or lab analysis make an especially personal connection with human tragedy.
“It’s often objects,” Hanson explained. “It’s things that make people reflect on themselves and their own relationships. Maybe there’s an ID card and a date of birth, and the [exhumation] worker has the same date of birth as the victim, or there’s a wedding ring on the finger bone. It’s often objects that personalise a body rather than the bones themselves.”
Hanson recalls a particular case where a grave was found at the bottom of a valley that had been waterlogged periodically over the years.
“When we went to excavate them, there was very good preservation of tissue to the point where you could actually recognise people,” Hanson says. “Finding people’s tattoos you can still read, or specific body positions in graves which can give more information about how they died – those are the things you remember.”
In the end, families have the final call on whether to confirm an identification. If they only have part of the remains, an arm or a leg, they may feel this is inadequate for a formal burial.
Although two decades have passed since the Balkans conflicts, the healing process is barely begun.
“I think we have to ask ourselves a lot of questions regarding what it takes exactly to help rebuild societies,” Bomberger said. “To help reconcile people, to help build peace and security – that’s our ultimate goal, peace and security.”
“What we’re doing is not about keeping the country in the past,” she says. “I think we’re helping them reconcile and build a country based upon an honest reckoning with what happened in the past, rather than a distorted one that can be mythologised… and used for political ends. Dealing with the past honestly is an important ingredient for moving forward.”
David Nelson is an IWPR-trained reporter in The Hague. This article was published at IWPR’s TRI Issue 770,
About the author: IWPR
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting gives voice to people at the frontlines of conflict and transition to help them drive change. IWPR empowers citizens and their communities to make a difference -- building their skills, networks and institutions, supporting development and accountability, forging peace and justice.